Films of the Week: Two from Berlin
Severity at festivals is one thing, but if that’s what you’re really after, you hope for something a little sterner than the mere dourness that dominated the Berlinale this year. There were, as always, plenty of those worthily modest films that make you admire a filmmaker’s sincerity but that you forget almost instantly. And then there were a few of those stolid clunkers that all too often clog the Competition lineup. Suffice to mention 2009 Golden Bear winner Claudia Llosa’s turgid English-language follow-up Aloft, in which an anguished Jennifer Connelly raged, “Why? WHY!!??” and the audience raged along with her.
Life of Riley
In short, what was at a premium this year was simple fun. Or, as Alain Resnais puts it in the payoff of his latest film Life of Riley: “le fun.” The joke here is that the dramatis personae in Resnais’s latest adaptation of playwright Alan Ayckbourn are all English, living in Yorkshire, but played by French actors (regulars Sabine Azéma and André Dussollier, along with new recruits including Michel Vuillermoz from Wild Grass, and Caroline Sihol), who can’t even pronounce their own characters’ names plausibly, and no doubt were never intended to. So the mention of le fun, coming at the end of a film in which characters are seen drinking le Rose’s Lime Juice and eating les Carr’s Table Waters, is all part of the eccentric exoticism of this franglais hybrid.
It came as a huge surprise to learn, 20 years ago, that the revered director of Marienbad and Muriel was a huge Ayckbourn fan, and had been taking holiday trips to the comic playwright’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for years before Ayckbourn was ever aware of his presence. Eyebrows were raised, certainly in the U.K., over Resnais’s enthusiasm for a writer that many thought of as a purveyor of fluffy bourgeois comedies, but it took Resnais to remind the Brits of what theater critics had been saying for a long time—that Ayckbourn was a master of formal innovation not to be dismissed lightly. Resnais began his association with Ayckbourn in the 1993 diptych Smoking/No Smoking, in which two actors played a whole range of characters whose fates were decided by, as it were, the toss of a dice (or rather, the acceptance or refusal of a cigarette).
Resnais returned to Ayckbourn in the elegantly staged Private Fears in Public Places (06), and now he completes a trilogy with Life of Riley (Aimer, boire et chanter). The opening shots, which take us up and down assorted country roads and recur throughout, echo some of the eerie exteriors in the director’s delirious Wild Grass (09), but this film is differently odd. Ostensibly, it’s simply a staged performance of Ayckbourn’s play about a group of friends preparing an amateur dramatics performance of, as it happens, Ayckbourn’s own Relatively Speaking. The group learn that their friend George Riley has only a few months to live, and offer him a part to cheer him up and give him something to focus on. After a while, they’re the ones who need cheering up, as the cracks begin to show in their own relationships, and the past begins to resurface—notably because Riley has at one time or another been involved with all three female characters (played by Azéma, Sihol, and Sandrine Kiberlain).
Life of Riley isn’t, as far as one can tell from the film, one of Ayckbourn’s most interesting or most formally inventive plays—the key conceit is that Riley himself is never seen but hovers in the background like a convivial Godot. But what’s fascinating is the amount of formal mischief that Resnais whips up. One running joke is the excess of establishing shots, of a singularly artificial variety: every time the scene shifts to one of the characters’ houses, Resnais shows us a cartoon of the place (by French artist Blutch), which then is replaced by a stylized stage-set version of the same locale, designed in dizzyingly distinctive color schemes by Jacques Saulnier, with gorgeously painted curtains standing in for trees, houses, background lawns alike—the offbeat acidic palette made for one of the few truly luxurious visual experiences at this year’s Berlinale.
The same distanciation is present in the language, with the characters’ French accents and very French théâtre de boulevard heightened performance style clashing strangely with the specifically English references and the knowing inconsequentiality of the dialogue. (All throughout I kept hearing a phantom version of the script as it might have been delivered, more lightly and conversationally, by such Brits as Michael Gambon or the late, impeccably casual Richard Briers.) There are other touches of more outright strangeness: an animatronic mole as surprise chorus, and deliberate (or so I can only assume) incongruities, like the sound of chirping crickets at night, in Yorkshire, or the idea of people there ever drinking London Pride beer.
Life of Riley isn’t for everyone, and I have to admit that it wasn’t entirely for me. Where Resnais consistently pulled surprise twists on the multilayering of film, life, and cinema in Wild Grass and the hyper-autoreflexive You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (12), here he’s doing something simpler, lighter, and in many ways, more academic and safe. Yet the sweet memento mori of the coda is rather moving (it’s the third consecutive film from this veteran in his nineties to offer a comic contemplation of death and of the best ways to live fully). The cast are visibly having a great time, and what’s lovely is how the mise en scène plays up the actors’ own cartoonish qualities: Kiberlain’s woe-stricken elongated features, Vuillermoz with his big-nosed resemblance to a Hergé figure, the huge-eyed Sihol with her resemblance to a marionette of Giulietta Masina. But I still have a problem with Resnais’s long-time muse Sabine Azéma. Her archness fits the picture here because the setting allows it to become, as it were, meta-theatrical. Even so, her fretting and fluttering is abrasively distracting.
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq
The artificial acting style of Life of Riley is dry, whimsical, and, well, charmant, I suppose… but I constantly yearned for some of the almost contemptuously relaxed wit of the other French comedy that stood out here. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, by the versatile Guillaume Nicloux (who made last year’s adaptation of Diderot’s The Nun) is based on a strange episode in 2011, in which the controversial Goncourt-winning author Michel Houellebecq disappeared during a tour to promote his novel The Map and the Territory. The new film—devised, I suppose, rather than strictly scripted by Nicloux—imagines what might have happened, and Houellebecq himself joins in the mystification. In the film, he plays himself as a testy, vacant version of the sour figure who appears in The Map (in which he describes his own gruesome murder). Houellebecq is kidnapped by three hulking figures who whisk him off to a country house where they chain him, but also treat him to affable dinners in the company of one abductor’s elderly parents.
Houellebecq of course turns out to be a total pain, demanding that the gang constantly replenish his cigarettes and reading material (all they can find him is The Nun, in a tie-in edition promoting Nicloux’s film). He’s endlessly up for an argument—but then, so are the kidnappers. Two prize moments have Houellebecq losing his cool in a disagreement about The Lord of the Rings, and being quizzed about his essay on H.P. Lovecraft—or, as the bulky Luc (Luc Schwarz) keeps calling him, “Lord Warcraft.” And the film got a huge laugh when Houellebecq casually quashes the gang’s delusion that President François Hollande will care enough to cough up his ransom.
The cast of this seemingly part-improvised comedy—all, apart from Houellebecq, previously unknown to me—rise to the conceit with relaxed verve. But the star of the show so perfectly lives up to his myth as a sour, disdainful, prematurely wizened shambler that you find yourself wondering whether Nicloux has simply wheeled him on or whether the novelist is really pulling his own strings with sublime finesse. He oscillates between Andy Warhol blankness, a dandyish sullenness that Louis Garrel might envy, and the peppery universal contempt of Mark E. Smith. But what he resembles most of all—in his ironic self-portrayal—is a kind of Left Bank literary Larry David. Imagine Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Gauloises smoked right down to the nub, and that’s the sort of pleasure provided here. It’ll certainly get me looking at the man’s novels again—I suspect they may be much funnier than I realized.