Being unfamiliar with “The Incident,” the novel by Christian Gailly on which “Wild Grass” is based, I like to imagine it this fine-boned, New Yorkeresque tale of lonely Parisians brought together by coincidence. If that’s the case, Alain Resnais’ high-strung film is something like happens when you get that story drunk and it lurches around the house, knocking things over and hitting on your host’s wife. In the New York Film Festival’s opening night selection, mad flourishes are daubed all over moments that don’t seem like they demand any particular emphasis, peculiarities abound and characters ramp up to and back away from emotional heights at perilous speeds.
The incident in question is a minor one that brings into contact two strangers, but the connection catches and holds, leading to a bemusing love affair. Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma), a dentist whose passion is aviation, has her purse stolen when out shoe shopping, and George Palet (André Dussollier) finds her discarded wallet in a parking garage and is intrigued by the photo on her pilot’s license. Despite being long-married and a grandfather, he fixates on her, writing letters, calling and cruising by her apartment in a mite unstable fashion. She asks him to stop, he slashes her tires, the police (led by a charmingly oddball Mathieu Amalric) are called upon, and he seems out of her life — which, once accomplished, doesn’t turn out to be what she actually wants at all. Also in the mix are George’s patient wife (Anne Consigny), Marguerite’s co-worker and best friend Josephine (Emmanuelle Devos) and a deliberately histrionic score by “X-Files” alum Mark Snow that promises drama, romance and smooth jazz around every corner.
The title and the recurring pan through a verdant field are both a nod to the uncontrollable nature of the heart, and the free-spirited Marguerite and the buttoned-up George seem as alternately surprised, pleased and perturbed at what they’re doing as we are, generating a low-voltage turbulence that runs throughout the film. I can’t possibly do justice to “Wild Grasses”‘s dizzy eccentricity, to which there are certainly charms — I particularly liked the pushy narrator who comes and goes, prone to running off topic or dropping into a character’s stream-of-consciousness, and the two unexpected intrusions by 20th Century Fox’s trumpet theme. But there’s also a capricious quality to it all that’s as often irritating as it is appealing, culminating in a non sequitur of an ending that seems to suggest everything before was just sound and fury, and that makes me wonder, were the film not in French and the creation of a New Wave legend, if it’d be looked at less fondly as quirk.
“Kanikosen,” the latest feature from Japanese director Sabu (aka Hiroyuki Tanaka — “Sabu” was a character he played in an early acting role), takes its own sideways run at its source material, a 1920s proletarian novel/allegory about a worker uprising on a combination crab boat and cannery that on the surface sounds about as topical as a debate on the corrupting influence of amateur theatricals on the local aristocracy. But politics aren’t the reason for the book’s resurgence on Japan’s bestseller charts. When one man chides another for complaining about the hellishness of their working conditions, he says “You should feel lucky, work is scarce,” an admonition that sounds terribly current.
“Kanikosen”‘s urgings to reject victimhood and seize back control of the life you’re living (which I’ve just made sound awfully new age, but which are in practice both fustily heavy handed and sort of stirring) may be once again relevant in these economically downtrodden times, but Sabu’s efforts to have his adaptation reflect the fact don’t work half as well. The tone is stylized and half-joking — conversations are often broken by a smash cut to an exaggerated vision of what a character is talking about, a la “30 Rock.” The bowels of the ship, where the men sleep, bare a vague but intriguing resemblance to a capsule hotel, but the factory above reinforces the coglike nature of the workers in the eyes of their employers by having… a lot of cogs lying around. The film undercuts itself with flippancy — an early attempt at escape (of a sort) by mass suicide is played for laughs, which makes the later shift to deadly earnest speechifying hard to buy into. There’s obviously something to the story that still speaks to audiences, but “Kanikosen”‘s attempts at updating come across more often as unnecessary apologizing.