By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN (Reuters) - At 91-years-old, veteran French filmmaker Alain Resnais shows no sign of letting up his experimentation, drawing on theatre, graphic illustration and cinema in his whimsical comedy "Life of Riley" that premiered at Berlin's festival on Monday.
In his third adaptation of a play by Britain's Alan Ayckbourn, the lives of three couples are shaken up by the news 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 middle-aged, respectable relationships.
Through George's imminent death, they all seem to come alive. As Kathryn, played by Resnais' wife Sabine Azéma, says - it is as if George, the invisible character around which all revolves, had a scheme in mind.
Actress Sandrine Kiberlain, who plays George's estranged wife, told a news conference in Berlin 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".
Resnais, a doyen of French cinema who found fame in the 1950s with hits "Hiroshima mon amour" and "Night and Fog", was too ill to make the screening in Berlin but remains true to form on creativity.
Punctuated by graphic illustrations of the houses where the characters live and panoramas of the English countryside, the action takes place in an artificial, cardboard cut-out studio world, underscoring the film's theatricality.
The characters themselves are 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 theatre, cinema and radio, and also comics and graphic novels," said Kiberlain.
Remaining 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 towards hyper-realism in cinema with 3D and special effects, Girardot said the actors had simply imagined they were English, conjuring up English childhoods for themselves, eating English food, smoking English cigarettes.
Throughout his career, Resnais has taken his cue more from literature than Hollywood, and was known for his collaboration with authors like Marguerite Duras and Jorge Semprún.
"Life of Riley" is one of 20 movies competing for the "Golden Bear", the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. More than 400 films are screening at the Berlinale, which runs until February 16.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)