Alain Resnais' "Life of Riley": The Mole's Gaze

Far from "filmed theatre," Alain Resnais' final film looks particularly radical today.
Boris Nelepo

It all begins with a freeze frame of a dirt road somewhere in Yorkshire county, lined with trees whose lush foliage converges above in an arch. What could it be if not a portal? The movie itself, meanwhile, has not even started as we watch the opening credits, encased in large old-fashioned frames, slowly fade away—a device consistently favored by Alain Resnais who opened each of his 19 features likewise, holding off the films themselves until the screen no longer contained any visual surplus. The freeze frame comes to life as the camera pans farther down the road; then we find ourselves in a theatrical set. 

We have been here before, of course. Resnais' Smoking/No Smoking, also based on a play by British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, is set in Yorkshire as well. Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter) borrows from the five-hour diptych its theatrical setting, one of clouds painted on backdrops and French culture masquerading as British. The only two actors in Smoking..., Sabine Azéma and Pierre Arditi, rotated playing all the nine principal characters. To continue with theatrical analogies, part of Resnais' appeal has always lain in the fact that he collaborated with the same cast for a good 30 years, and the members of said cast have mutated before our eyes countless times—quite literally so, too, since all the while they have been growing old at the rate of 24 frames per second. 

Life of Riley is an adaptation of the eponymous play written four years ago. Diagnosed with cancer, George Riley has, according to his doctor, no more than six months left to live. The dying man's four closest friends come to the rescue: an eccentric receptionist, Kathryn, sporting garish Paul Smith outfits (Azéma); her doctor husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot); businessman Jack, or as they pronounce his name Jacques (Michel Vuillermoz), and his wife Tamara (Caroline Sihol). To comfort George in his agony, they invite him in their amateur production of Relatively Speaking, a four-hander which is now one performer short. Also not unmoved by George's affliction is Monica the schoolteacher (Sandrine Kiberlain), who once left him for a shot at a better life with Simeon the cultured farmer (André Dussollier).


Even though it turned out to be Resnais' final film, far be it from me to pigeonhole Aimer, boire et chanter as the late master's swansong or a testament. The news of his death came as such a shock because, despite the venerable age of 91, of late he had been working continuously, and with no retirement plans in mind. Refusing to enshrine Riley as his last will, Resnais kept himself busy with a screenplay for the next project even in the hospital. Death, indeed, is a moving force of the film, but hadn't the filmmaker been fascinated by this motif for decades? Even Providence, a comparatively early entry in his canon, could now pass for a farewell had it been made 30 years later. His penultimate effort, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, riffed off Jean Anouilh's Eurydice, a text so apt and fitting for a filmmaker who had refracted the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through many a prism in his most celebrated features such as Je t'aime, je t'aime, L'amour à mort, Last Year at Marienbad, and in part even in Muriel and Hiroshima, mon amour.

Yves Montand broods at the end of La guerre est finie: "Death brings sunshine into your life, you were told a while ago. But now your friend is dead, and only his shadow has entered your life." George's entourage seem to share this sentiment. Riley himself, whom we not once get to see, could qualify as a MacGuffin, a Hitchcockian trigger of the narrative, if it weren't for Resnais' own equally trenchant term: George is, in fact, the very same "American uncle" haunting the director's eponymous—and probably most perfect—chef-d'œuvre. Not merely a friend tucked away off screen, George also represents each character's pipe dream of a life that never was. In their unavailing pursuits, the six characters in search have to confront their own fears. 

Obsessed with the passage of time, Colin clutters up his house with memorabilia of fateful dates, and tries in vain to sync up the innumerable clocks chiming out of sequence. Jacques, the sole absentee at the rehearsals, sticks to his own schedule as he annually stages a massive celebration for his beloved daughter Tilly's birthday. A friend's death is an indelible seal stamped onto one's life; how can one help but get chronophobic at a moment like this? Kathryn used to be in love with George, and was pregnant with his child. Monica still doubts her choice of spouse, while Tamara turns a blind eye to Jacques' running around. Riley offers them all one last sea voyage, as if their whole lives may be rewritten over the course of two weeks. Jacques has been a businessman for a while now, although he used to envy George's career path, while Tamara gave up on her ambition to become an actress. George's terminal disease provides them with an opportunity to revise, if in a frenzy, their own biographies, and come to terms, if through suffering, with what did transpire. "Do you remember how much fun we used to have at the beginning?" Tamara asks Jacques.    

