Film

'Wild Grass' Gets Lost in the Weeds

It's like watching David Lynch's understudy try to forge a reasonable whodunit out of some pretty Parisian locations. Even worse, Resnais is providing no answers and claiming no responsibility for his incompleteness.


Wild Grass

Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos
Rated: PG
Studio: Sony Classics
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-06-25 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

The career of 88 year old Alain Resnais is one of arthouse celebration and commercial anonymity, especially in America. While critics have clamored for classics like Night and Fog (1955) Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) as prime examples of the French New Wave, he's had little limelight impact through the '80s and '90s. Now, it was is arguable the twilight of his creative years, and resting, relatively speaking, on his laurels, he offers Wild Grass, based on a novel by Christian Gailly. It centers around a mysterious older man, his doting younger wife, and a matronly dentist destined to become the third vertices in this unusual lover's triangle. Set up like a mystery, played out like a stylized romantic comedy, and peppered with other genre-specific dynamics along the way, Resnais is clearly having fun with his late in life choices. Sadly, the audience will feel very little of his obvious artistic joy.

When dour DDS Marguerite Muir has her purse stolen, it's just another bit of bad luck in a life filled with failed ambitions and broken dreams. When "retired" businessman Georges Palet stumbles across her billfold, he is immediately smitten by what he finds - an intriguing passport photo, a current pilot's license. He soon becomes obsessed with Marguerite, calling her with unusual demands and stalker-like seriousness. When she reports the problem to her local policeman Bernard de Bordeaux, he promises to get to the bottom of the trouble. Suddenly, Georges goes from serious threat to the subject of Marguerite's own incurable prying. Her passion for a man she barely knows drives a wedge in his marriage, as well as her relationship with an office co-worker. Eventually, Georges and Marguerite realize they need to be together, their family and friendship obligations be damned.

When viewed through the prism of a life spent in service of cinema, Wild Grass looks like a real renaissance - of sorts. It's all movie mannerisms and tweaked celluloid conventions. With a voice over narrator explaining the buoyant backstory and subtextual emotions of the characters and a plot that meanders around from insinuation to confused clarity, it's clear that Resnais has lost none of his mid 20th century verve. The problem is, none of what he has to offer resonates in 2010. When Quentin Tarantino can riff on such hyperbolic strokes in a single shot, when a wealth of wannabe auteurs beg, borrow, and steal from every historic source to realize their mash-up visions, Wild Grass's "wildness" is tame in comparison. It's like watching David Lynch's understudy try to forge a reasonable whodunit out of some pretty Parisian locations. Even worse, Resnais is providing no answers and claiming no responsibility for his incompleteness.

The problems begin right off the bat. Marguerite is an enigma, a high strung professional that few would want drilling into their incisors. She's weird, her mop of red hair supposedly a sign of eccentricity when insanity would be a much more viable rationale. When she learns of Georges, her emotional mood swings are so violent you can feel the cinematic whiplash from the back row of the movie house. While this is her ninth appearance in a Resnais film, actress Sabine Azéma is awkwardly uncorked here. We can never follow Marguerite's train of thought as she bounces from one implausible position to another. As the policeman forced to put up with much of her mania, Mathieu Amalric looks equally lost. He's supposed to be sympathetic and supportive. Instead, he comes across as a reluctant accomplice in a project he no longer has confidence in.

As Georges, André Dussollier is an even bigger problem. All throughout the first half of the film, Resnais suggests a scandalous, criminal history. We hear the character thinking about his previous punishment, about a possible stint in jail, the inappropriateness of his actions, the warnings to...and then nothing. No clarification or attempt to fill in the blank. As he grows violent, then sexual, then seductive, than silly, we marvel at how unlikeable he is. There is a specific moment when confronted by the police where you think Resnais is going to give it all away, when he will reluctantly let Georges spit out the truth and take the film in a rational, realistic direction. Instead, all we get is more whimsy, more worldview veiled through a filter of hot primary colors and carefully composed frames of celluloid.

If geeks can be accused of loving otherwise lame movies, Wild Grass is pure critic kryptonite. You can actually hear the heavy thinkers in the journalistic brotherhood going out of their way to heap praise on Resnais' latest release. But this is not a masterpiece. It's a folly, never fully realized and reeking of the arrogance that came after the French reinvented the artform 60 years ago. Wild Grass is so confrontational, so obvious in its preplanned impracticality that you just know that someone, somewhere, is basing their entire motion picture aesthetic around it. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with praising this film as being something noteworthy and far outside the mainstream. But it's also correct to call out an aging emperor when he struts around the screen without a significant stitch on.

As it toddles along, as Georges goes from real threat to misunderstood Romeo and Marguerite steadily slips into all out quirk, the 88-year-old icon behind the lens manipulates and maneuvers our expectations. Unfortunately, we don't really care how it all turns out. Nothing about the two leads -- or their effect on others -- makes us hope for their union or desperate for their destruction. As Georges family unravels and then reestablishes, as Marguerite rediscovers her love of flying, Wild Grass goes from idiosyncratic to irritating. Of course, the collective groan from the mainstream moviegoer will be drowned out by those who want to celebrate Alain Resnais. Too bad they can't simply recommend a revisit to his previous triumphs. Recommending Wild Grass would be like suggesting that William Friedkin did his best work with 1990's The Guardian. It might represent a legend proving his position, but that doesn't make it engaging or entertaining.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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