I really don't know how Ayckbourn's original play was but when this film opens, we find two characters sitting around a white garden table, one on each side against a painted canvas backdrop with a slit in its middle which serves as the entry and exit point. They were discussing the quality of some marmalade. We discover later that they were a couple rehearsing an amateur play, a former dental receptionist and now housewife Kathryn (Sabine Azéma), and Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), a practising doctor. Colin's mind did not appear to be with him. She noticed and asked why. He said he was very upset about a medical report he got from an English colleague from the University of Manchester that morning. Kathryn was curious. She probed him and finally guessed that her husband was talking about George Riley, their high school buddy, whom Colin said hadn't got more than another 6 months live. He asked her not to tell anybody. But the moment Colin was out of earshot, Kathryn telephoned their buddy and fellow amateur actor Jack and through him his wife Tamara (Caroline Silhol) also got to know about it. Jack, George's best friend, then tried to convince George's ex wife Monica(Sandrine Kiberla) now living with a farmer Simeon (André Dussollier), to spend some time with George during the last 6 months of George's life . But initially Monica refused. But she later relented.Then they hit upon a plan to cheer George up: they would invite him to play a part in their amateur drama production. To their delight, George agreed. As the play unfolded, we find both Tamara and Kathryn vying with each other have the privilege to be the one to accompany George in his very last holiday to the Spanish Tenerife (Canary Islan'd) much to their respective husband's concern.
In the end, after their play was successfully staged in September that year, George went for the Tenerife not with Monica, nor with Tamara nor with Kathryn but with Tilly, Jack's 16 year-old daughter (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) ! He died doing scuba diving. As the film ends, we see the three couples throwing a flower upon his grave. The last one to do so, after all the others had left, was Tilly whom we heard talked about a lot by the two couples but, like George, never actually appeared in person. It was there that we saw her, for the first time. But what does George look like? We never got the chance to find out. All we have is the George through the mouths of the protagonists, their imagination, their secret desires, their friendships, their memories and even their jealousies. It's a film of much ado about an absence, an absence brimful with meaning. From what is said about him from the mouths of the protagonists, we learn that until his last moment, George remains faithful to his ideals, free, sympathetic, open, full of fun to be with, always prepared to listen to others and make them feel as if they were the most important people in his life.Through his bubbly love of life, he has conquered, not only the hearts of his closest friends and the daughter of two of them, even death. He dies in bosom of the sea, that primordial cradle of all life.
It's a very economic film. Apart from a few shots of the Yorkshire countryside, a few paintings, a stuffed toy mole whose head would pop out from amidst some green grass in the Yorkshire countryside from time to time during scene changes, a motor car driving along the country road to show that the actors on the road to their meeting point for the rehearsals, there's nothing but the barest stage props in the form of painted canvas backdrop and cartoon like representation of the same countryside. The minimalist setting helps to give the film a remarkable focus upon what's Resnais regards as of crucial importance: the psychology of his protagonists and thus help expose the tensions between the respective couples and those between various members of the close group of family friends . What carries the momentum of the film and keep us from falling asleep are the lively dialogues and and the superb performance of the French actors and actresses, very different from the kind of action packed movie style we are accustomed to see from Hollywood productions. It's another demonstration that an absence can pervade an entire film and thus made most present. The judicious use of music also adds not a little to building up the atmosphere of the piece: the film's French title is in fact the name of a waltz by Johann Strauss II, heard from time to time during scene changes. I like the way Resnais stylistically suggests the "unreality" of surface dialogues which hides real underlying emotions of the speakers by the device of showing us first the real Yorkshire countryside and then immediately thereafter the cartoon-like version of the same scene, thus highlighting the psychological distance between "reality" and the "subjective representation" of the same.