A throw of the dice will never abolish chance. Variability, alternatives, choices available and not so much have always been Resnais' primary thematic preoccupations as he explored incessant human attempts to turn things around. What is Orpheus' story, after all, if not a longing to recapture the past, and rewrite it? Wild Grass served up two endings to choose from, one elegiac and one euphoric, the latter accompanied by the 20th Century Fox signature fanfare. Smoking/No Smoking submitted a series of variations on the same story, contingent upon the characters' actions or even utterances. Yes, the spoken word in Resnais' universe holds actual power. On the other hand, the intentional tedium of Smoking... reflected the fixity of the characters' lives, no matter how radical the alleged changes. In My American Uncle, despite the voiceover by an eminent psychologist, the inevitability of failure still came through with stark vividness. Perhaps the variables of the Orpheus story are illustrative not only of Resnais' repertoire but also of nature of cinema in general: at the end of the day, people must be motivated by something to watch movies, to relive the lives of others and re-inhabit their times and spaces.   


Aimer, boire et chanter is the director's third adaptation of Ayckbourn's work, coming on the heels of Smoking... and the bleak Private Fears in Public Places. Presumably in jest, Resnais once claimed the Englishman was a better playwright than Chekhov. It is, of course, a gross exaggeration. Having penned 76 plays, mostly vaudevilles, this diligent and clever artisan can hardly hold a candle to Resnais' early-day collaborators such as Marguerite Duras, Jorge Semprún, or Alain Robbe-Grillet. Does it really matter, though? Another Brit's name, John Van Druten, doesn't exactly carry much literary clout either, but it was his play that George Cukor revamped in his masterpiece Rich and Famous, just like the limited artistic scope of Remarque's novels before hadn't prevented Douglas Sirk or Frank Borzage from fashioning brilliant renditions thereof.

Quite a faithful adaptation otherwise, Aimer, boire et chanter shifts the play's timeframe from the late 60s–early 70s to, more or less, present day. The idea to adapt this text in the first place belonged to the producer, not the filmmaker who worked, as was often the case, on commission—a fact he always reveled in admitting. What, then, constitutes the authorship of Life of Riley the movie? What makes it a Resnais film? For years on end the director insisted he was making movies for the sole reason of seeing how they’re made. The birth of a film, a film's foundation, the paradox of its existence—these leitmotifs course through the bloodstream of Aimer, boire et chanter. But, what is different this time around? First and foremost, the form.

Life of Riley

I was enraptured at once with the previously mentioned travelling shot from a car, the one which opens the movie and then signals change of location. The camera movement here amounts to an enigmatic image in and of itself. Wild Grass, similarly, opened to a black portal in a solitary tower, on which the camera zoomed in. The same travelling shot was made several times over a couple of months' time: seasons change in Yorkshire, the leaves wither, and the premiere approaches as does George's death. It is no secret that Resnais barely traveled recently on account of his declining health. Can it be that he went to Britain several times for the sake of these few minutes? Conversely, isn't there a certain beauty to be found in the strains precipitating this simple, poetic image most viewers won't even notice? Ten years ago for his Magic Mirror, Manoel de Oliveira dragged himself all the way to Venice to shoot a one-minute panorama of Saint Mark's Cathedral, where the catatonic heroine's husband showed her the famous quadriga—a statue of four bronze horses.

This travelling shot, as well as the drawings by renowned cartoonist Blutch, function here as a bridge between reality and theatre. More than merely a pet technique of Resnais, it also reveals a key to his poetic vision on the whole. Think of the tracking shots down the ghostly hotel hallways in Marienbad;  remember the camera panning by the hospital wards filled with pain in Hiroshima, or along the endless library shelves in All the Memories of the World. A similar travelling shot enabled Resnais' most beautiful and mysterious episode ever—the fog-shrouded passage to the kingdom of death which the audience embarks on as You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet draws to a close.

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

The end credits confirm that the scene was, indeed, shot on location in Yorkshire. One can surmise the ailing director asked someone else to film the image so indispensable to his movie. After all, Private Fears... and You Ain't Seen... both included sequences directed by Bruno Podalydès with no intervention whatsoever on Resnais' part. In the latter, Podalydès directed and filmed the amateur play the characters watch; in the former, his were the fragments of the musical TV-show which Azéma videotaped. 

