Life of Riley (also known as Aimer, boire et chanter) is the last film in the sixty plus year career of the famed French director, Alain Resnais, who died three weeks after the premiere of the film.
Employing an eclectic style that mixes French cartoons, cinematic outdoor sequences, and mostly soundstage scenes (imitating a play), the movie takes place in Yorkshire, England, and centers around a group of friends dealing with the news of their dying (and never shown) friend named George Riley. Three couples are featured throughout the film. The first couple, Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) and Kathyrn (Sabine Azéma) are the first to learn of George's cancer, and promptly blab it to the next couple introduced, Jack (Michel Vuillermoz) and Tamara (Caroline Silhol). The last couple to hear the news is Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Siméon (André Dussollier). All the couples are involved in a local play, metaphorically mimicking the play of their lives unfolding on the soundstage. The movie itself is based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn, the famed British playwright.
Each couple has its own problems. Kathryn is seeking a bolder version of her husband Colin, who’s uptight and plays with clocks for fun. Jack is cheating, and his wife Tamara knows it. Monica, the separated wife of George, still has feelings for him, much to the dismay of her current husband Siméon.
Even though Jack’s time is running out, he’s asked to be in the play with the couples to give him some fun during his last days, which creates the biggest problem all the husbands now have: Jack is clearly a Don Juan. He asks all three women separately to join him on a vacation to Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, and they can’t wait to go there, as a lover or a caretaker, or both.
Towards the end of the film, Jack throws a big birthday bash, complete with a raging rock band for his sixteen year old daughter Tilly (Alba Gaia Bellugi). Each couple, though doing much finger pointing and arguing, realize they have all they need in each other, and commit to making their relationships work. Unfortunately, Tilly has decided to join George on the island, and her parents are despondent. We eventually learn George has passed away, not from cancer, but from an unsupervised scuba venture. Was this his way of going out on his terms? The movie concludes with our only glimpse of Tilly, paying her final respects to George. As the credits roll, we are also left to wonder what happened on the island between the two.
I really struggled viewing the movie, as the odd abstract choices of direction, composition, and editing didn’t connect with me. A couple of scenes feature a mole coming out of the ground; I simply have no idea what it represents (or if it means anything at all). Close-ups often display what looks to be a green screen composite of the actor on a black and white crosshatch background, which really distracts from the rather conventional shots surrounding them, and seems to be arbitrary. The use of cartoon art to show locations, and interspersed shots of footage moving down English countryside roads don’t mesh well with the often static scenes of a couple talking on a stage. The director goes for a meld of theater, cinema, and pop art; I just didn’t like the fit.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Life of Riley comes as a BD50 Blu-ray disc in a standard blue keepcase slipcase, and loads in region A only. The package includes a fourteen-page booklet containing essays from the director, and film critic Glenn Kenny, which reveal Resnais’ affection for Ayckbourn the playwright, and the film critic Kenny’s appreciation for the director. The film defaults into French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and its only subtitle option is English subtitles.
The video on this release is an AVC encode. It appears the movie was shot digitally, as there is some softness and inconsistency in the image, inherent in the source. For example, the scenes moving through the country roads in England exhibit very soft and undefined outlines of the trees on the side of the road. Medium shots of the couples on stage interacting also look a bit soft throughout, appearing almost slightly out of focus. Thankfully, this camera angle (and the road scenes) are not used often in the film. I did notice on a couple of fadeouts, the black levels devolve into dark grays at the very end of the fades. I also noticed some posterization on a woman's leg, but that sequence was also brief. On the plus side, the contrast is largely superb. Blacks are solid throughout (save the fadeouts mentioned above), and the colors are vivid, often fantastically rendered. Most of the sets used have wild colored backgrounds that really pop, and the detail often in these scenes is very sharp, and gives these scenes a great clarity that stands out. This also applies to the cartoons used for the transitions, which look striking. Since the majority of the film is based around the soundstages, the video presents itself well, except for the inconsistencies that bring the look down from time to time.
There's two audio tracks, French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, both of which sound fantastic. The 5.1 track focuses on the extensive dialogue throughout, with some music and ambient audio in all channels during certain sequences. The subwoofer provides a great low end for the music, with a very strong appearance during Tilly's birthday party, where the rock music kicks. The mix is excellent. The movement of sound is well balanced, wide, and enveloping. Many sequences have ambient sounds in the rears (such as wind, birds, etc.) that sound great. The 2.0 track also sounds great, and the mix here is spot on as well. The music really never competes here, as it's largely used before the actors begin dialogue. For what's essentially a filmed play, the audio here is top notch, and more immersive than I expected.
Cast Interviews (HD, 16:24) - The cast of the film fondly remember Resnais, his process, and illuminate the story as they see it. The interviews also discuss Alan Ayckbourn and his play.
Trailer (HD, 1:43) - The theatrical trailer for the film.
Featuring above-average video, surprisingly great audio, and a small set of extras, Life of Riley arrives as Resnais' final act. A director with a truly legendary career. It's amazing he was still directing, including this last film, in his 90's. A filmed play I failed to connect with, I'm sure there are cinema and Resnais fans out there that might appreciate his abstract and bold touches in this film. I simply found myself bored, and visually, it became repetitive quickly. I couldn't recommend the film, but it might be a rental for fans of his, or filmed theater.