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Alain Resnais fuses art forms in new comedy at Berlinale

The lives of three couples are shaken up by the news their good friend George Riley has just months to live.

BERLIN: At 91 years old, veteran French filmmaker Alain Resnais shows no sign of letting up his experimentation, drawing on theater, graphic illustration and cinema in his whimsical comedy “Life of Riley.”

The film premiered Monday at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it is one of 20 movies competing for the Golden Bear.

In this, Resnais’ third adaptation of a play by Britain’s Alan Ayckbourn, the lives of three couples are shaken up by the news that their good friend George Riley is ill and has just months to live.

The news rekindles old emotions, and the three women start fighting to look after George in his last weeks and accompany him on his last holiday, creating unexpected and tragicomic tumult in their respectable middle-aged relationships.

Through George’s imminent death, they all seem to come alive. As Kathryn (Sabine Azéma, Resnais’ wife) says, it is as if George, the invisible character around which all revolves, had a scheme in mind.

Sandrine Kiberlain, who plays George’s estranged wife, said that the French title of the film, “Aimer, boire et chanter” (to love, drink and sing), “reflects the message of let’s live our lives to the full.”

A doyen of French cinema who found fame in the 1950s with hits “Hiroshima mon amour” and “Night and Fog,” Resnais was too ill to make his film’s Berlinale permiere but remains true to form on creativity.

Punctuated by graphic illustrations of the characters houses and panoramas of the English countryside, the action takes place in an artificial, cardboard cut-out studio world, underscoring the film’s theatricality.

Throughout his career, Resnais has more frequently taken his cues from literature than Hollywood, and was known for his collaboration with authors like Marguerite Duras and Jorge Sempr?n.

The characters are themselves amateur actors, rehearsing scenes, presenting the viewer with a play within a play. “Alain started by telling us he wanted to make a film that would pay homage to theater, cinema and radio,” Kiberlain said, “and also comics and graphic novels.”

True to Ayckbourn’s script, the French film is set in the English Midlands, challenging the viewer once again to suspend disbelief.

“One of the keys to Alain’s work is this idea of a fiction and its power,” said Hippolyte Girardot, who plays Kathryn’s husband. “It never works in terms of its realism. It functions on the level of dream and imaginary.”

Criticizing the trend toward hyperrealism in cinema with 3-D and special effects, Girardot said the actors had imagined they were English, conjuring up English childhoods for themselves, eating (regrettable) English food, smoking English cigarettes.

The Berlinale closes Feb. 16. For more info see http://www.berlinale.de.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 16.

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