This delegation of duties reminds me of two recent movies by French filmmaker Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, and The Ugly One. The diptych is dedicated to radical director Masao Adachi, an active member of the armed militant organization Japanese Red Army who had spent almost 30 years in Beirut before he was deported to and virtually held hostage by his home country, with neither a passport nor permission to go abroad. Baudelaire honored Adachi's request to film Lebanese landscapes and Beirut itself, whose infinitely distant scenery the ostracized filmmaker could only see through the lens of a colleague.


Mind you, the actors have yet to appear onscreen: this entire flurry of ideas and emotion is prompted so generously by a single establishing shot. The old question arises again: what is a film in general, and an Alain Resnais' film in particular? As the stage director Hermann in Jean-Claude Biette's Le Théâtre des matières put it, theatre is, first and foremost, human bodies put up against a backdrop. Cinema, by extension, is bodies against a backdrop filmed by a camera. The decorations in this case are nothing but paintings; curtains make for doors; canvases flutter. However, this peculiar strategy still alienates the viewer, and the crux of this alienation was best described by Andre Bazin in his 1951 article "Theater and Cinema": “People in general do not give much thought to the cinema. For them it means vast decor, exteriors, and plenty of action. If they are not given at least a minimum of what they call cinema, they feel cheated. The cinema must be more lavish than the theater. Every actor must be a somebody and any hint of poverty or meanness in the everyday surrounding contributes, so they say, to a flop. Obviously then, a director or a producer who is willing to challenge the public prejudice in these matters needs courage. Especially if they do not have too much faith in what they are doing. The heresy of filmed theater is rooted in an ambivalent complex that cinema has about the theater. It is an inferiority complex in the presence of an older and more literary art, for which the cinema proceeds to overcompensate by the "superiority" of its technique-which in turn is mistaken for an aesthetic superiority.”

Bazin analyzes one of Molière's Le Médecin malgré lui adaptations: “The first scene, with the bundles of wood, set in a real forest, opens with an interminable travelling shot through the underbrush, destined obviously to allow us to enjoy the effects of sunlight on the underside of the branches before showing us two downlike characters who are presumably gathering mushrooms and whose stage costumes, in this setting, look like nothing so much as grotesque disguises.” Bazin concludes: “The text of Moliere only takes on meaning in a forest of painted canvas and the same is true of the acting. The footlights are not the autumn sun. If it comes to that, the scene of the bundles of wood could be played in front of a curtain. It no longer calls for the foot of a tree.” Resnais' last movie, too, contains a wonderful firewood scene at the farmer's house. In an ironic spin, it also seems to corroborate Bazin's assertions.

Despite the 60 years that have since elapsed, the most common accusation leveled against Life of Riley remains, in essence, the same: not injected with a proper dosage of "cinematic" flair, this is allegedly a TV play at best, "filmed theatre" at worst. To prove the former wrong, it would suffice to watch a late-80s television movie Relatively Speaking, made for BBC by Michael Simpson (yes, it is based on the play within a play from Life of Riley, one of Ayckbourn's early successes). As far as "filmed theatre" goes, this derisive tag can only be slapped onto a stage performance shot on camera in its entirety—if at all. Whereas Aimer, boire et chanter most definitely resides in the realm of cinema, abiding by the medium's nature, language, and grammar, even though its stylized aesthetics, due to what Jean-Claude Biette wittily labeled "filmed cinema" (which is the majority of contemporary films, unfortunately), looks particularly radical today. Hollywood in the 1930s, come to think of it, rejected the "theatre vs. cinema" rivalry altogether as a false binary opposition. Aimer, boire et chanter overtly mentions My Fair Lady while also paying clandestine tribute to another George Cukor classic and its formal limitations: George never materializes in Resnais' film much like no man is allowed in Cukor's The Women.


Resnais' early output captivated the viewer so because the language of cinema seemed to be redefined before their eyes, with some new rules grasped only as the reels unspooled. It took me, for one, a couple of repeat viewings to figure out if time in Muriel, with all its abrupt cuts and choppy editing, was linear or not. Aimer, boire et chanter is of a piece with this liberating feeling of freshness and verve, infusing well-established old methods like travelling or zoom with a sparkle of novelty; as if it the first travelling or the first zoom in cinema ever. By throwing in the mix both film and theatre devices, Alain Resnais concocts something akin to Raymond Queneau's brouchtoucaille, a sort of ratatouille the writer invented in Saint Glinglin (Queneau contributed a text to Le chant du Styrène).

