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Early and Late

Early Ozu; Resnai's dogged vivacity; an idyll on the Gulf of Mexico.

I Was Born, But...  (IFC Center)
Wild Grass  (Sony Pictures Classics)
Alamar (Film Movement)

A smart distributor, on whom be peace, has decided to give a theatrical premiere to an early film by Yasujiro Ozu. This is good news, not just because the film itself—I Was Born, But...—is endearing but because it draws further attention to this Japanese master. Much of Ozu is available on DVD, including this film, but more theatrical recognition may increase this country’s care for a wonderful artist.

Ozu (1903–1963) began to direct in 1927 and made a total of fifty-four features. He is best known here for the group of pictures that began in 1949 with Late Spring and concluded with An Autumn Afternoon in 1962. Couched in differing subtleties, these later films share, in some degree, one quality. The poet and dance critic Edwin Denby said often that what he prized most in ballet was stillness, which I take to mean the recovery through motion of a resident serenity, an apprehension behind the dancing of quiet pure existence. This view relates to Ozu. The best among his last films, Tokyo Story, has a certain stillness behind all that we see and hear, a hushed apprehension of human mystery.

This earlier film we now see is not anywhere near the later films in depth, but it clearly was made by the same man. Ozu had previously made a surprising variety of films—he was then a contract director working for a studio—and he had intended this one, too, to be another comedy. The American film critic and historian Donald Richie, long resident in Tokyo, reports that Ozu said he had planned the film as “a fairly bright little story, but it changed while I was working on it.” The titles credit the original idea to James Maki, who, says Richie, was really Ozu.

The film is silent. (Sound came belatedly to Japan.) A score, mostly piano, has been recorded with this new print. The cinematography is dated. But the film breathes from its first moments. A couple in their thirties, with two sons of about ten and eight, are moving to the suburbs of a city. We first see a wheel spinning in the dirt: a small pickup truck, loaded with household stuff, is stuck. The father of the family keeps cranking the engine to start it, and it is only when the two boys jump off and push that the truck moves. Afterward, we can see that this small family action is a hint.

The neighborhood is somewhat grim, flat, brown, scarcely settled, the whole region crossed by tracks for trolley cars that speed along. The family has moved here because the father has a job with a company whose headquarters are nearby, and the boss has urged him to move into the area. They all visit the boss, a man about the father’s age, who is very cordial, and amid the customary flurry of bowing, they are welcomed.

Their life begins out here. The father goes to work, the mother housekeeps. The boys set off for school, but they do not get there. A bunch of local boys, with a chief bully, molests them, and they falter. In fact, they become truants, fairly often. The father, however, is snug in his office routine, where, bowing and obedient, he gets along. (Surprisingly, the door to the boss’s office is labeled “private” in English.)

Ozu is building a structure of parallels: the boys in their society, the father in his. At one point the camera travels down a long line of desks with workers and soon travels down a line of somewhat less docile schoolchildren at their desks. The boys’ truancy is discovered: the father asks them why they do it and encourages them to take their rightful places. The brothers note their father’s servility and ask him why he bows and scrapes to his boss. At a party the father even makes funny faces for the boss so that he can be laughed at. He then explains gently to his sons that he needs the job, needs the money, so that they can go to school and can eat. This doesn’t encourage their school attendance and also leads to their hunger strike—an attempt to relieve their father. Both sets of troubles move to a conclusion.

The performances are all pleasing, familiar in the sense that we know these people. Ozu shows here the gift for handling children that was often manifested in his work. Even more marked are the elements that seem to forecast Tokyo Story, far-off though it still was. First, there is the family as the unit of experience, the vehicle in which, happily or otherwise, people move on. Part of that unit, quietly powerful, is the gap-and- closure between parents and children. And the trolleys, too, are thematic: they move constantly in the background, sometimes closer. In Tokyo Story, which mostly takes place in a seaside town, ships pass frequently. The idea of passage is inherent. Even these dinky trolleys in this early work seem to imply, “Worry if you must. You too will pass.”

