New York Film Festival 2009: Director Alain Resnais, 87 Years Young


“After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible.” So says the lovesick obsessive Georges Palet in a scene from Wild Grass, the 18th feature film directed by Alain Resnais, which arrives exactly 50 years after his debut, Hiroshima mon amour, which was praised by Eric Rohmer as “the first modern film of sound cinema.”

In that half-century, Resnais has done much to implode, reshape, and expand our sense of cinematic possibilities, from his collaborations with nouveau roman architects Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (Last Year at Marienbad) to his proto–Charlie Kaufman time-travel opus Je t’aime, je t’aime to his unrealized project with Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee—decades before comics became all the Hollywood rage. Perpetually avant-garde and avant la lettre, a forerunner of the French New Wave but never officially part of it, at 87, Resnais still seems driven by a restless, childlike curiosity. In hindsight, Resnais’s 1956 short film Toute la mémoire du monde, a portrait of the French national library and its encyclopedic holdings, seems less documentary than autobiography.

“They say that a director always makes the same film,” says Resnais when I meet him on a damp Paris morning earlier this month, his beige overcoat turned up at the collar, his gleaming sneakers nearly the same shade of white as his impeccably coiffed hair. “I try to make, as François Truffaut said, the next film in opposition to the one that came before. I’m not sure if I succeed. To put it another way, I agree with the auteur theory, but I don’t consider myself an auteur. I’m more of an artisan, a craftsman.” Such self-effacement is trademark with Resnais, who has always eschewed the “a film by” credit and has never taken a formal screenplay credit, either, though he is said to collaborate closely with his screenwriters (in the case of Wild Grass, Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet).

Breaking a career-long policy of never adapting a novel, Resnais based Wild Grass on a book by French author Christian Gailly, whose writing, he says, “had a theatrical tone and dialogue that I liked very much, that seemed very close to a project I had in my head. Gailly has written 13 novels. I asked him for permission to adapt one of his books, but said I wanted to read all 13 before choosing. And he said, ‘Choose the one you want, and we’ll meet again. Good luck.’ “

Resnais ultimately settled on The Incident, which follows the blossoming, albeit largely one-sided amour fou between Georges (played in Wild Grass by Resnais regular André Dussollier) and Marguerite Muir, a dentist who moonlights as an aviatrix (played by Sabine Azéma, another regular and also Resnais’s wife). The theft of Marguerite’s purse, seen flying through the air in the early moments of the film, is the inciting event of Gailly’s title. When Georges subsequently recovers her wallet in a parking garage, the seemingly happily married husband and father begins fantasizing about this strange dentist/pilot with a mountain of frizzy red curls—a lust that goes on to express itself in a series of strangely comic and even violent ways. Is Georges mad or merely madly in love? Is Marguerite terrified of him, turned on, or both? As in so much of Resnais’s work, multiple interpretations and the absence of a concrete reality are standard.

For the film’s title, Resnais chose Wild Grass because “I have the impression that these are two people who have no reason to meet, no reason to love each other. In French, ‘les herbes folles‘ means a plant that grows in a place where it has no hope of developing—in a crack in a wall, or a ceiling. I wanted to say that I consider these two characters to be completely deprived of reason.” Then he adds, in English: “But aren’t we all? When you read the history of France or America or England, it’s a litany of mistakes: The king should not have done this; the people should not have done that. Why should a character be any different?”

Arguably Resnais’s trippiest, most freely associative experiment since 1968’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (a critical and commercial failure in its day), Wild Grass zig-zags zanily from one genre to the next: Sometimes, it’s a screwball comedy (complete with a couple of Keystone-worthy cops played by Mathieu Amalric and Michel Vuillermoz); sometimes, it’s a thriller; sometimes, it’s an old-fashioned movie romance. All the while, the camera of cinematographer Eric Gautier swoops and glides like Marguerite’s plane, through fields of gauzy, diffuse light punctuated by neon accents. “We decided that the light should be emotional rather than realistic,” says Resnais, citing a source of inspiration in one of his beloved comic-strip illustrators, Terry and the Pirates creator Milton Caniff. “At a time when comic strips were very disparaged as an art form, I was very happy to learn that Orson Welles and Milton Caniff had a correspondence in which they said that each was influenced by the other. And Orson Welles was not an imbecile!”

Though he rarely gives interviews, in person, Resnais cuts a magnanimous figure, generous with his time and considerate in his responses. He is happy to engage on almost any subject, from the strict Catholic schools he attended as a child in Brittany (where “cinema wasn’t considered an art—it was a distraction”) to his early inclination that “there was something important in cinema, which was the manipulation of time through editing.” It is an idea that Resnais, who had been teaching himself filmmaking since receiving an 8mm camera at the age of 12, was able to explore further when he moved to Nazi-occupied Paris and enrolled in one of the first classes of the French national film school.

The persistence of time would surface in much of Resnais’s work of the subsequent five decades, in the astonishing now-and-then Auschwitz juxtapositions of his 1955 short Night and Fog (the first major film about the Holocaust and still one of the most affecting), in the non-linear loop-de-loops of Je t’aime, je t’aime, and in the compression of simultaneously occurring events of Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour. The conditional nature of memory, both personal and historical, has been another career-spanning preoccupation, though Resnais himself bristles a bit at the “memory” label. “I prefer to say ‘the imaginary,’ ” he says. “All our lives, we live with the memory of a sad experience, or a pleasant one, and, thanks to those memories, we try to avoid other sad experiences and try to repeat pleasant ones. But we don’t remember things exactly as they happened, thanks to the chemical processes of the brain. A memory that’s too short doesn’t suffice; with the imaginary, one can retain everything.”

If one were to summarize Resnais’s incredibly diverse filmography in a single statement, it might be an inversion of the architectural maxim that form should follow function. For Resnais, form is paramount: “I always have the idea that, if there’s a precise form, you will get the emotion of the spectator—the emotion and the interest,” he says, and it’s this concern that underlies his most seemingly disparate work, from the visceral “pure cinema” of his early films to the deliberate artifice of his more recent play adaptations. It has also led some to accuse him of being overly cerebral and distant, including Pauline Kael’s charge (in a review of 1977’s Providence) that “most of the giants of film haven’t been able to find the form for everything they’ve got in their heads; Resnais seems to have nothing but form in his.”

But while Resnais’s films can seem cool to the touch, those implacable surfaces more often than not belie churning currents of complex human emotion, from the shell-shocked survivors of Hiroshima mon amour to the hopeless romantics of Wild Grass. “It’s really a matter of life imitating art instead of the opposite—the way we often feel the emotions of everyday life as if they had already registered on the screen,” he says. “When everyday life resembles cinema, it interests me more than when I see a documentary film. If you make a film very close to reality, you don’t have to give it a form. I feel that when there is a form, I come closer in fact to the reality of life.”

Wild Grass plays at the New York Film Festival opening night, September 25.