Sunday, January 16, 2011

Alain Resnais' WILD GRASS (Les herbes folles)

The Washington Post has this to say about the latest work from an old French film master, Alain Resnais, called Wild Grass: "This might be the strangest film I've seen all year.  Maybe all millennium.  Is it any good?  Frankly, I have no idea."  It's a point well made, though I would contend that its still not quite the strangest (Inland Empire and Enter the Void could reasonably take that so-far title).  Resnais style is so hard to peg because it is such a gorgeous looking picture, and the attention to color and light is so full and vibrant while still sticking to something resembling reality... at least at first.  When it goes into its flights-of-mind-fancy, that's another story.  But what makes Wild Grass so special, if flawed: it's a light-key psychodrama, made by someone who is looking near the end and going for a 'I'll just try something different' attitude.

A woman with a big bushy top of red-carrot hair, Marguerite Meir (Sabine Azema) is trying some shoes and exits when her purse is stolen.  Cut ahead to a little later and a somewhat-weary looking old-but-not-too-old man Georges Palet (Andre Dussolier) finds the wallet from the purse in a parking lot.  He brings it to the police, but not before some wondering what to do with this new woman (not exactly) in his life. Marguerite is pleased to get the wallet back, but her life as a quiet dentist is disrupted by a flood of letters and calls from this older man who has her information.  Then one night when she tries to tell him to back off he slashes her tires.  And it's around this point that it becomes.... and odd almost-love story tinged with a sub-plot involving flying(?)

Resnais' film is given to many such odd moments, such as the one pictured above where Georges, as he drives, has a little bubble of his would-be close-up thinking what he might say to the girl he returned the wallet to.  Or in a more conventional sense the purse that is seen in slow-motion flying through the air.  Or just a simple shot of the exterior of a Cinema that Georges goes to see Bridges of the Tokyo-Ri and the 20th Century Fox music blares over Georges describing the plot of the movie(!)  There's a lot of strange things like that in the movie, and yet it's not totally strange.  It's actually quite sweet-hearted deep down, about two people who could be good together if, say, so much wasn't against their being together, like Georges being married and with kids and grandkids, or how Marguerite has some problems getting back to being a pilot- something Georges likes very much as well- and that both of them are kinda nuts together.

It's like the ingredients are there for a romantic comedy of a lighter, 1950's sensibility starting with a meet-cute of sorts involving a stolen wallet, and at the same time a dark psychodrama that could very easily slip into (I'm not kidding) a freaky-deaky Lifetime movie.  I think that Resnais is experimenting here and being subversive, but completely playfully, and that play sticks out with the acting, the whimsical music, and the very-direct use of colors in nearly every shot.   It's not so much an experiment in genre, though one could look at it that way, but in emotion: things veer from the two characters feeling very close one moment, finding a connection despite the illogic... and then Georges pushing her away because... because what, I don't quite know.

For the record, it's not as confusing as Last Year at Marienbad, though that may be a benchmark of puzzle-narrative films so it's an unfair comparison in its substance.  But in style, it is as daring, if not as trend-setting in the 'Vogue' style as that had.  It's the look of the film, how pleasing it is to look at these people in their locations, or how a foot is shot or those cascading grassy fields, that make it exciting.  Resnais and his DP Eric Gautier start the film off with shots of feet walking along, busy about their way, and then focus in on Maurgerite, and it feels different, pushing for an original vision of just a foot or walking, or driving a car.  Along with this, Resnais has the facet of narration.  Unlike Marienbad, it's not filled with poetic repetition meant to confuse the viewer; it tells the story, and is either written with clever intentions and actually revealing something about the character (my preferred form of narration), or does lag into the explaining-what-they're-doing on screen.  It's just good narration all around, which is rare for any movie.

Not a bad hair day, just her look.  
Some may be confused anyway, and I don't blame you; why these two people might come together, or not, is not all there.  And the last five minutes (or just the ending, say the last minute) makes even less sense than anything that came before, which at least carried some solid narrative weight.  And some may not care at all, with such a small human story being told without that much at stake except possible love found or lost between some old dude and a dentist.  For me, it crept up on me how absorbing and delicate the filmmaking was here; Resnais keeps things at a brisk pace, has characters who are genuinely interesting and look unconventional (that red hair is bananas, in a good way), and, I stress again, how the cinematography, production design, lighting, is so elegant that it's subtly provocative, and (I almost neglected to mention) put to a score that has classical romance and jazzy cool (sorry, can't find better words for it, it's just what it tis).

This is a film that could have been made by a young person with something to prove, and if that it would be a small masterpiece.  As it is it's not all perfect, some scenes do fall flat, but its director, now in his late 80's, shows the youth of filmmaking how it's done.

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