by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Alain Resnais, France, Sony Pictures Classics
This article originally appeared in conjunction with 2009's New York Film Festival.
In a time of much-discussed uncertainty and change within American independent film, the New York Film Festival—an annual showcase of, more often than not, the greatest works of the previous year stemming from industries abroad—arrives, government subsidies and cultural support organizations in tow, like a two-week finger in the eye of its hometown scene. As usual, when the schedule was announced, the rising class of New York film insiders decried the program’s highbrow Cannes-heavy slant, ignoring entirely the obvious fact that most New Yorkers don’t actually go to France to see movies, and, further, that they might actually enjoy the opportunity to watch not just any movies (see: the Tribeca Film Festival) but a group of works intensely curated by a respected cultural institution with a, yes, ideologically Cannes-heavy slant. I won’t go so far as to label any showcase that provides a ready, regular stomping ground for Manoel de Oliveira blockbusters a populist give-back, but in a perverse way, for a certain set, it may well act as such.
This year five American films dot the program landscape (including one, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, from the distinctly indistinct homeland of France/U.K./U.S., even though the filmmakers both teach at Harvard—damn globalism), but by fest’s end most talk will likely center around von Trier’s cut clits, Israelis in tanks, and, with luck, the stunning closing moments of festival opener Wild Grass. Eighty-seven-year-old Alain Resnais, still standing, still stubbornly modernist in his artmaking, puts all the swirling questions about the viability and sustainability of the U.S.’s lower-budgeted filmmaking into stark relief. Remove CNC and Canal+ participation for a moment . . . or, better yet, assume the U.S. provided similar cushions: who would be there to take state money and make our Wild Grass, an endearingly idiosyncratic, playfully risky, and formally rigorous statement of cinematic purpose? The answer of late, sadly, is looking a bit like “nobody.” (Tarantino possibly comes closest aesthetically, but he’s far out of this economic league.) At this early point in NYFF 2009, I’ve already seen three films authored by aged men from Europe (Wild Grass; 70-year-old Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s A Room and a Half, flawed by an overlong second act, but still imaginative and regularly surprising; centenarian Manoel de Oliveira’s adorable Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl) all featuring strong, singular perspectives and calculated tweaks of film language. Who needs new tricks when you have old dogs?
A film from Alain Resnais is always worth noting, even if his last couple decades of output haven’t been too terribly on-point: musicals and lighter comedies where once the man reinvented film language itself. I enjoyed his 2007 NYFF entry Private Fears in Public Places, but its quilt-like warmth and Resnais-lite aesthetic formalism certainly opened it up to charges of fogeyism; even if it was pleasing, a slightly less charitable vantage point reveals the film of an old master in some of the worst ways. Wild Grass, adapted from the novel by Christian Gailly, begins as though treading similar territory, only to veer wildly off the path. Two Parisians, Andre Dussolier’s Georges and Sabine Azema’s Marguerite (both actors drawn from his usual rotating cast of performers), living separate lives, intersect due to happenstance: Marguerite’s purse is stolen, Georges recovers her wallet near his car. The pair of shots containing this information, both close-ups of the objects in question, will be repeated throughout the film until they take on a near talismanic quality; as he showed in Smoking/No Smoking’s tandem (in the first film, the protagonists, when presented with a cigarette, decide to smoke, and in the second they don’t—narrative effects vary), Resnais remains concerned with the butterfly effect.
Resnais’s opening, which cross-cuts shots of blowing grasses with masses of feet walking city streets (a hair obvious, but handled skillfully) immediately signals the film will at least be somewhat airier than the occasionally suffocating Private Fears. The culminating zoom of the sequence, into the darkened entryway of a dilapidated stone tower in an unidentified field, is unsettling, but the film quickly picks up another pair of feet, Marguerite’s, launching the film into less discomfiting territory. For a moment. After Georges returns her purse (this action is rendered offscreen), obsession sets in via late night calls and furtive stalking. Resnais, who introduced his female protagonist breezily (near Sex in the City–esque) walking to buy an expensive pair of shoes, works his way up to a real sense of menace—having the guy who wrote the X-Files theme do your music doesn’t hurt in this regard. As Georges’s obsession mounts, the film grows darker, more sinister. Even so, Resnais isn’t above puncturing his mood with a good gag: Georges, while on the phone trying to convince Marguerite to meet him, utters the ridiculous line, “I’m not going to ki- eat you” simultaneously hinting at a darker past and poking fun at the very same expectations the narrative has raised about him.
