Friday, November 5, 2010

Wild Grass

As silly as it is to look for trends in the cinema, sometimes they're just so esoteric that they're too fun not to share. If 2010 has a thread I never expected to see, it's the emergence of a few off-the-wall, brilliant romantic comedies. Rom-coms have become a one-stop shop for the worst of commercial cinema lately, removing the charm and wit that once characterized the genre as one of the most rewarding of mainstream types and turning it into a juggernaut of weak titillation, barren emotion and the most reductive stereotypes in film.

Wild Grass, which premiered to great ballyhoo at last year's Cannes Festival, finally got a U.S. limited release in July of this year before quietly coming to DVD last Tuesday stands with Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy as a romantic comedy that returns to the roots of the genre as a screwball outpouring of the silliest, most ebullient joy the early talkies had to offer. And like Certified Copy, Wild Grass is informed by cinema. Helmed by the 87-year-old Alain Resnais, the film is also but the latest evidence that the cheekiest, freshest and most giddily cinematic films made this year have almost exclusively been made by those above the age of 65 (see also: Kiarostami, Polanski, Scorsese).

The film opens with a zoom-in on an old castle rook overgrown with vegetation before cutting to a piece of cracked asphalt with grass starting to creep through the break. The shot becomes something of a leitmotif throughout the film, with the grass growing ever longer as the narrative progresses. The initial edits are light and springy, with the camera placed low on the vertical axis as it moves through shots until Resnais comes to crowded streets. Rather than the usual shots of endless bored faces, Resnais photographs their feet trotting along en masse. In a move that would have Quentin Tarantino panting in jealousy, Resnais follows a single pair of feet until they reach, naturally, a shoe boutique where an attendant tries out each pump as the camera pulls back enough not to reveal this mystery woman's face. Even when Resnais freezes everything and tracks around her, the actress slowly pivots with the camera, leaving us only with the sight of her frazzled ball of red hair.

That sense of ingenuity powers the film far more than its plot, which could be basically described as follows: on her way out of the store, the woman, Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), a dentist, gets robbed by a thief who skates by and takes her purse. Later that day, George Palat (André Dussollier), a man in his 50s, stumbles across her emptied wallet in the shopping center's parking garage and develops a crush on her ID photo. He proceeds to stalk her until the police get involved, at which point he stops, only for Marguerite to suddenly display a curious interest in Georges.

There it is in essence, but what makes Wild Grass so charming and unexpected is the spin Resnais puts on the material. I am by no means an expert on the director, having seen only Hiroshima Mon Amour, Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad, but even those films give an adequate taste of Resnais' style. In Wild Grass, the director displays more visual wit than someone a third his age: as Georges drives his car, tiny thought bubbles appear that show him rehearsing and fantasizing scenarios, turning the casual handover of someone's lost property into the breakthrough into romance, rehearsing his phone call to her in his head as if a teenage boy practicing asking someone to the prom. When he drops the wallet off at a police station, he ends up debating Marguerite's attractiveness with the officer who takes his info (Mathieu Amalric!). The officer scoffs at her ID photo, but Georges pulls out Marguerite's aviation license with a more flattering photo and the cop seems to consider it as if the two were frat buddies debating the hotness of some chick.

Eventually, Georges' behavior grows more erratic. Seemingly content with his home life (and his younger, doting wife), the man cannot keep his thoughts from Marguerite. His inner monologues betray a disturbing propensity for violence with the vague hint that he's done something in the past. When two young women pass him in the parking garage at the start, he jumps to thoughts of strangling them. At the police station, he worries officers will recognize him.

Resnais' camera dances around the action, moving in leaps, swirls, smooth tracking shots and zooms. Occasionally, the direction becomes more frantic, using handheld shots of Georges' family life to show how he feels uncomfortable in what seems the perfect life. When the police come to question him about stalking Marguerite, each question the cops ask, however innocuous, is delivered through quick-zooms on the officers. Resnais then moves to a POV shot looking down as Georges leaps from his chair and shouts at the officer, then he cuts back to show Georges standing at the end of the room. It's not altogether clear if anyone's actually in the room with him at that point, though the sheer distance he got by leaping from his chair is comic in its own right.

Georges' slashing of Marguerite's tires when she does not respond to his letters or phone calls is a twisted act that speaks to inner demons, but Resnais frames that outburst, and all others, as a battle between id and superego without delineation. One can easily differentiate between sanity and madness in something like Fight Club once you learn the steps, but Wild Grass stays elusive. You can never be sure what's motivating Georges from one moment to the next; hell, you can't even be sure whether what we're seeing on the screen is even happening. Georges, not only mourning his father's passing but subconsciously focusing on his own mortality, appears to be suffering from mild memory loss, the kind that doesn't necessarily suggest anything wrong but signals at the very least the transition into old age. Faced with a life that's a bit too calm, he fills the gaps with fanciful ideas of a dangerous past.

Georges finally agrees to back down and settle back with his family, only for Marguerite to start chasing him. If Georges began to fantasize as a way to stave of thoughts of old age and wasted life, Marguerite has reveries simply to escape the doldrums of the present. At work, she's so distracted that she heedlessly causes pain to her patients, and she looks to her refurbished Spitfire with almost fetishistic admiration, even resting her head on its fuselage as if cuddling up with a lover. When her stalker finally backs down, some part of her misses the excitement. She even begins to meet in person with Georges, further confusing an already addled man. Her friend and business partner, Josépha (Emmanuelle Devos), confronts the man at one point, but it is Marguerite who looks hurt by the demand to be left alone. And as Georges came to her apartment, so too does Marguerite come to his home and interact with his family. She even has Josépha seduce Georges while she speaks with the wife, only for Georges to return and try and cast her out. He is unsuccessful.

"Everything is excusable," Georges says in one of his early reveries before amending himself. "Not everything, not bad taste." Wild Grass exists in its own world where the most gaudy and self-apparent camera movements create the story rather than hang off a narrative as adornment. The camera turns a pointless rom-com into an open-ended feature that blurs genre lines. Accompanied by the riotously ominous music by Mark Snow (of X-Files fame), Resnais' camera adds the suspense of a paranoid thriller, and no joke in the film is as funny as the constant deflation of this false unease. At the break between Georges pursuing Marguerite and her chasing him, Georges goes to a midnight showing the old war film The Bridges of Toko-Ri, and the split in the film is offset by the epic 20th Century Fox theme. Resnais uses it again for a false ending, already subverting the usage of the theme as something that announces the start of a film in order to end one, then throwing all that away and moving into the real ending, which is even more baffling.

Wild Grass may be nothing more than an 87-year-old's attempt to prove he's still got some charm. But he succeeds brilliantly, so who am I to knock the film? This is not shaping up to be a year in which cinema uncovers the truths of where we are as a society. Then again, in so political a year as this, it's nice to be spared, for the most part, the usual preaching. That 2010 is instead destined to be a year in which some of the more intriguing stylistic exercises in some time have been released domestically offers some measurable comfort in the face of overwhelming mediocrity offered up at the multiplex. With its screwball wit and its artistic sophistication, Wild Grass is as fundamentally dispensable yet incessantly fun as all the action blockbusters this year failed to be.

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