As amateur actors Colin (Hippolyte Girardot) and Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) prepare for their latest stage collaboration, with rehearsals in full swing, the former – who is a professional doctor – breaks the news that their dear friend George has been diagnosed as being terminally ill, with just months left to live. Informing other close friends, lovers and acquaintances of the dying man, such as Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Simeon (André Dussollier), they mutually agree that George deserves to join their acting troupe – though this seemingly generous and thoughtful idea does nothing but disrupt the actors, as a series of revelations come to light that threaten the serenity of this idyllic environment.
Though an innately, and somewhat quintessentially British production, Resnais has translated this production remarkably, with an intriguing collaboration of cultures. Maintaing the pomposity and prude sensibilities of English people, there’s a whimsical farcicality that could only belong to the French, as Resnais manages to thrive on the same spirit of Ayckbourn’s initial work, while changing enough to warrant a reinterpretation of the prose. You are left to question exactly why the Yorkshire Dales setting remains given the entire cast are French, but such is the fantastical, grandiose approach to this narrative, that it makes little difference, as the vivacious vibrancy of the cartoon like aesthetic gives off a surrealism that places this tale in a world that bears more similarities to a fairytale, than of real life.
To bring such a droll, witty script to life on the big screen requires a collection of impressive performances too, and this experienced cast – mostly made up of regular Resnais collaborators – ensure that be the case. Much of the comedy derives from the fact that these middle aged people are acting in such a puerile way, acting as you may expect to see children in a school playground. The actors embrace such traits and capture that distinct vitality and exuberance, to make for a playful endeavour. And yet the most important character of all remains unseen, as George is merely spoken of, and yet never witnessed. It’s where this story thrives, in how the viewer’s own perception of the character alters throughout, despite the fact we never actually meet him. We sympathise with his illness in the early stages, but any such empathy turns to resentment, as George’s reputation as a womaniser takes precedence. Every single audience member will have their own, unique idea of who George is in their mind – united only by a sense of contempt, for a man who sounds like a bit of an arse.
However these commendations are more of an appraisal of the source material than this particular adaptation, though it’s still easy to get this wrong. Though with an entire set that is intended to resemble a stage play – with a meta, play within a play approach – it does beg the question, why not just present this as a stage production? But then, given who’s in the director’s chair, it seems only fitting that this be the place the curtains finally close on Resnais’ remarkable career.