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“After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible.” So says the lovesick obsessive Georges Palet in a scene from Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), which premiered this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, exactly 50 years after Resnais’ debut, Hiroshima Mon Amour, was hailed by Eric Rohmer as “the first modern film of sound cinema.”
In that half-century, Resnais, whose work is the subject of a monthlong retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has done much to implode, reshape and expand our own sense of cinematic possibilities, from his collaborations with nouveau roman architects Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (Last Year at Marienbad) and 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, as likely to settle on the behavioral psychologist Henri Laborit (whose work inspired 1980’s Mon oncle d’Amerique) as the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (whom he has twice adapted). In hindsight, Resnais’ 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 — the same one he seems to be wearing in every photograph ever taken of him — turned up at the collar, his gleaming sneakers nearly the same shade of white as his swept-back 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 par for the course with Resnais, who has always eschewed the “a film by” credit and has never taken formal screenplay credit, though he is said to collaborate closely with his screenwriters (who have also included the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and playwright David Mercer).
Breaking a careerlong policy of never adapting a novel, Resnais based Wild Grass (which will be released by Sony Pictures Classics early next year) on The Incident 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.” The movie follows the blossoming albeit largely one-sided amour fou between Georges (playedby Resnais regular André Dussolier) and Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema, the real-life Mrs. Resnais), a dentist who moonlights as an aviatrix. 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’ work, multiple interpretations and the absence of a concrete reality are par for the course.
“I have the impression that these are two people who have no reason to meet, no reason to love each other,” says Resnais — words that might just as soon apply to the bombed-out lovers of Hiroshima or the desiccated tourists of Marienbad (which remains, for many, the definitive modernist art film). “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?”
Though he rarely gives interviews, Resnais is generous with his time and considered in his responses, which tend to come forth in slow, carefully articulated sentences. 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 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 (IDHEC). “Maybe a single image wasn’t anything, but the three following images could provoke a style that was similar to literature,” he says.
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