Thursday, July 29, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing - Alain Resnais' Wild Grass

I have long been the type of moviegoer to favor questions over answers. I have little interest in the explanation of a mystery, of a character's behavior, or nearly any element of a film that intrigues me. But even from that baseline, I was completely bowled over when I saw Wild Grass at the Portland International Film Festival in February. And not necessarily in a good way. I simply did not know what I ultimately thought of it. My messy attempts to make sense of any of it were recorded at the time, but even then I was aching for a second viewing that I knew was still months away.

That day has finally come, and having now gone in with some idea of what Resnais and screenwriters Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet are up to here, I can comfortably say that Wild Grass is nothing short of a masterpiece. It's a light masterpiece, free from the dramatic or thematic heft of a Synecdoche, New York or A Serious Man (to name two films which, I suppose, have nothing to do with Wild Grass) or even the films Resnais is still most famous for, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Wild Grass is the purest cinema I've seen all year, using every tool available (though, I suspect, no CGI) to achieve complete artistic expression.

The film is superficially about a woman, Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) whose purse is stolen and whose wallet ends up under the tire of a parked car belonging to Georges Palet (André Dussollier). Marguerite, pictured in her identification and pilot's license, intrigues Georges, who demands more and more attention for returning her wallet to her. Although attention isn't enough; affection is closer to what he's after. But then, "more and more" would require he received any to begin with...

It will frustrate some viewers, I suspect, that so much is then poured into a film that is ultimately a tad silly. As Richard Brody noted, "it's a film that was made on the basis of plenty of substance--which doesn't make it a substantial film." Some of my favorite films aren't terribly substantial (I'm looking at you, The Young Girls of Rochefort), but are nonetheless pure cinematic delights. Wild Grass is a really wonderful film, albeit one with only amusing (some would say "petty") observations about the human condition and, not uncommonly, nothing of Resnais himself evident.

But Resnais has never claimed himself any more than a gun for hire, giving his efforts over to the story rather than fulfilling any auteurist requirement. What I see in Resnais' work that feels more evident here than ever is a zest for his job, a love of filmmaking, the only thing that could keep someone working this far into his life. "I do go for experiments," he said in a recent interview with Cineaste, "I much prefer taking a scene and doing it in a way different from what's normally done." While this is a statement heard on film school campuses worldwide, and thus not a terribly uncommon approach to filmmaking, I would argue Resnais is uncommonly successful in doing so.

Wild Grass is a thoroughly beguiling picture deeply invested in the artifice of cinema (common to Resnais, the studio sets and lighting make no attempt to appear authentic; the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare makes more than one appearance) and the eccentricities of human behavior. The narcissism on display is hilarious at every step, both in the small moments (the entire staff of a shoe store at Marguerite's disposal, Georges' question when they finally meet - "So you love me?") and their overarching journeys. However, to reduce the film to simply an exploration of narcissism in the modern age and yada, yada, yada would be not only reductive, but paint the film as a tad mean, and while I wouldn't say that Resnais, Reval, or Herbiet love their characters in the traditional sense, there is genuine affection, if in sort of a puppy dog way.

It is a delightful film, indeed, with a sense of humor so specifically tuned I'm sure many will go through the whole picture not realizing it's a comedy. Every shot, camera movement, and cut is perfect without being exacting, and every random oddity (a disappearing table, or seeing Georges' imagination enacted on one side of the screen) is exhilarating without becoming overwhelming - this is an odd film, to be sure, but not one obsessively taken with its oddity. It's not "quirky," it's simply a breath of fresh air to a medium often thought dead.

Perhaps that's what seems so remarkable - at nearly ninety, Resnais has created a film seemingly out of thin air. I'm not talking about the story, adapted by two other people from a novel by a third; I'm talking about the cinema. Any comparison inevitably ends with "except..." I see ties to film noir, Punch-Drunk Love, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the sum of those parts would equal nothing at all like Wild Grass. Azéma and especially Dussollier give extraordinary comic performances, at once totally in tune with the reality of their characters' concerns and the cosmic absurdity of it all - Dussollier's facial expressions in his final scene are worth the price of admission alone.

"Cosmic absurdity" is a phrase all too fitting to the film as a whole. The film's final moment, a bit of total insanity that has literalists up in arms, is such an overwhelmingly perfect note to end on, placing all of the silliness we've seen up to this point on a scale at once unimaginable and completely fitting. It's insane that anyone would ever conceive of it, let alone go through the many steps of film production to complete it, but I can honestly say we're a better people because of those who attempt something like this.

I don't want to be the old guy in the back saying that in spite of being free of CGI and 3-D, Wild Grass is one of the most immersive experiences I've had at the cinema all year, but truthfully it is. That merely reflects the lack of creative invention in those employing such techniques, and the seemingly endless abundance in Resnais. His cinema is one without boundaries, without limits - in other words, it is everything art should be. I absolutely loved this film.

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