In the 1960s it was practically a cultural duty to go to the latest major foreign film, as “art cinema” and the very notion of cinema as an art form were suddenly very “now.” And few films spurred quite so much sophisticated cocktail chatter as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad at the decade’s start.
But where such fellow arthouse titans as Fellini, Bergman and Antonioni made movies that were highly personal expressions of outsize personalities, Resnais was elusive, detached, his films beautiful abstracts of intellectual rather than emotional impact. One had to work hard to experience any of the conventional satisfactions of narrative, character, even meaning. Fascinating, maddening, they provoked as much anger as admiration. It was easy to imagine Resnais might simply abandon cinema as no longer interesting one day, as if it were a mathematical puzzle he had solved.
Yet here we are a half-century later. Not only is the nearly 90-year-old director as prolific as ever (which is to say, making a film every few years), but he has undergone a slow evolution one would never anticipated from the utter sobriety, even humorlessness of his early work: He’s become, largely, a director of comedies. Oh, he’s still invariably drawn to tricky structures and narrative ambiguities. But particularly since 1980’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique, he’s treated the medium less like trigonometry and more like a playground.
His latest Wild Grass, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival 2010, may not be strictly classifiable as a comedy—or anything else—but it is very much the work of a filmmaker delighting in toying with style, story, acting, and our expectations that they should be logical or consistent.
Based on a novel called The Incident by French author Christian Gailly (one would love to know just how extensively Resnais messed with it), the film does spring from a single incident: Professional dentist and hobbyist aviator Marguerite (Sabine Azema, the director’s offscreen wife) has just finished shoe-shopping in Paris when her purse is snatched by a mugger. A wallet—money gone, of course—is later found discarded in a parking garage by Georges (Andre Dussollier, another longtime Resnais regular).
Georges returns the item to the police, who return it to Marguerite. And that should be the end of that. But when Marguerite calls her wallet’s discoverer to thank him, a strange one-sided conversation begins. Having thoroughly probed the billfold’s contents, Georges is already obsessed with its owner—or perhaps with an idea he’s constructed of her. He begins barraging Marguerite with lengthy, very personal if also highly fictionalized letters, leaving nightly phone messages as well. She politely ignores both. Finally she begs him to leave her alone. His response is to slash her tires—and leave a confessional note on the dashboard.
Of course Alain Resnais is not going to make any kind of conventional crazed-stalker thriller, though the film duly points in that direction for some time. The first half of Wild Grass half deliberately recalls old-fashioned, noirish Hollywood melodrama, albeit with sometimes conflicting information given us by an omniscient narrator and more than one tapped stream-of-consciousness (mostly Georges’, which thoughts can turn from innocuous to murderous in a heartbeat). But then the tone might suddenly lunge toward farce, romance, even horror, as characters increasingly behave in irrational ways and the director’s stylistic fillips get loonier.
His starry Gallic cast—also featured are Anne Consigny as Georges’ seemingly long-suffering wife, Anne Cosigny as Marguerite’s fellow dentist friend, and Mathieu Amalric as a cop who gets mixed up in all this—likewise run a gamut from naturalistic to droll to very theatrical, sometimes within a single scene. This sort of constant goosing of expectations can easily grow messy or tiresome in less expert hands. But there’s never a moment when Resnais & Co. don’t know exactly what they’re doing—even when you don’t.
It ends on a note that will provoke much head-scratching—though alas, I doubt that will occur at many cocktail parties, as it is no longer 1961, let alone a last year at Marienbad.
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