Film Club: ‘Wild Grass’
Latest From French Auteur Alain Resnais
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Host Maureen Cavanaugh discusses "Wild Grass" with critics Beth Accomando, Scott Marks, and Anders Wright on the KPBS Film Club of the Air.
Thursday's the last chance to see Alain Resnais' "Wild Grass" at the Ken Cinema. But if you miss it, seek it out on DVD. Here's our Film Club of the Air discussion.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (host): Now, the movie that Scott’s been waiting for.
SCOTT MARKS (film critic, EmulsionCompulsion): Oh, my.
CAVANAUGH: The 87-year-old French director of such New Wave classics as “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and the “Last Year at Marienbad” is out with a new film. Alain Resnais directs “Wild Grass,” a comedy about crazy love. A woman named Marguerite has her wallet stolen while she’s out shopping. A man named Georges finds the wallet. From that point, the two embark on a strange courtship involving desire, stalking, flirting, police warnings, and Marguerite changing her mind. This movie is in French so we don’t have a sound clip but I think we should tell our listeners first about the director. Scott, tell us about the career of Alain Resnais.
MARKS: He’s like one of the founders of the French New Wave. He started out making documentaries. And if you haven’t seen “Night and Fog,” hands down the single greatest document about the Holocaust. I’ve never seen anything that even comes close. This film should be shown in every school room in the world. He makes films that are – I’ve had more problems with Alain Resnais than I think I have with Godard. This guy really at times – there are times when I’ve walked out of Resnais films feeling a whole hell of a lot dumber than when I walked in. But that’s why I keep going back. I mean, real quick, I remember the first time I saw “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was about 15 minutes into the film and it’s like, oh, please, God, just get me out of here. I was with cinefile friends. I was young. I couldn’t walk out. What would they say? You know, Scott Marks can’t walk out on an art film. And I’m saying let something happen, don’t give the projectionist a heart attack but just let something happen. And at the reel change, the subtitles appear on top of the screen backwards and they refunded our money. It was the one time the gods of cinema have answered my call. But I’ve since gone back and watched the film and it still frustrates the hell out of me. And I like that because I seem to remember that that’s one of the reasons I started loving movies to begin with, the challenge. And now in an era where everything is just spoon fed and handed to you, it’s so nice to see someone this – in this control of the medium.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, what do you think about his films?
BETH ACCOMANDO (film critic, KPBS): Oh, I love them. And, I mean, I think the thing about these New Wave directors is, is in their eighties – in their seventies and eighties, they are making films that I think are more fresh and daring and unconventional than filmmakers half or a third of their age, and I think that’s pretty amazing. And I don’t know if that says something about, you know, the group of them and what generated, you know, their interest in film and the way they made film but, you know, I think it’s interesting that people like Resnais started out making these films that were, you know, fragmenting the narrative and, you know, giving you these stories that jumped around and, you know, challenging the way conventional stories were being told back then. And now when that seems to be more commonplace, they’re going back to telling stories in a much more linear fashion. I mean…
MARKS: But that’s what’s great about them…
MARKS: …as soon as they came up with these ideas…
ACCOMANDO: No, I…
MARKS: As soon as Godard invented the jump cut…
ACCOMANDO: They just go – Yeah.
MARKS: That’s it, I did it, goodbye.
ACCOMANDO: Then when – Well, he did it for a reason – I mean, I think he did it because it was an act of rebellion. It’s saying like, look, you’re shooting these films this way, you’re making these films this way, I’m not going to make them that way. And then when people started copying him and doing it, it’s like, fine, you’re doing it this way, I’m going to go do it another way.
CAVANAUGH: I’ll do something else.
ACCOMANDO: And, I mean, I think the other thing that’s interesting about Resnais’ films recently is, you know, his earlier films like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” and others, you know, you can’t – He was focusing on these kind of ill-fated lovers and giving us this – the narrative in a very non-linear sort of way and fragmenting it up so that we were kind of having to piece things together as we were going along. And with this one and the, I think, the one right before this was – or, no, a couple films back was “Same Old Song,” you know, he seems to be taking a slightly more optimistic look towards the lovers and dealing more with kind of playing with a more linear, conventional approach but like, I mean, in “Same Old Song,” he’s kind of playing with pop songs as the way into this kind of romantic obsession. And in this film, I think he’s playing a bit with cinematic conventions as his way…
CAVANAUGH: Right, right. That’s what I meant about calling it a cliché in the begin – cinematic conventions, I should’ve said, Scott, to make you feel better.
MARKS: I snapped at Maureen when I came in and I’m sorry but, boy, I’m using the word clich – a lot of Resnais, if the word cliché doesn’t apply to anyone it’s Alain Resnais.
ACCOMANDO: Because he flips them…
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CAVANAUGH: …Anders, let me ask you, I’ve heard that you can watch this film just for the style of it even if you don’t go along with the story of it too well.
