Wherever he is, I hope Alain Resnais is eating Cat Munchies right now—what a wonderful case that would be of afterlife imitating art. The last scene of Resnais’s Wild Grass (2009) is one of the most heroic movie moments I know, wherein the last authentic French surrealist (then 88 years old) resolves to go on fighting to the very end. If you haven’t seen the movie—or if you haven’t seen it on a big screen—do whatever you can to catch it at Doc Films this Thursday at 7 PM, where it’s being shown from 35-millimeter. (Incidentally this is a great week for Resnais on celluloid—on Friday night at 6 PM the new print of Je T’aime, Je T’aime screens at the Siskel Center.) You should also skip the next paragraph of this post.
The final moment of Wild Grass is a non sequitur within a non sequitur within a non sequitur. Just as the film’s main characters are about to die in a plane crash, Resnais cuts to a series of tracking shots as graceful and creepy as any in his career. The last of these bring us into the home of two characters we’ve never seen before in the movie, a mother and her little girl. “When I’m a cat, will I be able to eat Cat Munchies?” the little girl asks. This marks the culmination of a surrealist narrative comprised of strange events and inexplicable changes of heart, as two characters with no reason to be together find themselves drawn to each another again and again. The little girl might well be speaking for Resnais, responding to the randomness of existence with jubilant imagination.
Just what is Resnais fighting here? The same tyranny of logic on which Resnais’s hero André Bréton and his fellow surrealists declared war in the 1920s. That we refer to our era as the “information age” would suggest that rational thought is even more tyrannical today than it was in Bréton’s time—which means we need surrealism now more than ever. In an erosion of language that would likely drive Orwell to smoke two packs of cigarettes in one sitting, surrealism has been stripped of its original political implications through decades of misuse. But it’s important to remember that many first-generation surrealists were also communists, as they sympathized with Communism’s rejection of the rigid stratification that existed under capitalism. Bréton was kicked out of the French Communist Party only a few years after he joined (inspiring many of his colleagues to quit in protest), yet he continued to take inspiration from radical politics. In 1938, in fact, he and a group of surrealists visited Leon Trotsky in Mexico, where they authored the Manifesto for Independent Revolutionary Art. (Not coincidentally, Trotsky looms over the narrative of Resnais’s Stavisky . . ., which was scripted by resistance-fighter-turned-novelist Jorge Semprun.)
The surrealists sought to combat the rationalism of modern civilization—the source of industrialization, cultural standardization, and sexual repression—with a sort of militant irrationalism. To quote Luis Buñuel (from a 1954 interview with André Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze):
It is surrealism that showed me that in life there is a moral sense that man cannot permit himself to ignore. Through it I discovered for the first time that man is not free. I believed in man’s total freedom; but in surrealism I saw a discipline to follow.
Bréton’s experiments in automatic writing were shaped by a rigid set of rules that placed the writer at the mercy of his subconscious. These experiments celebrated the aspects of human existence that could not be subjugated to reason—romantic love being crucial among them. A surrealist romance in the tradition of Bréton’s novel Nadja, Wild Grass exults romance as a force so powerfully irrational it continues to move us even after we’re dead.