New York Film Festival, Part 1: Wild Grass, Vincere, Kanikosen


Tonight, the 47th NYFF opens its grand lineup with Wild Grass, a rapturous flight of fancy by 87-year-old French master Alain Resnais. Venerated the world over for his deconstructive, narrative-be-damned opuses Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais’ latest tale of romantic obsession is based on Christian Gailly’s novel The Incident, but takes off on the inspiriting belief that “after the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible.” And, oui, he directs with such-minded freedom — totally, tenderly, tragically.

The film’s balletically-shot and rather berserk pas de deux between Georges and Marguerite (André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma, fantastic in whatever tonal key) commences innocently enough: middle-aged and happily married on the surface, Georges discovers the single white dentist’s wallet and, after perusing its contents and enduring a period of do-I-dare over contacting her, he hands the red-colored accessory over to the police. But her ID and pilot-license photographs — one sad, the other oh la la — strike an emergent desire: to flee from that typical French ennui and into her unknown arms.

So he becomes a man completely unhinged by amour fou: calling incessantly like a sitcom creep, writing one-way epistles about his childhood and lifelong affection for planes, and even slashing the tires of her yellow sports car as only the psychotic would. You’d expect her to go Earhart at this point, but mercury must be in retrograde since Marguerite turns from stalked to stalker after meeting Georges outside a cinema that screens The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a 1954 Korean War vehicle for William Holden and Grace Kelly.

From here, the neon-hued narrative ambles onward, continuing to beguile with its impulsive but playful formal shifts — from mischievous romance to hearts-on-fire thriller, screwball comedy to pseudo horror (“you’re hurting me” becomes a chorus accompanied by the drill sounds of a flustered Marguerite) — until what should prove to be the most WTF (What the…French?) ending of the festival.

Speaking of jilted inamoratas, Marco Bellocchio’s breathtaking Vincere provides Ida Dalser — allegedly Mussolini’s first wife and the mother of Benito Junior — the voice and vitality that Il Duce took when he buried her and heir in separate asylums to die anonymously. In this full-bore cri de coeur for the missus, and thus the countless others erased in the annals of veni-vidi-viti history, Bellocchio depicts her as a feisty, resolute, and somewhat delusional woman rather than some haloed Madonna, one seared into our memory by Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s impassioned performance. She’s found the role of a lifetime and seizes upon it with hands, feet, teeth, and soul.

To relate this torn-out chapter and to assert cinema’s ability to provide an alternative story to black-and-white history, Bellocchio contextualizes his fiction with actual propaganda newsreels and declamatory texts that nearly fly into your eye. The hurly-burly first half is “polyexpressive” in this manner — an idea that the futurists outlined in their speed-driven manifesto — the headlong courtship between Ida and a young, ambitious, but still idealistic Mussolini made to parallel the countrywide hysteria for war and, soon enough, fascism.

The quieter second half, after Ida has been melodramatically cast aside for a new signora, focuses on her struggle to reunite with her son and for recognition by the man for whom she sacrificed her life. By this point, Mussolini is no longer the flesh and blood of Filippo Timi (who creases his forehead as if he were trying to fold the face into a history book), instead replaced by the gesticulating dictator, cast in a new focus. The image may be immutable, but the evil that men do lives after them.

Takiji Kobayashi’s 1929 novel about proletariat exploited on the high seas, Kanikosen (“Crab Factory Ship”) has received a prolonged afterlife in Japan thanks to the dire economic sitch for its young and underemployed. In 2006 came the manga and now comes the mangled film adaptation by pomo ironist Sabu. It’s not the stylistic anachronisms such as t-shirts and J-pop hair that do the film in. Nor is it the absurd and fairly humorous flashbacks and flashfowards in which the overworked “cogs of various shape and size” imagine an afterlife in which they bump around a volleyball and giggle like schoolgirls. And it’s certainly not the palpable grime of the mackinaw-clad men as they labor (and get brow-/body- beaten) on an assembly-line of gears and conveyor belts that’s reminiscent of Modern Times — the best moment in the film features a worker pantomiming a crustacean à la Chaplin.

It’s the discourse, comrades, that gets your goat: it’s tedious and simplistic, the characters tossing platitudes like “this is hell” and feel-good slogans like “if you think you can, you can do it” for nearly two hours. At that, the central conflict between ringleader Shinjo (Ryuhei Matsuda) and coolly brutal foreman Asakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima) feels more like two handsome dudes posturing rather than engaging in a pointed, ideological conflict. In short, the film never knows what it wants to be (seriocomic? seriously comic?) and thus never coheres into the cinematic manifesto it sets out to be.