ANDERS WRIGHT (film critic, City Beat): Oh, I think that’s absolutely true. And style might not be the right word. Sort of it’s more like the quality of filmmaking. I mean, it looks beautiful. The use of color is really extraordinary. And, honestly, there’s some of – I had some problems with some of the things that happened in the film itself. And, to be honest, the, you know, we’re talking about music, but the sort of like weird kind of soft jazz soundtrack that he used in parts of it just grated on me wrong. That that’s – I hate that stuff and it – and I – and it turned me – I mean, for a little while I was like, okay, I get it, this is going on, it’s a family scene, that’s great. Okay, you can stop. You can stop with that music. Now, that’s a personal…
WRIGHT: Aesthetic choice right there. That music just – Yeah, there’s a long story behind that, too, that we don’t need to get into now. But in general, I mean, it’s – you know, he is a masterful filmmaker and you see that in there, even though I have some problems with the way some of the characters interact. I mean, the character of Georges is, you know, he’s a screwed up guy and it was hard for me to really accept the fact that all of these women would become so attracted to him or intertwined with him. But at the same time, you want to just sit and watch and look at this movie because it’s so gorgeous.
MARKS: See, and if Christopher Nolan uses too much exposition, Resnais uses none.
MARKS: Did he kill his first wife?
ACCOMANDO: We don’t – Oh, we don’t know.
MARKS: Was he married? We don’t know. Is his wife having an affair? There’s a scene where you see the wife at the piano store, we assume she sells pianos, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. She’s talking on the phone to her husband, somebody walks in, and if it’s a customer you would figure the wife would say, excuse me, I’ll be right with you. She puts her hand over the phone and nods to him. And that’s all we know. So we don’t know anything more than what we can surmise about these characters’ back stories and this is also—of course I love it because it’s a love letter to cinema—when you see the red – the yellow purse flying through the air in the beginning, this is “Marnie,” this is Hitchcock’s “Marnie.”
MARKS: The way you have at the end a thin credit come up and you hear the 20th Century Fox logo during a closing credit to a Paramount film. I don’t know what the hell’s going on here, and I don’t know a lot of what’s going on in this film and I can’t pretend to say that I do but I don’t care. I had so much fun watching this movie. When you look at the way he uses primary colors to define characters, where the girlfriend is red, he’s green, and the wife is blue. And these colors are constantly there. When he’s taking her the red pocketbook that he found at the station at the beginning and he’s walking upstairs, you see the green light from the library lamp in his room on the red pocketbook, and it’s almost like he’s being drawn to this green light. And this happens throughout the entire film.
ACCOMANDO: A stoplight, too, changing and…
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MARKS: I mean, when have you seen a film – and, again, this is just me. I know most people aren’t going to get off on this. There’s a scene when the family’s having dinner at dusk and the father gets up to flip the light switch on. The lighting, the timing of this shot, is just astounding. I’ve seen the film three times and I have a DVD copy of it. I look at that shot over and over again. It’s like the shower in “Psycho.” How the hell did you put the camera there without getting the camera wet? It’s amazing. How did you do this? I want to know more about this than how they made Joseph Gordon-Levitt weightless in “Inception.”
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Beth, when – Okay, I’ve been trying to…
MARKS: Oh, you’ve seen the movie.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been trying to figure out the story and it seems that the director Resnais tried to make it more understandable by saying that this is a movie – this is a movie about the desire of desire. Do you see that in the film?
ACCOMANDO: I don’t know if I’d say desire of desire so much as just kind of the unpredictability of desire, maybe. And just – You talk about a film being multi-layered or complex, I mean, the thing about these characters is that their emotions and their desires and their love – the character of Marguerite, I mean, her desire and her love like changes on a dime practically from like resisting this guy and saying, no, no, no, no, no, to suddenly, well, wait a minute, there’s something about him that is kind of intriguing. And I think there’s…
WRIGHT: It was more like, now I’m obsessed.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, exactly, but I think that’s part of – I mean, I think that’s where the complexity of the film lies is in the fact that human nature and human desire is, can be, totally unpredictable and the strangest things can spark an interest or kill an interest or whatever. And, you know, in some ways this film has as many layers to it as “Inception” does in terms of like creating this labyrinth. But in this case it’s not this dream structure, it’s this labyrinth of desires and…
WRIGHT: It’s like an emotional maze.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, a Chinese box.
MARKS: Plus, it has subtitles so you can count the “Inception” crowd out.
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CAVANAUGH: And I can’t leave this discussion without allowing you, Scott, to talk about the last scene.
MARKS: I just…
ACCOMANDO: The last word.
MARKS: It’s the last shot.
CAVANAUGH: The last shot.
MARKS: There’s a last shot in the film where all of a sudden you cut to a family that you haven’t seen at any point in the film and the little girl says, if I die and I come back as a cat, can I eat cat treats? And when everybody sees this, it’s like what the hell is this all about? There’s this one – something happens at the end, we don’t know what it is. We don’t really know what happens. And I read an interview in Cineaste with Alain Resnais and he said that basically what he wanted to do was show that the lives of the people will continue. All right, this is the one thing that sticks in my craw because if I’m going to complain, as I have in the past, that you shouldn’t have to read a book in order to appreciate a movie, that’s exactly what you have to do here. So I don’t know if this last little tack-on was there as his way of just having a little fun and frolic but I don’t think it’s justified in – considering everything else that comes before it. That said, this is still like one of the only movies I’ve seen this year. This is why I got started going to movies in the beginning and this is what I look for every time I walk into a theater, so this is – This, to me, is almost cinematic perfection. Because it has so many flaws it makes it even more perfect to me.
CAVANAUGH: “Wild Grass” is currently playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinema but it closes tomorrow night (July 15).