Why Alain Resnais's Wild Grass is the secret key to his sensibility
by Michael Atkinson  posted July 6, 2010
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This is part of an ongoing series of articles on Alain Resnais. The Museum of the Moving Image will present a Resnais retrospective in early 2011.

The French New Wave is justly famous for many things, many cultural currents and tidal fluctuations and siroccos, but when we talk about the law firm of Godard Truffaut Rivette Chabrol Resnais Demy Varda Marker & Rohmer, we don’t usually hear ourselves talking about arcanities. Romance, meta-film, rock ’n’ roll, lost youth, indie pioneering, sure—but not mysteries, even though the movement was filthy with them, from Godard’s self-autopsying indeterminacy to Rivette’s dream-time paranoia park to Resnais’s most famous narrative contraptions, devices whose elaborate purposes are just beyond understanding. Which is all to say that these are movies at their moviest—the seminal Art Film thrust (not just the French, thanks) took movies as an alternate universe that mirrors our own, but which in the mirroring disconnects experience from our complacent knowledge of life.

Alain Resnais has had a varied and seemingly unsummarizable career, reverse-graduating from puzzle-movie superstar in the 1960s to an aging doodler in the ’90s and beyond, happier in his later years and indulgent in his love of theater and gamesmanship, and rarely less than beguiling, but certainly marginal as a world figure. Perhaps it has seemed thus because, unlike Godard and Rivette, his films do not bellow with the peculiar obsessions of a distinct personality—yet the lack of bellowing is misleading. The unsolvables persist, and gain luster. For those of us who have wondered where Resnais has gone all these years, who’ve wondered at the fluffy frivolity of Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983) or I Want to Go Home (1989), who may have reconsidered Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), not to mention Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), as primarily the achievements of their screenwriters—for these wondering doubters comes Resnais’s new film like a gift. Wild Grass (2009), made when Resnais was 87, is a simple and self-amused ode to menopausal angst, and yet it is the Resnais hornbook, the secret key to his sensibility.

Controlled by a wry, quizzical narration, the movie starts by fetishistically following the impulsive shopping escapades of an anonymous woman (Resnais vet Sabine Azéma, with a great nimbus of red frizz, although we don’t see her clearly until later), during which she is mugged of her purse. Meanwhile, a grizzled and wary older man, Georges (André Dussollier), has his watch battery changed at a nearby shop—and both he and Resnais treat the occasion as if it were a scene from an espionage scenario that remains unwritten. In a parking garage, he finds the woman’s discarded wallet—and so it begins.

Too many film reviewers in the U.S. noticed only the hero’s age and his accumulating, irrational interest in Marguerite, Azéma’s winsome, middle-aged dentist (!), from whom a thanks-for-returning-my-wallet phone call is just not enough. (“You disappoint me,” he tells her.) But Resnais’s comedy is hardly a Vertigo-lite riff or tale of sensual obsession. Consider the details: how Dussollier’s comfortably bourgeois husband (his wife, played by Anne Consigny, is 17 years his junior) battles thoughts of savage impulse killing that seem like daydreams he idly wishes he could act upon. How Marguerite is not only a fetching, carrot-top tooth-driller but an aviatrix, introducing the possibility of a flight and a crash into the story just as the appearance of a gun in a movie, any movie, indicates an eventual shooting. How Mathieu Amalric shows up as the most unlikely French policeman ever, sparring with both Georges and Marguerite about “the situation” as if the movie’s very narrative suspension depended upon it. How the air of the film seems filled with the magic of happenstance even though nothing seems coincidental.

What’s going on? Most of the film is overtaken with Georges’s life as it is—uneventful and unbothered by work—and as it is disrupted, mildly and then radically, by his dogged pursuit of Marguerite, for reasons unclear. He stalks her, phones her, leaves messages, bugs Amalric’s cop about her, and through it all his wife is strangely tolerant. But it’s that “You disappoint me” call that sends up flares: what Georges is doing is seeking story. He’s a character on the prowl for plot, desiring to make movie sense out of arbitrariness. Here, what he seems to want is the kind of fantastical emotional connection that movies and fiction often use as shortcuts to invest relationships and lives with meaning—and he doesn’t get it.

Georges’s airy, Romantic passion plays almost like a kind of Alzheimer’s—except it’s the rest of the world that won’t cohere into a genre construction, not his inability to recall or grasp connections. (“Nobody ever dies from reading,” the narrator offhandedly remarks at one point. “Reading helps us live.”) He’s a modern Scheherazade, fending off mortality with the erection of fictions (except he is both the yarn-spinner and the king). Eventually, the lust for narrative drives Georges to slash Marguerite’s car tires, thereby genuinely involving the police and launching a new story arc Georges didn’t anticipate.

From there the movie goes quietly nuts, scrambling genres (the end credits change genre-signaling styles five times), tossing grand romantic gestures, suffering the characters as they hesitantly try to figure out what they’re supposed to do in the story Georges has in his head, a fictional schema the movie finally succumbs to, after a lot of flirting. It’s the only romantic comedy ever made in which only its hero is aware of the brand, and the other characters often resist it. When Marguerite tells Georges to bring his wife along for a flight—a situation he and we can easily imagine as an amorous movie turning point without the wife—Georges is furious, as if she’d gone completely off script.

It’s a singularly enlarging, inspiring idea—how meaning in life can be found within story, and how story is memory and how it is in fact all we have, whether the stories be cinematic formulas like those that Georges harbors, or something completely different, waves and particles of experience that, however they’re shaped, make up our histories. Suddenly, all of Resnais crystallizes around a single, poignant, frankly lovable conceit: the pursuit of story as a way to understand living. The zombies in Last Year in Marienbad are the most woeful practitioners of Resnais’s thesis, memory-impaired and helplessly failing to arrange a meaningful narrative for their lives. The lovers in Hiroshima, mon amour, the war-haunted Parisians of Muriel (1963), the windblown leaf of a time traveler in Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), the sociology professor in Mon Oncle d’Amérique, the couples in Mélo (1986), and so on. Resnais’s people are all contrivers of meaning, tale-tellers compelled like Beckett’s ghosts to build and rebuild the scaffolding of memory and history as a way of insisting on their own significance.

All of which frames Resnais in a special way vis-à-vis his New Wave compatriots. Whereas for Godard the living image and its independent ephemerality was the way movies most vitally related to life, for Resnais it was very nearly the opposite: cinema’s capacity for narrative order. Of course, Resnais rarely if ever simply indulged in that capacity, like most movies have, but interrogated and explored it at every turn, and pointedly gazed upon our pining need for that narrative order, and nodded with wizened sympathy. 


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Studio Canal
André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma in Wild Grass, directed by Alain Resnais
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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

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Author's Website: Zero for Conduct