Furthermore, the main maneuver Riley hinges on would prove completely impossible to pull off in theatre. Drama as a whole, and stage comedy in particular, rarely dares to leave its characters alone, whereas Resnais yanks all of his right out of conversations, and transplants them to a weird, empty, seemingly timeless space with black patterns strewn across a white background. The camera and the editing conspire to interrupt the stage-bound artificiality. The characters keep talking as if nothing had happened, clashing behind the bars, their dialogues turned eerie monologues against the frivolity of the source material. All in all, these interruptions seem to draw inspiration from Kathryn's memories of George: "He would slow time down, make it stand still, as in limbo." In Private Fears... Resnais still needed a narrative crutch to demonstrate his characters' ultimate loneliness; now, even among friends and life partners, the characters are exposed, withdrawn from one simulated environment only to be plunged into another, even less "natural" one. Channeling the otherworldly spirit of some surreal audition, these scenes have room for nothing else but the actors' visages, and the words they utter (what could be more beautiful?).

Apart from the fade-ins of cartoons in between the scenes, the camera zooms in only once, violating the rule of distance which stage aesthetics normally upholds. Rather than bring us closer to the characters, however, the solitary zoom-in marshals us straight into their heads. In a climactic scene almost at the end, we see a close-up of Sandrine Kiberlain's face (the actress had two great roles in one year, coming off Serge Bozon's Tip Top). And then, in a movie which precludes the very possibility of an internal monologue, her unspoken thought is suddenly verbalized: "I'm going to lose him now."


Any attempt to untangle the inner workings of Life of Riley is a pleasure in itself, yet what makes the movie a bona fide masterpiece is precisely its airiness, simplicity, vitality. The original title—Aimer, boire et chanter, literally: To Love, To Drink, and To Sing—comes from a song performed over the end credits by another George, Thill, an opera star from the first half of the 20th century. The verbs in the title correspond to the first letters of the alphabet; according to the actors' press conference, the next one would be D for danser, "to dance." Life of Riley is the ABC's of life as bequeathed by Alain Resnais: people in it applaud, bustle about, caress, desire, encourage, flirt, gyrate, haunt each other, imagine, joke around, kiss, look back, mock, neglect, orate, play-act, quip, rehearse, scuba-dive, tidy up George's house, unite, ventriloquize, whistle in the dark, (e)xult, yammer, zigzag to and fro. In the words of the mysterious Wild Grass narrator, "Exiting the cinema, nothing surprises you. Anything can happen. It doesn't surprise you. Anything can happen as naturally as possible." Resnais always capped his movies with an old-fashioned title card FIN. In the headlong finale of Riley, we see for the first time Jacques' daughter Tilly as she plants on George's coffin (George + Tilly = Georges Thill) a photo of a skull with wings. F is one of the inescapable letters of the alphabet.

Hiroshima, mon amour

But before it happens, another incidental character enters the scene—a mole that crawls out of its hole to watch the human comedy unfold, then retreats. A mole is an agent of underground world, though German writer Alfred Döblin once mentioned that even moles avoid Hades (thinking again about this fascinating scene from You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet…). Resnais specialists have long occupied themselves compiling bestiaries of the animals in his movies. Isn't the mole's gaze tantamount to that of the black cat in Hiroshima, the cat that watches the heroine confined in a cellar, her hair shorn by the angry denizens of Nevers? Resnais insists the mole's emergence is a pure surrealist act, endowed with inherent value and resistant to interpretation. So, what is the mole doing? Just observing the actors/characters, like a director would on set or we, in the movie auditorium. The virtual world forged by a film comes alive twice: first with the author's gaze, then with the spectator's. The mole, however, is myopic; it simply hovers in the vicinity, much like the jellyfish that crash the housewarming party in On connaît la chanson, or the wild grass that grows in the eponymous movie. What is an Alain Resnais film? Maybe here is the answer: without the mole, the travelling shot, and Sabine Azéma, all we have is Alan Ayckbourn's Life of Riley; with them, behold Resnais' Aimer, boire et chanter.

Translated by Anton Svynarenko

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