Thursday, May. 14, 2009

Wild Grass: Resnais' Delightful Con Game

Wild Grass premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It was directed by Alain Resnais, who turned 88 earlier this month, and written by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet, from Christian Gailly's novel L'incident. The film remains as delightful and subversive as it was when I first reviewed it a year ago. The difference: now you can see it. Wild Grass opens in select theaters Friday, June 25. — R.C.

One way to indicate the marvelous deviousness of Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, which just had its world premiere here at the Cannes Film Festival, is to tell you the movie's last line — which will tell you nothing about the plot. In a house we haven't seen in the film, speaking to a woman we haven't seen, a girl of about eight, whom we also haven't seen, brightly asks, "Maman, when I'm a cat, will I be able to eat Cat Munchies?" The End! At which point a member of the audience will say either "Huh?" or "Hooray!"

Movie anarchists come in two forms. The first instantly proclaims his radicalism, like the young Luis Buñuel at the start of Un chien andalou, walking into the moonlight and carefully slashing a woman's eye with a straight razor. The second is more subtle, like the old Buñuel of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a drawing-room comedy whose surrealism creeps up on you. In the first form, the director is a magician, announcing a trick that will amuse or appall the audience. In the second, he's the jovial fellow you met at a bar; you have a drink and a fond chat, and after he leaves you realize your wallet's missing. You've been had by a supreme con artist. (See pictures of the red carpet at Cannes.)

Resnais has followed that second path. The French director made his early name with magician movies — two Mensa-IQ films that the audience had to work hard to decode. Hiroshima mon amour, which opened 50 years ago next month, and the 1961 Last Year at Marienbad dispensed with traditional movie narrative, shuffling the sequence of tenses into a Proustian deck of memory and fantasy — the present, the past and the possible. Written by prominent members of the Nouveau Roman group (Marguerite Duras for Hiroshima, Alain Robbe-Grillet for Marienbad), the two films proved that movies could be every bit as demanding, baffling and beguiling as the modernist novel. They also established Resnais as a brand name for smart people. (Read a TIME story on Resnais.)

Perhaps the Marienbad style of ostentatious obfuscation is a young man's game. One grows slyer, more serene with age. But Resnais, who will be 87 next month, has lost neither his sleight-of-hand dexterity nor his fondness for seducing and challenging the audience. His previous film, the Alan Ayckbourn adaptation Private Fears in Public Places, maneuvered six lonely characters through a maze of lost chances at love. But that was a child's game compared with his new one. Wild Grass — a title almost jovially misleading in its drab suggestion of a pastoral drama — is a constant, confounding delight, and a nifty new trick from a grand old dog. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)

He introduces the two main characters in sequences that for minutes on end don't reveal their faces. Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), an unmarried dentist, has just bought a pair of shoes when a thief skateboards past and steals her handbag. Georges (André Dussollier), a seemingly unemployed, happily married man, has been to a shop to get his watch fixed when, in the parking garage, he notices a wallet: Marguerite's.

Hmmm. There's a pilot's license inside. And he has been a fan of aviatrices ever since he was a boy. Should he call the owner? He rehearses a dozen variations of a phone conversation, then decides to turn the wallet in to the police. Oh, but he wanted to meet her. He skulks around her apartment building, leaves her flustered, pestering voice-mail messages and, seized by ardor or panic, slashes her car tires. Somehow this makes Georges interesting to Marguerite. Calling his wife (Anne Consigny), she learns that he's gone to a movie theater. Thus they rendezvous for the beginning of what could be a beautiful, or fatal, friendship.

We're about halfway into the movie, and it's cruising blithely along like a porpoise with no particular purpose. Indeed, the attentive cinephile of a certain age will think that Resnais is making the kind of film — fascinated by and indulgent of its characters' eccentricities, foibles and obsessions — that François Truffaut would be doing today, if only he'd lived long enough. So one shrugs off the jarring strangeness in certain scenes, as when Georges, visited by the policeman to whom he returned the wallet, begins by being the genial host but, after a gulp of whiskey, escalates into an aria of rancor, saying that he should follow the decision of his next-door neighbor and kill himself. Or when Marguerite, in the throes of whatever it is she feels for Georges, does dental injury to a fast half-dozen of her patients.

The viewer forgives or ignores these little eruptions because the tone is so airy, the directorial eye so acute, and the actors exude such effortless élan. Dussollier, star of seven Resnais films, is a charmer with the modesty of late middle-age; and Azéma, sporting a Sideshow Bob shock of red hair, still has that cute walk and adorable raspy voice. We have to fight our urge to relax into the movie, and instead pay attention to the rigorous, quietly unrealistic color scheme (all reds and yellows and blues) and to the precise geometric placement of extras in a scene: Resnais uses them as chess pieces or statuary, just as he did in Marienbad.

I shall say no more than that Georges and Marguerite do get together, in a brief tryst that involves a broken zipper; they do take a flight in her plane; and they do connect with the Cat Munchies girl. But I've already said too much, simply by declaring you should be on your guard — your avant-garde — when you see Wild Grass. Forget everything you've read here, except that you should see the movie. Then you'll be open to Alain Resnais' cinematic artistry — and his con-artistry as well.

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