The 88 year-old French filmmaker Alain Resnais has returned to cinemas with his latest film Wild Grass. It's a fascinating, and baffling movie. In some scenes it moves like a thriller, suggesting simmering violence that will erupt later, spiced with a few dashes of obsession. In other scenes, it plays like a goofy comedy (as when a man's zipper gets stuck just before a crucial moment). And in still other scenes, it deliberately goes off the track and becomes all of these things, and none of them.
In Wild Grass, a red-headed woman (Sabine Azéma), who is a dentist and a pilot, loses her purse, and a fifty-something man (André Dussollier) -- who may have some kind of violent past -- finds it. Their first few connections go terribly wrong, and when a connection is finally made, it feels... weird. The last scene is a total baffler, dropping in on two brand-new characters with a truly peculiar final line of dialogue. Cahiers du Cinema selected it as the best film of 2009 in France.
Resnais came about during the French New Wave, but has only been marginally associated with it. His films are more self-contained, sealed off, and separated from everything else that may be going on. His first film of note was the short Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955), followed by Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), a mismatched romance set in the aftermath of war. Perhaps his masterpiece is Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a real puzzler set at a hotel getaway for the well-to-do. It deliberately avoids any single point of view, and indeed could actually be taking place anywhere during the past, present or future.
In the 1980s, he directed another masterpiece, Mélo, based on an old play. It introduced him to actors André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma with whom he still works today, and it also established his kind of crystalline frame, decorated with little jots of bright, soft colors. It's a very balanced, delicate movie, venturing into melodrama, but handling it without hysteria. Unfortunately, a few years later, Resnais made an absolute disaster -- in English -- called I Want to Go Home (1989). It was about a celebrated comic book artist who travels to Paris for a tribute and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. It's highly-pitched and obnoxious, a terrible attempt at comedy.
Sadly, I couldn't help thinking of this misfire while watching Wild Grass, but I also couldn't help thinking of Last Year at Marienbad, as well as Private Fears in Public Places, which made my list of the ten best films of 2007. I'm not sure Resnais is deliberately trying to make us laugh with this new one, or at least not in an immediate way. I think perhaps he intends for us to laugh later, as we're running over the whole thing in our heads. It's a puzzle, but more light-hearted than Marienbad, and it's a comedy, but not as obnoxious as I Want to Go Home, and it's about people trying to find a connection like Private Fears, but not as linear. I think it's something quite new, which will put off a lot of filmgoers. But I think it can be easily summed up by a line from the movie: "After the cinema, nothing surprises you."