In contrast, here is a new work by an elderly eminence. Alain Resnais is now eighty-eight, which hasn’t hindered him from sending us a purportedly light-fingered romance. Wild Grass, adapted by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet from a novel by Christian Gailly, is unmistakably a Resnais work from its very opening.

He lately was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cannes Film Festival, which made me feel grateful and relieved. His lifetime persona is for me more important than any of his individual works. All through his career, it has been clear that he is imaginative, innovative, concerned to explore and expand the precincts of film. Particularly he has explored the mercurial elements in human sensibility. But I have never been convinced that any of the Resnais films that I have seen—a good many—was fulfilling his talent and ambition. His early features Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) set many critical typewriters ablaze, but for me they were more artistic effort than achievement. He has since made many other kinds of films, but for me always with more ambition than result.

So, I must add, is his latest. Wild Grass, not for the first time in the Resnais career, deals with the large results of a small incident. A middle-aged man picks up a woman’s discarded wallet, thrown away by a purse-snatcher, and his life changes. He is (apparently) retired, a moderately settled husband, father, and grandfather, tormented only by the fibrillations of mind and temper of people entering the coda of their lives. The wallet’s owner, it eventually appears, is a female dentist, somewhere in her early forties. The result is far from a conventional romance. Hesitations occupy more than anything like snuggling.

The meeting of the two takes considerable time, partly filled by the man’s vacillations at the police station where he turns in the wallet. And when the two do meet, we are asked to believe that this ultra-chic dentist who is also a private pilot is interested in this nervous older man. (Indeed, we are asked to believe that a female dentist would wear a huge mop of frizzy red hair.) But it is soon apparent that Resnais is somewhat more interested in his storytelling than his story. A battery of devices, some of them his own, some of them inheritances from the New Wave of which he was a part, explodes all along. The title is “explained” cursorily by occasional shots of grass growing in unlikely cracks. There are insert shots in which a character is seen talking to himself: there are freeze frames, an iris shot, even a closing reference to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Throughout, we are aware of the director’s dogged aim to be sprightly and vivacious.

The two leading actors are Resnais veterans. André Dussollier is competent as the timidly adventuring man, but he simply doesn’t have sufficient personality to brighten his perfectly adequate acting. Sabine Azéma as the dentist-pilot is a bit of a puzzle. Neither she nor Resnais seems certain about the character. She moves through the role briskly, but we are never quite sure who she is. Nonetheless, after Resnais’s career of high-level vision, good for the Cannes judges.

Alamar is an idyll, so seductively lulling, so enjoyable, that even while we know it must be somewhat idealized, we don’t want too much realism to spoil it. Yet, oddly, the realistic elements in it increase its charm.

Pedro González-Rubio is a Mexican film-maker enchanted by the lives of fishermen near a great coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico. To capture the quality of their lives, he has taken what looks like a real-life situation and has made a quasi-documentary about it. A young couple who live near a Mexican city, Jorge and Roberta, decide to split when their son, Natan, is about five. Roberta will take Natan back to her native Italy, but she agrees that Jorge may have the boy for the summer before leaving.

Father and son go to stay with Jorge’s father, Nestor. He is a grizzled fisherman who apparently never wears anything but swimming trunks and loves his life. Based in Nestor’s reed-roofed floating cabin, Natan then spends days and nights fishing and learning—in many ways. There is no trace of a story: day simply follows blissful day.

The setting is exquisite. Sunrises and sunsets are, in two senses, heavenly, and they are only part of the beauty. Natan gets very practical fishing lessons from Jorge—which are part of the idyll—and in the course of time he is even permitted to put on a snorkel and do some underwater fish-spearing. Lobsters, too. The catch is cleaned and sold nearby while Nestor beams. We see after a while that what Jorge is giving Natan is a perfect boyhood dream—to have forever. At the end Natan scratches a note and puts it in a bottle. It closes the dream with a small pang.

González-Rubio edited his film and did most of the camera work, which is pluperfect. Some underwater photography— magical—is provided by David Torres Castilla and Alexis Zabé. A tug, however. No one who worked on the film could have foreseen that nowadays there must be a dark afterthought: BP.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. 

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