Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Gamesmanship of Alain Resnais: Wild Grass

Georges Palet is a name of infamy. Or so he claims, but Palet is not a trustworthy narrator. Parsing fact from Palet’s fictions is a tricky business, as is establishing any sense of truth whatsoever in Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Palet might be a scandalous figure with a checkered, perhaps even criminal past. Yet nobody besides Palet seems to see him in that light, except maybe his twenty-something son. Of course, that might just be the surliness of youth. Still, for Palet it appears to be reality, which is why the chance discovery of a stolen wallet causes him great anxiety, lest suspicion fall on him.

While debating his next step, Palet studies the contents of the wallet, developing a strange fixation on the owner, Dr. Marguerite Muir, a dentist with her pilot’s license. With some trepidation, Palet turns the wallet over to the police, who do not appear particularly impressed that he is the Georges Palet (but to be fair, they are somewhat distracted at the time). Eventually, Muir calls Palet to thank him, but when she fails to live up to his expectations, Palet tells her so, plainly and repeatedly. Suddenly, Palet starts exhibiting stalker-like behavior, repeating what he calls his past mistakes. And then Resnais gives the film a series of dramatic twists.

In 2009, Grass was among the most talked about pictures at both Cannes and the New York Film Festival. It could well rank alongside Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad in terms of significance within his filmography and it will be impossible to ignore for anyone seriously studying his work. What begins as a meditation on the randomness of life becomes an object lesson in the slipperiness of truth. However, Resnais’s approach to the story (based on a novel by Christian Gailly) is largely linear and completely accessible, if thoroughly maddening.

Regardless of viewers’ response to Resnais’s sly gamesmanship, Grass is an absolutely masterful piece of filmmaking. Like a magician, Resnais essentially tells the audience what he will do, then through misdirection and sleight of hand, leaves us stunned when the film ends exactly where he hinted it would. With a jarringly eccentric conclusion sure to baffle most and annoy many, Resnais flat out tells the audience they just got served.

Unlike most postmodern films attempting to undermine narrative structures and problematize notions of reality, Grass is a richly crafted film. Resnais stylishly superimposes dramatically rendered fantasies and seamlessly integrates Palet’s wildly unreliable interior monologues. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is sumptuously moody, with the crime jazz-influenced soundtrack composed by Mark Snow (best known for his work on the X-Files) further heightening the noir atmosphere.

Like Resnais, AndrĂ© Dussollier also keeps the audience utterly off balance with his performance as the quite possibly unbalanced Palet. While maintaining complete consistency of character, Dussollier makes it impossible to judge if he is sympathetic, deluded, dangerous, or a bizarre combination of the three. Amongst the accomplished supporting cast, Mathieu Almaric shows a welcomed comedic flair as police officer Bernard de Bordeaux. Unfortunately, Resnais’s characters are a largely unsympathetic lot, which makes the strange time spent with them something less than a complete enchantment.

Those who get headaches when they hear terms like “playful postmodern subversion” will probably get exasperated with Grass. Those who enjoy coy cinematic puzzles will be thoroughly charmed. It is a very stylish film that enjoys its deceptions for their own sake. Worth seeing just to debate afterwards, it opens this Friday (6/25) at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas.