I wrote at some length in the fall of last year about Alain Resnais' remarkable new film Wild Grass, which had then premiered at The New York Film Festival, which I see is getting a theatrical run, at least in New York, starting tomorrow. I'd say it is one of the more noteworthy pictures opening tomorrow, or at any time for that matter. For your convenience, I reproduce below what I wrote in September:
* About twenty minutes into my first viewing of this utterly beguiling film, observing the bizarre behavior of one of its lead characters Georges Palet (an exquisite performance by André Dussolier), and wondering what the hell his deal was—dementia? psychosis?—I dutifully scribbled in my notebook "the refusal of pathology." In a realistic film they'd be carting the guy off to a mental hospital pretty quick. And then of course I remembered that Resnais has never in a million years made a realistic film. Even his films about very real and very profound topics—Night and Fog, on the Holocaust; Hiroshima mon amour, on, well, guess; Muriel..., on (obliquely) the French occupation of Algeria; La guerre est finie, on revolution and revolutionary action—are most compelled by imaginative strategies, not documentative ones. Resnais, of course, has always known this. Scott Foundas notes, in an interview with Resnais in The Village Voice this week, that the director "bristles" when presented with the notion that "the conditional nature of memory...has been another career-spanning preoccupation." "I prefer to say 'the imaginary,'" Resnais counters. "All of our lives, we live with the memory of a sad experience, or a pleasant one, and, thanks to those memories, we try to avoid other sad experiences and try to repeat pleasant ones. But we don't remember things exactly as they happened, thanks to the chemical processes of the brain. A memory that's too short doesn't suffice; with the imaginary, one can retain everything."
Quite true (and see also Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amerique re brain chemistry), and it's instructive to reflect on how the initially brief encounters between certain of Wild Grass' characters affects both their imaginative world, and the imaginative world of the film. And that conveying these imaginative worlds is of course going to be a function of camera placement, camera movement, color, and optical effects. Which is one reason I disagree with my esteemed colleauge Richard Brody when he says that here "Resnais' virtuosity with the camera merely passes the time on screen as the mechanisms of his script grind along."
* Resnais told the assembly at the press conference that Christian Gailly, the novelist whose L'incidentprovided the basis for the screenplay by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbier, was a jazz musician of many years' standing before he took up literature. Resnais enjoys Gailly's work in part because it reminds him of jazz improvisation. As Foundas notes of Wild Grass in his Resnais interview, "the film zig-zags zanily from one genre to the next." It does so, on occasion, in a matter of mere shots, the way a bop instrumentalist may interpolate a quote from "Pop Goes The Weasel" into a solo on a ballad, or some such. I am also reminded of something said about the work of Resnais' erstwhile collaborator Alain Robbe-Grillet (I don't know whether he was a jazz fan, but I suspect maybe not): that therein, "the narrative is in search of its own coherence." The series of false endings leading up to Wild Grass' hilarious and cosmically staggering final shot constitute one of the most bracing examples of this principle in action that contemporary cinema has to offer.
* Watching the way the characters' irrationalities seemed to rub off on each other, I was reminded of one of the most legendary unrealized projects in late 20th-century cinema: David Lynch's One Saliva Bubble, or at least of my memory of what it was supposed to have been. Or, rather, my imaginative projection within my memory of what it was supposed to have been. That is, I thought some sort of contagion within a saliva bubble that got passed from character to character affected their behavior. Although as it happens, the reality of the Lynch/Mark Frost script was that the titular bubble creates an electrical short-circuit that unleashes a psychotropic behavior-affecting beam on an unsuspecting town.
But in any event, it wasn't just the premise of Wild Grass but its tone that put Lynch in my head. It then occured to me that in some ways, throughout his career Resnais was creating a more genteel, less sexually morbid manifestation of "the Lynchian" avant le lettre, going back as far as the phantasmagoric short Le chant de styrene.
* Proof is in the pudding department: My Auteurs' Notebook colleague David Phelps reported from Cannes in May that at a press conference there Resnais said that the film's comedy was inspired by Curb Your Enthusiasm, and, indeed, a bit involving a stuck zipper could have been lifted directly from that series.
* At the New York press conference, supporting player Mathieu Amalric told us that he did his roles in Grass and the maladroit Bond film (or "doob-leh oh seven" movie, as he put it) Quantum of Solace at pretty much the same time. Which might explain why he uses the exact same crazy stare throughout both pictures.
* Comic appreciation corner: Another highlight of the Foundas interview is Resnais' citation of the great Milton Caniff. It made me so happy I very nearly brought one of my Terry And The Pirates reprint volumes to the NYFF party in the hope that I could get Resnais to sign it! Also, the color coding of Grass, so aptly noted by Manohla Dargis in her most recent bit of praise for the film, reminded me of how much I wish, still, that Warren Beatty had gotten Resnais to direct Dick Tracy.
* I note with a sigh of resignation that some of the film's detractors—critics I like and respect—are responding with the old bit about "not caring about" the film's characters. I won't cite or link, since My Lovely Wife has noted that I've started enough fights in recent months. But I will note that while I did not necessarily "care" about the film's characters, I did find them of interest, as they say...and (here's where I start getting "do-I-have-to-spell-it-out-for-you" irritable...) that the film isn't really interested in establishing a conventional kind of viewer empathy ANYWAY. And that I still find the whole topic too tedious for words, and that I've discussed exactly why, in a fair number of words nonetheless, here and here, if you're interested.
I see in the Village Voice that the film has found a new detractor in the brilliant and indefatigable J. Hoberman, who diplomatically allows that he doesn't see what the film's admirers see in what he finds "an insufferable exercise in cutie-pie modernism, painfully unfunny and precious to a fault." He later acknowledges Resnais' formal chops, allowing that the film's "skillful integration of high angles, slow motion, and mega-closeups" make it possible to watch the film "as and exercise—but only up to a point." And he's really annoyed by Sabine Azema and her kooky hairdo. As you might expect, Hoberman's pan is one of the more cogent and potentially persuasive ones. I allow that it's entirely possible that viewers of a certain disposition might be more irritated than engaged by what they take as the film's air of cosmic frivolity. (Or cutie-pie modernism, if you will.) That, as they say, is what makes a horse race. Armond White, for instance, loves the picture. And talk about seeing different things in it. Here's Hoberman: "When [Azema] [...] appeared in a tailored marching jacket, I entertained myself by mentally casting her as a passé British rocker, a degenerate dandy debauching her way to the Greek." And White: "A droll touch: Marguerite’s wild red hair and full-length uniform resemble Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince."