“After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Anything can happen.” These words convey the thoughts of Georges Palet (André Dussollier) as he comes out of a movie theater and is about to have a fateful meeting with another character in Alain Resnais’ lovely new film “Wild Grass,” the opening night selection of the 2009 New York Film Festival.
The above quote is an apt description not only of this film, but the entire oeuvre of French New Wave stalwart Resnais, who proves with “Wild Grass” that this 87-year-old master’s prodigious artistry remains undimmed. This year’s Cannes Film Festival, where “Wild Grass” premiered, clearly agreed, bestowing him with a richly deserved lifetime achievement award.
Several of Resnais’ films, including his most recent – “Not On the Lips” and “Private Fears in Public Places” – had their origins in stage plays. This time, Resnais’ source is “L’Incident,” a 1996 novel by Christian Gailly. While remaining true to the spirit of the novel and retaining much of its dialog, “Wild Grass” is cinema through and through, rendered in Resnais’ inimitable style, making each frame a joy to behold.
The film’s premise could have been written by Guy de Maupassant: the theft of a woman’s handbag is all it takes for the intricate complications and comic reversals of the plot to be set in motion. This handbag belongs to dentist and amateur aviatrix Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma), who has come to a shopping mall to buy a new pair of shoes. The complex path of decision-making that goes into this act is examined in great detail by the film’s narrator (Edouard Baer). Marguerite’s handbag is snatched as she is leaving the shoe store. Meanwhile, Georges is in the same mall to replace his watch’s battery. Although externally, Georges seems to be a nondescript, ordinary person, his inner anxieties and turmoil are revealed by the narrator and Georges’ thoughts in voiceover.
In the parking lot below the mall, Georges finds Marguerite’s wallet, where it has been dumped by the handbag thief. When he sees her ID and pilot’s license, he is immediately intrigued, since he once dreamed of being an aviator. He begins to concoct fantasy scenarios of how he will call her and arrange to return the wallet. These scenarios are presented in animation-like thought bubbles, reinforcing the film’s theme of the infinite possibilities that flow from every moment and action. Georges begins to obsess over calling Marguerite, looking up her address and phone number and practicing what he will say to her. He tells his wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny) about it, and while sympathetic, Suzanne cannot understand why such a simple thing should distress him so. Unable to bring himself to talk to her, he brings the wallet to the police station, where he has a decidedly odd encounter with a desk cop, Bernard de Bordeaux (Mathieu Amalric). He leaves the wallet with the cop, but of course that’s not the end of it.
What does upend things is the introduction of Marguerite into Georges’ existence, and vice versa. He finally calls Marguerite to identify himself as the finder of her wallet, and is upset with her for not being sufficiently thankful. Immediately remorseful for his behavior, he seeks out her apartment with a note that he slips in her mailbox. Thereafter begins more letters and phone calls to Marguerite, which morphs into stalking, causing Marguerite to send Bernard the cop (who she met when picking up her wallet from the police station) to Georges’ house to warn him off. But again, this isn’t the end of the story as a startling reversal occurs in the tale of Georges and Marguerite, in which the pursuer and the pursued switch places.
What I’ve described so far is only the beginning of the miscommunications, comic reversals and general madness that Resnais renders with a light touch, yet with as deeply philosophical and metaphysical an air as many of his weightier films. Aided by superb cinematography by frequent collaborator Eric Gautier, “Wild Grass” is just as inventive visually as it is narratively. Panoramic crane shots, lush color and kaleidoscopic fracturing of images dazzle with their audacity; Resnais puts most filmmakers a fraction of his age to utter shame. Mark Snow’s score is another essential ingredient in this rich stew; it alternates seamlessly from jazzy compositions to tense thriller-like themes that both support and provide wry counterpoint to the scenario.
As technically impressive as this all is, it is the wonderful ensemble cast Resnais has assembled that elevate this film. It is almost giddy in its twists and turns, and is continually unpredictable, just like its two main characters. Like any great stage director, Resnais has built up over the years a reliable and excellent stock company of actors, including Dussollier and Azéma, who flawlessly register the quicksilver changes of their characters in such a way that they are always appealing and deeply sympathetic, even at their most irrational. The ever-fascinating to watch Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos as Marguerite’s best friend Josepha are also standouts. Grandly romantic, movie-mad and genuinely surreal, “Wild Grass” is a perfect aperitif with which to begin the New York Film Festival. And all of it is capped off with one of the most whacked-out endings I’ve ever seen, a true head-scratcher that I’m still trying to make sense of.
“Wild Grass” screens as the New York Film Festival’s opening night film on September 25 at 6 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit the NYFF Web site.