Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What the fuck is Alain Resnais thinking?

I can't remember the last time I experienced such a gap between what the reviews told me and what a movie delivered as Alain Renais' Wild Grass. According to reviews good and bad, it's "cute", "freewheeling", "zany", and a lot of other adjectives that might lead you---certainly led me---to think it's a brightly-hued, albeit surreal, romantic comedy, ruefully self-aware and polished with Gallic wit.

Wild Grass is nothing of the sort. Like Resnais' classic Last Year At Marienbad, it's a horror movie about the fundament of misogyny: a man imposing his ontology on a woman with no regard for her subjectivity---but this time made much creepier by the director's ambivalent complicity in that imposition. It's also genre-damaged, confused, and profoundly slippery; I still can't decide if it's a cunning attack on the romantic comedy and the romantic thriller, or merely an old Frenchman's grumbling act of gender senescence, like listening to your Grandpa complain about not being able to pat the waitress' butt.

Misogyny drives the plot at every step, beginning with Margaritte Muir getting her purse (ahem) snatched by a young man outside a shoe store. Elderly ex-con Georges Palet finds her wallet, but before he can return it, he becomes fixated on Muir's ID photo. She calls to thank him for the purse's return, but like many a self-important male, Palet convinces himself that a simple act of decency merits a free pass to her vagina. He begins--- really there's no other word for this---stalking Muir, starting with angry phone calls and escalating to tire slashing. Muir calls the police, who warn him off in a marvelously-observed scene charting just how to give a suspect enough rope.

Now here's where things get really icky. When Muir attempts to confront Palet at a movie theater, she finds herself feeling affectionate, maybe even a little in love with her stalker. She ignores her friend Josepha's warnings and starts more or less pursuing him, though always insisting that his long-suffering wife come along. Her attraction to Palet (every woman's attraction to Palet!) is never explained, or even formally accounted for; even a tipsy Josepha seems unable to resist his liver-spotted charms, going from angry and afraid to putty in his hands the instant he moves in for a kiss.

The idea of an bitter, charmless old man who's irresistibly attractive to woman thirty years younger than him is a pretty standard trope of commercial cinema (and the repulsive late novels of Phillip Roth, prominently displayed at one point in the film), and it's disappointing that Resnais can't bust out something at least more unusual. Worse yet, the script blatantly violates the Bechdel rule, portraying a world where women, when alone, talk about nothing but cute boys. It's hard to believe the man who made Last Year At Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, either of which could serve as surrealist versions of The Handmaid's Tale, is making any kind of prescriptive pronouncement about womanhood. And there's certainly enough metacinematic gags to make me resist simply psychologizing the characters, or treating this behavior as reflecting Resnais' assumptions about the world. But there's not a firm enough satiric perspective to make the idea that this film is simply an apologia for sullen male privilege completely dismissible.

The semiotics of the movie make it even harder to pin down what Resnais' attitude towards his characters' lunacy is. As Palet's stalking escalates, Resnais deploys the long, wide shots and skittering strings of a standard-issue woman-in-peril thriller. But then, many of the scenes with Palet and Muir are scored with chipper jazz, and surrounded by bright colors, as though Resnais was making a parody of romantic comedies, where behavior that would get people put in a loony bin is just accepted as charming. In interviews, Resnais has said it's a movie about l'amour fou, but there's not much amour on display here, just a series of purely selfish demands, made with contempt and executed joylessly. It's like The Stepford Wives from the husbands' point of view.

The result isn't so much fascinatingly ambivalent as deeply unsatisfying, in no small part because the movie pivots on deliberately irrational behavior but bounces between genres where behavior is everything.. In a comedy, especially a parody, we accept characters doing ridiculous things because that's what happens in comedy. But if you're making a thriller, implausible action kills audience tension; it's not very scary to watch a moron walk off a cliff. Resnais refuses to commit either way, but it seems less like he's trying to do both than like he's trying to do neither---the shots aren't iconic enough to be comedy, nor withholding enough to thrill. There's occasionally low-comedy situations, like an extended open-zipper gag, but they're never very funny, and the sheer ferocity of Patel's contempt for women (and the movie's complacent furthering of that contempt) makes the laughs stick in the throat.

