Saturday, September 26, 2009

NYFF ’09: Wild Grass

Georges Palet is a name of infamy. Or so he claims, but Palet is not a trustworthy character. Parsing fact from Palet’s fabulations is a tricky business, as is establishing any sense of truth at all in Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, the opening night film of the 2009 New York Film Festival.

Palet might be a scandalous figure with a checkered, perhaps even criminal past. Yet evidently 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.

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 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, repeatedly. Suddenly, Palet starts exhibiting stalker-like behavior, repeating what he calls past mistakes. And then Resnais gives the film a series of dramatic twists.

Grass will certainly be among the most talked about films of the festival. It could well rank alongside Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad in terms of significance within his filmography, and will be impossible for anyone seriously studying his work to ignore. 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.

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 where he hinted it would. With a jarringly eccentric conclusion sure to baffle many, Resnais flat out tells the audience we 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, Andre 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. Grass notably also reunites three members of the cast of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, including Mathieu Almaric, who shows a real comedic flair as police officer Bernard de Bordeaux.

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. The NYFF continues through October 11th, with Main Slate selections screening at Alice Tully Hall.