Get the Lawnmower


An early realization of my intellectual inferiority occurred sitting in a San Francisco revival house in the '70s. There, perched on an achingly springy seat, I was unable to comprehend, let alone sit through, Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

I have always promised to give myself a second viewing of this groundbreaking, nonlinear classic, even though some critics like David Thomson argue against such an action, citing the film's "enervating High Vogue solemnity" and Resnais's inability "to make a communicative contact with audiences."

Pauline Kael was also in the "nay" camp, heartily detesting Marienbad, which was one of several features released at the time that caused her to ask, "Are Movies Going to Pieces?"

Of course, whatever your take on Resnais's celluloid experiments, his 30-minute documentary masterpiece, Night and Fog (1955), a pivotal work on the Holocaust, should be required viewing for anyone over twelve. And, of course, his Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980), Providence (1977), and Hiroshima mon amour (1959) have their fan bases, while Stavisky (1974) boasts a grand score by Stephen Sondheim no matter what you think of the film, and I rather enjoyed it.

Now in his '80s, Resnais has created what just might be his swan song, an oddball romance based on L’incident, a minimalist French novel by Christian Gailly. Gailly, who apparently has a reputation of note in his native land, is having trouble getting translated on our shores.

To find out why, and since L'incident was not available in English and I was not in the mood to read about a rapist whose penis is bitten off by his victim (Red Haze), I settled for The Passion of Martin Fissel-Brandt (University of Nebraska Press).

This is a tale of an older man, Martin, who possibly murdered his wife, and whose cat might be a witness to the murder if the killing, in fact, ever took place. One day while in the summerhouse he's renting, Martin finds a letter to a woman named Sophie and becomes obsessed with her. Sophie's a classical composer who initially draws the notes of her symphonies in varied colors. She also lives in the apartment where Martin used to have an affair. Shortly, after Martin pushes himself into Sophie's apartment, he is in Asia representing his company’s investments in an area where the natives are in rebellion. Coincidentally, Martin's ex-lover Anna lives there with her husband and her two young daughters, who have just run away. Anna's throwing a dinner party, during which two of her guests get fatally shot by the rebels. Then Martin shows up.

[Please note the book ends in the following manner without the use of quotation marks.]

He sighed slightly, like a sigh of relief, then he held out his arms and pressed against her. It’s me, he said.

I can see it’s you, said Anna, silly. Why did you come? 

I didn’t want to, he said.

But you came, Anna said. Why?

Because, he said.

Because why? Anna said.

Because, he said. I would like us to leave. Both of us.

Where? Said Anna. Tell me. Where to?

This is not a spoiler, since without reading the novel's jacket copy, you'd probably not know what was happening plot-wise. Additionally, the chapters could probably be shuffled haphazardly without any loss to its readability. And, yes, the book does have some lovely chapters (none longer than two pages in length).

Let's move on to the plot of Wild Grass, which if you remember is based on L'incident. The storyline is slightly similar. An older man, Georges Palet (André Dussollier), finds Marguerite Muir’s (Sabine Azéma) stolen wallet in a garage and he becomes obsessed with her after perusing her photo. Georges might be a murderer or possibly not. As for the frizzy-haired Marguerite, she's a dentist/airplane pilot.

Well, at a very leisurely pace, after handing her wallet over to the police, Georges phones Marguerite, writes her long letters, and slashes her auto's tires. Marguerite's not exactly happy about this turn of events. After all, she was only buying a pair of shoes when she was robbed of the aforementioned wallet; she definitely was not in the market for a stalker. But eventually she falls for Georges, which disturbs his wife, and then Georges's zipper breaks, and the closing scene has some unknown young girl wondering about her future if she turns into a cat.

The whole film is very congenial and will no doubt make you want to buy your grandfather a digital movie camera. Best of all, unlike with certain ethnic foods that keep repeating upon themselves, Wild Grass has no aftertaste. In fact, after an hour or so, you'll forget you've even seen it.