Many of the critics consider it "prosaic" to treat the movie's specifically gendered freakiness as being at all relevant to actual gender politics. But no one seems to have an idea what, if not misogyny, the movie is actually about. Is this an elaborate fantasy of Patel's that Resnais is cooly transcribing, like a highbrow Brent Easton Ellis? The film opens with a shot of wild grass piercing the pavement, but Georges is a relentless mower of his carefully-planted lawn; is this a satire of bourgeois repression? If so, it would need to explode its narrative more than it does, the way Resnais' early films emphatically did. Like Palet, the movie seems to have something violence and uncontrollable lurking beneath its manicured facade, but it never quite allows it to escape, and the result is a painful wreck.


betsyg said...

Something tells me your review is far more entertaining than the movie, but I'm going to see what I think. Your "free pass" line will be stolen by me for laughs during social gatherings!

Judd Blaise said...

Long ramble ahead ... be warned.

I'm very glad to hear that I wasn't the only one who found Wild Grass to be much a more off-putting and disturbing experience than advertised. I especially just couldn't quite get why so much of the audience seemed to find the stalking laughable or even charming, especially since one of the first glimpses we get of Georges' personality is an internal monologue fantasizing about murdering a young woman for the crime of turning him on by wearing black panties under white see-through pants.

That just set a sour initial note that I could never quite shake off. I could theoretically buy an argument that the film's meant to be an uncomfortable experience, and for a while I wondered if it was all meant to be some sort of self-referential piss-take on Marienbad. After all, the pointlessly long-winded narrator could read a parody of that film's voiceovers, and Georges' unclear past could be a way of replaying that film's ambiguous trauma as farce. But there wasn't enough there for me to buy it (and it didn't help that most of the jokes felt so stale and obvious).

I also get how defenders say the film's not about reality at all, but about madness, fantasy, and cinema – there's enough meta talk about cinema that you can read it as a portrayal of a cracked reality seen through the prism of an individual's movie madness. I suppose you could justify the women's unrealistic, wish-fulfillment behavior as a reflection of that, and see Marguerite as a pure projection, since she so closely resembles a fantasy figure from Georges' childhood. But even granting that, I'm not sure what the point was. Perhaps if the filmmaking along the way had actually felt as madcap and formally innovative as some reviews some to think, I might feel differently.

And then there's that final shot (SPOILER, of course.) I read that shot as an indication that the whole thing was indeed a fantasy; not Georges' fantasy, but the fantasy of the woman we see writing at the desk, who's interrupted by her daughter's question about "cat munchies." So the narrator's voice is her literary creation, and the story we've just witnessed is really a glimpse into her inner fantasy world. Honestly, that reading strikes me as even more unpleasant in terms of odd gender dynamics than taking it at face value, but so be it. (Of course, the only other review I've seen mention the final shot didn't read it that way, so I might be completely wrong – but I'm no hurry to revisit the film to find out.)

Ah well. I guess it's my month to be a philistine way out of step with critical consensus, since as much as I didn't like Wild Grass, I still liked it way more than Dogtooth ...

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Here's my theory about the last line: It's the expression of a childlike desire---one that's identified as childlike because it's ridiculous and impossible. So it's there to highlight the childish nature of Palet's desire---his lust for Muir makes as much sense as wanting to turn into a cat.

Again, though, that pushes the whole movie into comedy, and it's just not very funny. In some ways, I wonder if Resnais isn't actually making the same mistake we are, of taking Palet's misogyny too seriously---if it was shot (and even more importantly, scored) in a much more clearly comic fashion, it might make more sense (and be more entertaining).

Danny Bowes said...

Too bad this movie sounds like such a misfire . . . but your essay blasting it gave me an idea for a GOOD movie, so there's that at least!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! For Christ's sake, I don't what the f*** the other reviewers were on about. I actually started to wonder if I'd seen a different cut of the movie. I found you via a google of wild grass misogyny, to make sure I wasn't the only person in the world who thought that was the driving force here.

Anonymous said...

The one thing about the last line - it's every bit as creepy as the rest of the movie when you recognize that the French is something more like "when I'm a pussy, will I be able to eat coquetry?" Although the way it reads after seeing that movie, cockery might be a more accurate translation than coquetry.

Pukish. The most pukish movie I've seen in a long time.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Hunh---thanks for the translation! As I said, there's enough self-consciousness that I don't think it's just uncomplicated misogyny. But it's hard to say what the hell else it is. Some reviewers---Glenn Kenny, in particular, over at Some Came Running---think that the woman-hating is just the surface and one needs to go deeper to see what's really happening, but I'm not at all clear that there is anything deeper.