Monday, February 22, 2010

PIFF Thoughts: Wild Grass (dir. Alain Resnais)

A review, to me anyway, implies a final verdict reached about a film, album, book, whatever, even if that verdict might change over time. At this stage, I have no problem admitting that I don't have a final verdict on Alain Resnais' Wild Grass. What follows is roughly my thought process since seeing the film Saturday night, a form of criticism probably better suited to this film than any typical capsule review.

Jean-Luc Godard once said of Alain Resnais that he, "more than anyone else, gives the impression that he started completely from zero." If you can truly grasp the idea of someone directing a film from that starting point, you might have a chance to appreciate Resnais' latest film. I'm not sure that I do. I'm not totally sure what it is. The most freely-associative film of the year? The decade? Resnais's career? Full of shifting tones, abrupt edits, inconsistent characters (or those who lack concrete motivation entirely), and false endings, Wild Grass is the film every film school tells you not to make. But, contrary to my anti-institutional nature, I had to ask coming out of the theater - is that necessarily a good thing?

More after the jump...

Now, granted, it's hard to approach filmmaking without any regard to what you know of how films work, but I find it much harder to approach filmgoing in the same way. There are directors who have managed to confound, subvert, or otherwise explode our expectations and even our conceptions of what a movie is, and most of the time I'm thrilled by the results, but then again I can't remember the last movie I saw that approached the form with such open eyes.

So was my initial lack of enthusiasm the result of my inability to process a film like this? I mean, we're at a place in which Where the Wild Things Are passes for "original." Don't get me wrong, it's a fine film, but there is simply no comparison. And the more I thought about it, the more the film kept picking at my brain (which can be just as uncomfortable as it sounds), the more excited I became about it.

Wild Grass is ostensibly about a woman whose purse is stolen and the man who ends up finding her wallet in a mall parking garage and wants to return it to her. Obviously that's not what the movie ends up being about, but then again it's hard to say whether or not it's about anything at all. It certainly lacks elements we tend to expect from films. For example, it doesn't do a very good job of making us connect to the characters, but it's not like it's trying to create traditional connections to them. The characters at most become intriguing, and probably most frustrating, remain that way. They never really take on enough dimension to be interesting, and even the word "compelling" seems to take it too far. We never really know anything about anyone, but we're given just enough to make you say, "I want to know this person."

And then there's the plot, such as it is. Oh, sure, there are a series of events that build on one another, which is all a plot really is after all (and yet it is that which is so often the forefront of judging a film). It's just that none of it is particularly compelling; if most of cinema is built on people doing what we would do or what we would like to do, Wild Grass is about people doing things we, or at least I, would never think to do - petty, desperate, totally inconsequential actions. Of course, that's assuming everything we see is actually happening, but that's...that's something else. Because just when you think you have a grasp on these people and what makes them tick (and I'm including Resnais and his screenwriters, Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet in this indictment), completely insane, impossible twists and turns will be introduced, growing more audacious nearly by the frame, building to a conclusion that more closely resembles a grand orchestral finish than your average denouement.

But does the plot need to be compelling? Do we need to care about the characters? Is the thrill of cinematic (re)invention enough? There's little question for me that this is a major work by one of the most important directors of all time, who, at age 87, has made a film more genuinely inventive and imaginative than nearly anything I've seen. If most directors turn in work more rote, sentimental, and easy as they age, Resnais hardly seems to have missed a beat. You could watch this, Last Year at Marienbad (his 1961 film), and Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968) in one sitting and, production values aside, guess they were made back to back to back.

Right now I'm at a place of extreme enthusiasm and curiosity about the film. I can't wait to see it again, even though that's months away (ah, the perils of the film festival), but if you're very open-minded about what a narrative film can be, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you see this at your earliest opportunity.

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