The first if not the most remarkable thing about Wild Grass is the simple fact that it will open locally, at the Ken on Friday. The last Alain Resnais film to do so, also at the Ken for a week, was Same Old Song toward the end of the last century. There have been two unopened Resnais films since that one, and there are another five unopened ones before it (counting Smoking and No Smoking as one film), dating back to Mon Oncle d’Amerique thirty years past. Of that five, Mélo and Life Is a Bed of Roses, it is true, were treated to single showings in university and museum settings, but those were not in the strict sense “openings.” They were one-nighters. They were off the radar. So I am first of all indebted to Sony Pictures Classics and Landmark Theatres for enabling me so effortlessly to keep alive my record of seeing all of my favorite director’s films on the big screen. It hasn’t always been easy.
My sense of allegiance to this filmmaker puts me in a somewhat sticky position to communicate with those who have not so doggedly kept up with him, who were not, for instance, as surprised (or even aware) as I was when this champion of original screen work, this trailblazer in spatial and temporal dislocation, chose with his eleventh feature film to do a faithful adaptation of a stage play, the aforementioned Mélo, his first literary adaptation of any type, and chose in close succession thereafter to adapt three more stage plays. The current publicity from Sony, as if to highlight the dilemma, identifies Resnais as the “legendary” director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Forgive me, but those were roughly fifty years and fifteen films ago. To moviegoers who are no more au courant than that, it cannot mean much that the stars of Wild Grass, Sabine Azéma and André Dussollier, are taking part in their eighth and seventh, respectively, of Resnais’s last nine films, twin pillars of a trusty stock company. Nor can it mean much that this new one is, unless I have blanked out, his first adaptation of a novel, albeit not a familiar one in this country, The Incident by Christian Gailly.
One evident effect of the novelistic source is a palpable feeling of liberation. (Resnais was reportedly in search of another stage play to adapt when the novel came to his attention.) Even though his recent theater pieces were never less than fluid, there was necessarily a more restricted range and velocity in the flow. Here he can show off a playfulness, a friskiness, a nimbleness, that we have not seen from him lately or perhaps ever (eighty-eight last month, he would have been eighty-six when he was making it), with a packed arsenal of dynamic pans, tracks, zooms, and, most tellingly, overhead shots that invite us to view the human figures from the same perspective as the opening shots view the titular wild grass, weedy growths sprouting randomly through cracks in the asphalt at our feet. This central and recurring image — the wild, the random, the unruly grass — is a symbol as pregnant, poetic, succinct, and comprehensible as, say, the drifting snowflakes in Love unto Death, the sky-reaching tree at the end of Life Is a Bed of Roses, the manicured gardens and marble halls of Marienbad. (If those mean anything to you.) The crimson tumbleweed atop Azéma’s head picks up and carries on the image as a sort of visual echo. Wild thatch.
To my mind, the short, punchy, repetitive zooms during a police interrogation are a bit beneath the director, as is the repeated slow-motion shot of a fatefully snatched purse, or the ironic reprise of the 20th Century-Fox fanfare on the soundtrack — never mind that the attended movie, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, originated at Paramount — and I don’t much care for the occasional hazy coronas around people and objects. (Resnais has never bettered the gemlike hardness, clarity, and richness of the color in Muriel, his first color film, 1963.) More fruitfully, he also tries out a new idea, not a big idea, just a fun idea, of comic-book bubble insets inside the picture frame, to be used now and again to reveal the workings of both imagination and memory. And the delirious, gaseous, artificial pools of colored light, although no more cinematic than theatrical, are reminiscent of a Mario Bava or Dario Argento horror film, having the effect (for me) of constructing private, subjective worlds around the characters, separating and isolating them, externalizing their inner states in the fashion of the Expressionists. Not, let’s be clear, externalizing them in some literal and illustrative way — the way of A Beautiful Mind or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — but in a properly cryptic and impenetrable way. Needless to say, any such small advances, innovations, deviations in form, so inconsequential to the uninitiated, are relative. Next to something by Baz Luhrmann, the film would look sufficiently sedate.
A second noteworthy effect of the novelistic source — the freewheeling shifts in time and into thought are nothing new for Resnais, bread and butter — is the unprecedented dependence on narration, not a heavy dependence, just heavier than ever. (Ever, that is, in his fiction films. His early documentaries, most famously Night and Fog, are another matter.) I tend in general principle to regard narration on screen as a crutch, a misappropriated literary device belonging to the page, though I’m inclined to go lighter on an octogenarian filmmaker who elects to lean on it in his seventeenth feature. The “legendary” Hiroshima and Marienbad, with their extensive voice-overs, might at first blush give the impression of being narrated, but strictly speaking the voice-over is invariably dialogue, however stylized. La Guerre Est Finie, I remind myself, featured a sparse narration in the seldom if ever employed second-person: “you” this and “you” that, in direct address to the protagonist, like a voice of conscience. In the present case, by contrast, we have multiple narrators, a knowledgeable but not omniscient third-person narrator as well as both of the principal characters in first-person. One moment we will be told in the voice of a storyteller, “That’s how it began. It might not have begun,” as the male character happens upon a discarded wallet by the tire of his car in a shopping-mall parking ramp, and the next moment we will be given an insight into what kind of character this is, what kind of old crank, when he remarks to himself on a passing shopper, “We can see her black panties. What terrible taste.”
Which brings us at length to the fluky storyline: a snatched purse; a found wallet; a desire on the part of the finder to see destiny at work, to make something momentous of the moment, to expect more than a mere thank-you when the wallet is returned to its owner (“You disappoint me”); a growing obsession; a contagion of lunacy; and a final twist of fate, a stuck zipper in the lavatory. Traces of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell can be detected in the way the situation develops (one of Highsmith’s lesser novels, Found in the Street, in fact begins with a found wallet), and the dark irrationality of the characters, the transfer of madness from the stalker to the stalked, will present no difficulty to fans of those authors, or for that matter fans of Resnais. Viewers who look for tidy “motivation” and “consistency” in their fictional characters will experience rougher waters. The film unfolds, furthermore, not with the oppressive ominousness of a thriller, nor with the bubbly optimism of a romantic comedy (it is often funny, but then so are the thrillers of Highsmith and Rendell), but instead with a tenor and tone sui generis, something uncertain and unconventional, something that could go either way, neither heavy nor light, serious and yet mischievous. All of the artifice, or the artificiality, of the presentation serves not to create an air of unreality, but rather to enlarge our definition of reality. People are like this, it suggests; they are not what they look like. They’re unfathomably more.
My own response to this twisted tale was to find it immediately gripping and gradually loosening, the “wildness” of the characters wilder than it needed to be to make the point, less surprising as it becomes more hypothetical, more didactic. And as for the implications of the final shots (earlier in life? a later life? a parallel life?) — well, I’ll want to see the film a second time. While I yield to no one in my admiration for the artist, I’m not sure I can match some of the blurbs I’ve been reading. “Masterpiece.” “Sublime.” “Ravishing.” Not, I would prefer to say, among his several masterpieces, but a unique combination of elements, unlike anything he or anyone else has done before, it is simply another Resnais film not to be missed. And an uncommonly easy one not to miss. ■