Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. Marguerite (Sabine Azema), a single, middle-aged female dentist in France, falls prey to a thief who swipes her handbag; her billfold subsequently turns up on the floor of a nearby parking garage. A passerby named Georges (Andre Dussollier) discovers the wallet; he’s a vaguely intense, middle-aged husband, father, and grandfather. Glimpsing the stranger’s photographs inside, he grows intrigued and enchanted, particularly when a pilot’s license in the wallet reveals Marguerite’s exotic hobby as an aviatrix. Georges turns the wallet over to the police, but when Marguerite phones Georges up to thank him, he asks to meet her. She refuses; he insists. And begins writing. And calling. And when those measures fail, he takes drastic action.
This constitutes the basic setup of Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass. Anyone could take an easy stab at what happens next, at this or at any other stage of the story. They would almost certainly be wrong. Resnais deliberately and shamelessly sets up and then undercuts our genre and narrative expectations time and again. When we think the film is about to evolve into a thriller, it hearkens off in the direction of cockeyed romance. When we think the film is about to sprint toward a traditional romantic crescendo, it evolves into a dark drama of misaligned self-deceptions. And so on and so forth.
Resnais isn’t interested in telling a conventional story here or even a completely coherent one -- he’s interested in paying homage to the medium that has served him majestically over the past 50-plus years. As such, it should hardly come as a surprise that this film materialized in what is presumably the final decade of work by the Frenchman, who was 87 years old during the movie’s production. Whether we have one or two additional Resnais films in the next ten years or Wild Grass ends up being his last, it clearly functions as an elegy to the medium, not unlike John Huston’s The Dead or Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. This works effortlessly in Resnais’ hands, given his master’s command of the medium; he defies all potential accusations of pretentiousness by girding everything in a giddy, effervescent playfulness that suggests a twinkle in one eye -- an old trickster delighting in tugging the story and characters first one way, then the other -- and keeping his finger squarely on the audience’s emotional pulse and expectations the entire time.
The director fills the movie not simply with Brechtian alienation devices but with alienation devices that call our attention to cinema’s ability to create and perpetuate myths for each viewer. The most obvious is a running voice-over by baritone-voiced Edouard Baer that recalls an identical trope in Todd Field’s Little Children (2006) -- in the sense that it conveys the self-reflexive myths perceived by each of the two main characters, established as if they were in a conventional romantic novel with an inflated sense of their own destinies. At other times, Resnais hyper-literalizes the medium itself onscreen -- as with an iris-shot fade-out to Georges, standing alone at night outside of a neon cinema, or an impassioned kiss between two of the characters while the 20th Century Fox fanfare unfurls on the soundtrack and the title “Fin” (French for “The End”) appears on the screen -- ten minutes prior to the actual conclusion of the movie. And still at other times, the director slyly reminds the audience just how little we actually know about these two characters in which we’ve grown “emotionally invested” -- as when Georges grossly betrays Marguerite on a romantic level and thus reveals a rather nasty side of himself that we haven’t seen before, and Marguerite both intuitively acknowledges what happened and fails to even deliver much of a response. We’re left gasping at the lack of fallout, and thus made more aware of the conventions of the medium and the ease with which film itself sets up our expectations from decades of cliched moviemaking.
It wouldn’t be spoiling any surprises to note that Resnais denies the audience a conventionally happy or otherwise emotionally satisfying ending; such a denouement, after all, would be drastically misaligned with the director’s desire to subvert narrative conventions. What does emerge in the final sequence, however, is a potent verbal metaphor, both for cinema as a mythmaking tool, and for the self-perpetuated mythmaking of the characters that gains more depth and resonance the more one reflects on it. This sequence will probably leave the vast majority of viewers inherently dissatisfied, perhaps even furious at Resnais’ refusal to tie up his narrative threads into a neat little package. The irony, of course, is that this anger would be better directed at the hundreds or thousands of prior filmmakers whom Resnais is implicitly skewering, who conditioned viewers to think in conventional narrative patterns in the first place.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: PG
- Review: Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. Marguerite (Sabine Azema), a single, middle-aged female dentist in France, falls prey to a thief who swipes her handbag; her billfold subsequently turns up on the floor of a nearby parking garage. A passerby na… (more)