Like it or not, C’est la vie

A COMMENTARY ON THE FILM, “Aimer, Boire et Chanter”
[ AKA, “Life of Riley”]

A film by Alain Renais
NR - 108 min. - French - Drama / Comedy
Note: This was the feature film for Mountain Shadow’s December, 2014 shows.

by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director

Film Notes & Brief Synopsis

Aimer, Boire et Chanter (“Love, drink and sing”) is a 2014 French comedy-drama directed by Alain Resnais. It was adapted from the play Life of Riley by Alan Ayckbourn, after Renais saw the play during a visit to the seaside English resort town of Scarborough. Hence the setting for the film in the Yorkshire countryside.

A Quote by the filmmaker himself on the cinematic “ratatouille” of Alain Renais:

“Here’s what I dream of: that the viewer in the movie theater says to himself, “yeah, okay, it’s filmed theater,” and then suddenly changes his mind: “yes, but in theater you can’t do that...” And it goes back and forth from theater to film, and sometimes over to comic strip.... I’d like to try to achieve what Raymond Queneau called in Saint-Glinglin “la brouchecoutaille,” a sort of ratatouille, by breaking down the walls between film and theater and thus ending up totally free. … hat makes it still cinema, even though we used all sorts of theatrical artifices, down to replacing doors by painted backdrops that could be pulled aside? That’s a real mystery.”

Synopsis: Over the course of six months, from springtime to late fall, three middle-aged couples rehearse their parts for an amateur play; all the while struggling – each in their own way -- with the news of a terminal diagnosis for their mutual friend George Riley. Yes, it’s considered a comedy! But for the characters in this film, it’s no life of Riley.

Somewhat ironically, Renais himself died this year at age 91, three weeks before the film premiered at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize.


     Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
     To the last syllable of recorded time,
     And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
     The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
     Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
     That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
     And then is heard no more. It is a tale
     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
     Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

The film adaptation of a play in which six characters are themselves amateur actors rehearsing a play lays the stage for lots of double-entendre.  At first glance, Macbeth’s familiar lines about an idiot strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage might sum up the characters in this film that appear to be more like caricatures of themselves. Or us.

But to dismiss Life of Riley as a rather blazé French farce that isn’t all that funny sells the film short. So too are the quirky juxtapositions of images and techniques that are classic Renais; or the standard plot contrivances and entanglements of live stage theater. A comedy about life and death -- as well as finding a way to let go of the past, and age gracefully so that one might embrace the kind of wisdom that comes with maturity -- is not necessarily a light-hearted romp. 

When asked why he changed the title for the film, Renais explained the playwright had the sixties and seventies era in mind when he first wrote it (even including a soundtrack from Pink Floyd!). Renais instead sought to lift the film out its time capsule, with the universal and timeless themes that challenge us all in every generation.

So the story includes many of the typical faults and foibles of human beings who are wrestling with the backside of midlife, and beyond.  There are the poorly kept secrets; whether it be Colin’s professional confidentiality between a doctor and his patient whose days are numbered, or his wife Kathryn’s penchant for gossip, or Jack’s predictable extramarital indiscretions that represent a mainstay in mid-life dissatisfaction. 

When Jack initially shouts his dismay over learning his best, oldest and dearest friend is a near goner, he plaintively moans aloud the predictable, “Why George Riley? Why George? It’s the tiresome, humdrum ones that live forever!”  Indeed, Jack is living proof.  And it’s no surprise when he regards the bastard quite differently later on in the film.

Meanwhile, it’s Riley who begins to immediately be idealized – if not immortalized – by everyone else, since he presumably has little time left. This is especially true of the three wives, who all vie for the attention of the character we never see.  When the amateur play they are about to rehearse loses the one young actor they’d cast, they opt for George Riley as his replacement. After all, says one, ““He only has six months. The Show’s in September. He’ll be there for the first night …” 

Remember, this is French comedy.  Dying on stage, or off stage, takes on a whole other meaning with such one-liners.

Spring rolls ‘round to summer and Colin and Kathryn repeat the mundane litany of their habituated lives. She still complains about the peevish things she finds irksome in her husband who she says was never young, and never listens.  And he still dislikes the marmalade, and obsesses over synchronizing his clock collection that repeatedly loses time. And all the while these bygone moments in their lives -- like the succession of brief scenes in this episodic story -- continue to tick away. 

Not surprisingly, they’re both confused when they struggle to genuinely communicate; uncertain if the other person is actually talking to them, or simply rehearsing lines from the play. Where Colin thinks there are gaps in the dialogue, Kathryn calls them pauses that are supposed to result in some presumed laughter by some anticipated audience.  

Kathryn then scurries off to romanticize in front of the other women about the relationship she’d once had in her youth with George; so wonderful, she wistfully describes it, that fun-loving George “could slow time and even make it stop.”  The mere idea of it would drive Colin mad.

All these subtle suggestions to an underlying theme in the film are made more explicit by Monica, George’s estranged and guilt-ridden wife; who’s nonetheless taken up a new life with Simeon, the simple farmer, who is clearly older than she. When Jack implores her to return to Riley, his dear old friend for whatever time he has left, she fiercely replies, “We’re not dvd players. There’s no rewind. There’s no re-record!” 

What was once is no more. We either grow older -- one way or another -- or we die. As a character in an earlier play once put it, “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

The question is, can we meanwhile make anything more out of it than “sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

Postscript: About the Mole … 
film critics beware!

There are those film critics who approach their subject matter as if each work was an enigmatic riddle fabricated by the filmmaker; only to be solved by those astute enough to disassemble and interpret everything. “This character obviously represents this,” they’ll say. “That image is obviously a metaphor for that.” 

Every film then becomes an allegorical tale, where everything in the film ends up representing something else.  It may settle things in the minds of certain critics who bear an intolerance for unresolved uncertainties. But doing so can snuff the life out of a storyline; particularly if film is meant to try to authentically reflect what our lives are so often like. In the real world, there is a case to be made for the surreal; and leave us with more questions than answers to ponder and appreciate.

So without explaining it all away, Renais once explained why the mole mysteriously emerges, and just as inexplicably disappears:

“It has to do with my reading of the surrealists when I was a teenager,” he said. “There was this idea that if an image came to you and still remained in mind three days later, you had to do something with it. I kept this advice in mind. The image of the mole came to me when I was commissioned to do this film with Alan Ayckbourn’s Life of Riley. I said to the producer, “In any event, there will be a mole.” He answered, “I sure hope so.”

So critters abound in all Renais’ films, and seemingly for no apparent reason! The menagerie in toto includes a mouse, cat, turtle, frog, goldfish, puppy, wild boar, starfish, eel, even some hedgehogs. So when the mole emerges and later disappears again in this film, I would suggest that as viewers, we simply accept it as one of those quirky, inexplicable, slightly bizarre and baffling things that just randomly happen in life!

And, if you doubt that, wait until the conclusion of this film. Then consider the ending, and the cause of Riley’s ultimate demise.  jb