By William Wolf


It was an historic opening night for the 47th New York Film Festival (Sept. 25-Oct. 11, 2009), which leaped to a classy start with the showing of iconic French director Alain Resnais’s new work “Wild Grass,” (“Les Herbes folles”), a dazzling accomplishment by the 87-year-old veteran of the French New Wave. The film demonstrates that Resnais is still inventive, sensitive and provocative.

Before the first of three screenings on opening night, Sept. 25—the one I attended-- he received a long, standing ovation from an audience appreciative of his role in cinema history, emphasized in the introduction by Program Director Richard Peña. Resnais charmed the crowd with a reference to a French expression that an audience tears up the seats when it doesn’t like a film. But citing the beauty of the elaborately renovated Alice Tully Hall, in which the Festival is taking place, he said the architect would be unhappy if that happened.

Typically for an opening night selection, or Resnais films in general for that matter, opinion expressed in the after party at Alice Tully was divided, which could be expected, for Renais is up to his reputation for challenging viewers with his creativity. It was 50 years ago that he stunned international audiences with his stylistically ground-breaking “Hiroshima mon amour,” and not long after when he set art house audiences arguing about his “Last Year at Marienbad.” With the freshness that might be associated with a younger filmmaker but also reflects the wisdom of an older artist, Resnais has made “Wild Grass” a visually exquisite, entertaining journey involving the passions of two disparate characters brought together by the kind of unusual circumstance that life’s coincidences can produce.

The film flashes stylistic flourishes, injects playful humor and cinema references and has two charismatic star performances, as well as excellent supporting performances, while leaving unanswered questions for audiences to ponder. One can take the film’s title as a metaphor for the wild, unpredictable events that can happen unexpectedly and lead to a strange trajectory. The film can be viewed as both exhilarating and tragic, but all the while making it a delight to watch for those who appreciate Resnais’s artistic gifts.

André Dussollier gives a colorful performance as Georges, an elderly married man and father, who finds a wallet that had been stolen and discarded. The photo of the wallet’s owner reminds him of a famed aviatrix of the 1930s who was killed in a crash. (It turns out that the owner of the wallet flies as a hobby.) André becomes smitten with the lady and veers between stalking her and rejecting her. He obviously has an untamed side, and there is a hint that previously he may have been in trouble with the police.

Marguerite, the woman in question, is played compellingly be the ever-attractive Sabine Azéma, complete with a huge quantity of red hair. Marguerite is a dentist, and she goes from wanting to keep Georges at a distance to being irrevocably drawn to him to the point of distraction. There are some cruelly funny scenes in which, in the throes of mental turmoil, she subjects a series of patients to pain. The ultimate rendezvous in which Marguerite invites Georges and his wife to fly with her in a vintage plane is executed with panache in the film’s unusual conclusion and the shots of the plane aloft help express the freedom reflected in the jaunty narrative.

There are many pleasures along the way, including Matthieu Almaric’s role as a friendly and somewhat bewildered policeman and Emmanuelle Devos’s portrayal of Marguerite’s dental partner, who has her own unexpected encounter with Georges. The screenplay by Alex Réval and Laurent Herbiet, based on Christian Gailly’s novel “L’Incident,” has some imaginative plotting, but the story works best as a framework for the visual and acting creativity, the lovely cinematography by Eric Gautier, the clever editing by Hervé De Luze and the musical contributions by Mark Snow. Above all, there is the masterly control by Resnais, who, thankfully, is still affording us pleasure.

By choosing this film as the opener and thus honoring Resnais, the New Fork Film Festival has made a timely contribution to ongoing cinema and reiterated the Festival’s important annual presence on the New York scene.


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