The depth of his passion for a woman he’s hardly met is a bit befuddling, though apparently not to his wife, the resigned Suzanne (Anne Consigny), who regularly speaks with Marguerite, and even invites her into their home for a chat. But things take an even odder turn when Marguerite begins pursuing a now recalcitrant Georges. The characters’ constant behavioral irrationality makes the first half of Wild Grass a frustrating watch, but these rougher waters, in which Resnais schizophrenically navigates through genres (thriller, romance, comedy), eventually calm somewhat and the film enters into a groove where possibilities become expansive and the discontinuity becomes the subject in itself. Wild Grass is then a film in which a married man, arriving home to find his mistress’s business partner (Emmanuelle Devos’s Josepha) waiting for her friend, can induce a car seat tryst with barely a word, and then bring his conquest into his home to confront the other two women in his life; where a jilted Marguerite can turn a day at the dentist office where she works into a little shop of horrors; where a sub-Farrelly brothers broken zipper joke explodes into lush romanticism (a literal Resnais piss-take); where the lingering afterimages of a trip to the cinema intrude upon daily life. Like this year’s other great paean to the cinema, Inglorious Basterds, Wild Grass is all about movie living and loving, but like Tarantino’s film, the idiosyncrasies of the filmmaking never outpace the idiosyncrasies of its characters.
Few filmmakers know how to carve up space like Alain Resnais, and to match Wild Grass’ darting narrative he places and moves his camera in such ways that we’re never quite comfortable—but it’s rare that we’re completely lost. Resnais’s gift in maneuvering through space has always been encapsulated for me in a simple cut from his 1968 sci-fi exploration Je’taime je’taime: early on we see two figures at the very end of a long hallway looking into a room we can’t see and discussing the contents of that room. They’re very far away, yet their voices are close to us, as if we were standing next to them. The next cut shows the object of their discussion: a close-up of a man in a hospital bed. In reality, this man could be any man, the bed could be anywhere. It need not exist in the same space as the previous shot at all. Yet, the power of editing ties them together. Resnais’s isn’t a cinema of complete rupture—his skill lies in how he uses his medium to make us accept the connections between images, no matter how radical the juxtaposition may seem. Wild Grass similarly bumps us around, casually roughing up a shot/reverse shot by disregarding the 180 degree rule, using large spaces to displace us, interjecting a bit of needless style to shake up a moment. Late in the film, once the tables have turned on the pair of would-be romantics, Marguerite and Josepha observe Georges walking through the plaza outside the cafe where the two are sipping coffees. Josepha confronts Georges, and when he turns to look towards the cafe where Marguerite sits, his reverse shot not only erases the distance between the two by cutting directly into the cafe, but has Marguerite fly back in her seat as if the force of his gaze hit her like a gust of wind.
Wild Grass is a wonderful movie, but it’s worth pausing to note that there’s some old-fashioned, unthinking sexism at play (reminiscent of the fits of passion caused by a chastely revealed stocking in Private Fears). Do the first things we learn about Marguerite have to be that she likes shoes and harbors an odd desire for the saleswoman who helps her? Of course she later turns out to be an aerial stunt pilot, disturbingly sexy in a pair of leather pants and flying gear. Given Azema’s age, is Resnais empowering her by highlighting her sexuality? But what of Suzanne, who sits idly by the proceedings, doe-eyed and faithful, while the object of her husband’s affections calls the house repeatedly? The film even ends with the three of them on a flight date in Marguerite’s plane, Suzanne sitting in the back, of course. What is her role? Or Josepha’s for that matter? In the improvisatory rush (the film has been described by Resnais as more of an invented, evolving riff on the source text than a faithfully considered take), to create Wild Grass, I can see how some of these finer points of delicacy and balance might have been lost along the way, but especially considering its male narration, the film definitely leans masculine.
[SPOILER ALERT] Wild Grass ends with a simple reminder that for all we’ve witnessed, for all the twists and turns of the plot, and the very unexpected climax, life goes on: a young girl, who we’ve never seen before, lying in bed, asks her mother, “When I am a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?” before a sharp cut to black. It’s as inexplicable and delightful as the wildly disjunctive series of shots proceeding it, images that nod back at Resnais’s older films (especially a pyramidal topiary that recalls the gardens in Last Year at Marienbad). I won’t spoil the fun by describing it further; suffice it to say, my jaw was left open. Resnais’s bag of formal tricks seems untroubled by the years, and this filmmaker, perhaps the most committed of the Nouvelle Vague to both the enduring power of the literary and the magic of cinema, hasn’t been this good in quite some time. The artifice of Private Fears was an artifice of the stage—its effects were theatrical, the sets precious, the lighting pristine. In Wild Grass Resnais returns to the cinema. Even his false ending—coming minutes before the actual finish, in which the kiss of two backlit lovers is scored to the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare and a “Finale” title card fades in and out repeatedly over them—signals that one of our greatest living filmmakers isn’t yet done playing with movies.