Saturday 26 June 2010

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, France | Italy, 2009)

George Palet goes to the cinema to see a Hollywood Korean war movie The Bridges At Toko-Ri, directed by Mark Robson and staring William Holden. The film is about the heroic efforts of a pilot, ending with a suicide mission… relinquishing his woman, played by Grace Kelly. And then there is the famous last line ‘Where do we get such men?' We don’t go with George in to the cinema, rather, we remain outside, the camera focused upon the neon sign… over this visual image the omniscient (though far from reliable and increasingly absent) narrator breathlessly and at breakneck speed gives us the plot in a few short sentences.

The disjunction between the Hollywood take on the world, where heroes operate in clearly defined environments, and Resnais’ Wild Grass is thus manifest. It is on-screen for all to see. In this way the film is a film about film. Of course, this critique is nowt new for such self-reflexive cinema, and so here it is explored overtly in an ironic mode, a mode that both the French New Wave and post-New Waves do so well. Again, near the end of the film, the two ‘lovers’ embrace on a walkway at the aerodrome… Twentieth (Twenty-first?) Century Fox film music swells up and ‘Fin’ appears emblazoned across the characters… But this is just a tease… there is more to come…

Yet for all its overt ironic play, this film encompasses a darkness, and further, it explodes the procedures of Hollywood film in a far more subtle – and powerful – way… as we will see…

Wild Grass opens with Marguerite Muir having her bag stolen. George finds her purse, hands it in to the police, but becomes fixated with the woman he has helped. He starts stalking her, she spurns him, he slashes the tyres of her car. Marguerite reports him to the police, who visit George, telling him to lay off. He does. But for Marguerite the absence of George in her life proves too much for her… violent impulses arise, she begins to question the way she is living… and she sets out to win back his attentions. So, beneath the ironic froth lies a dark heart to the film.

The title, if not the key, is an important theme. Wild grass growing through pavement cracks and between brickwork. You can’t hold back feelings. Despite the attempt to concrete over desire, desires can break through, or rather, seed between the cracks. George is in the rut of a long marriage, Marguerite is immersed in work. Their dark collision will awaken them. In other words, this is a film about waking up. And about dangers of such awakenings. In his cinema books Deleuze says the organising principle of Ozu’s films is that ‘life is simple, and man never stops complicating it by “disturbing the water”’ (C2:15). In this way, both characters are on their own suicide mission from which they may not return… we find these men – and women – everywhere, seems to be Resnais’ riposte to The Bridges At Toko-Ri.

The twisting of the Hollywood romance does not stop here though. It is structural. For instance, the film proceeds by what initially seems to be parallel montage. The actions of Marguerite and George alternate on-screen and then dovetail. However, this seemingly conventional arrangement is far more complex than it first appears. In the action cinema the final explosive events must occur towards the end of the film. In Wild Grass, however, despite the alternating story lines, the organisation is qualitatively different. Crucially, the actions of the characters first dovetail at the middle film (the visit by the cops). At this point, there is the reversal. The stalker becomes the stalked. The first half is about George’s awakening, the second, Marguerite’s.

Gilles Deleuze, in his second book of cinema, discusses films constructed from what he calls hyalosigns. Here the actual on-screen optical and sound situations are composed not so much to link up with each other across the immediate flow of the film, but rather to reverberate across different parts of the film and link up virtually. So, Wild Grass is, in the first instance, a film of pure optical and pure sound situations. The autonomous camera, obtrusive music, the over determined narration. Resnais asks his actress to play stylistically: her shocked looks oppose George’s naturalism. There is the wonderful false continuity of the meal where George’s family come to diner. The camera flows around the open plan living and dining area. Without a cut three separate scenes are played out, the family relaxing, George cooking and the family eating. There is an echo of, and response to this in Marguerite’s story. We see her coming home three times, entering through the door, putting her keys down, sitting on her bed. Each repetition is enacted through difference.

It is in the echoing between these two sequences and in the reversal of the storylines that we go beyond pure optical and sound situations to hyalosigns. For Deleuze, hyalosigns can be composed in a number of ways, one of these is what he calls ‘two mirrors face to face’ (C2:71). Here the actual on-screen image mirrors a virtual counterpart, which may have already been on-screen, or has yet to be on-screen, in which case it will be the actual image of the virtual image that has passed. These mirrors are ‘distinct, but indiscernible… in continual exchange’ (C2:70). In this way the film is organised to mirror George and Marguerite, not to bring them together at the end of the film, as in the romance. George is the actual image whose virtual image is Marguerite, and Marguerite the actual image whose virtual image is George. As such, their desires can never meet… for each the other is never actual, they can only see the virtual image of the other. It is for this reason that the film travels beyond the second dovetail of the film, to open up the possible with impossibility. This final coda where the two ‘lovers’ are together is not only interrupted by the presence of George’s wife, but left enigmatic… a strange mix of comedy, doom and hope (George’s broken flies, the descent of the small plane, a graveyard and a young girl who asks ‘When I am a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?’). Cut. Black-screen. Fin.

(Of course she will, when she becomes a cat).

1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic. Brilliant ending too.