Love among the weeds
Wild Grass, romantic comedy, not rated, in French with subtitles, CCA Cinematheque, 3.5 chiles
At 88, Alain Resnais is young enough to have fun and old enough to enjoy fun’s dark side.
Resnais, unlike most of his comrades in the French New Wave, was already a veteran filmmaker when that cinematic revolution boiled up out of Paris a half century ago. He was 37, with more than 20 years of movie-making under his belt when he filmed the haunting Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), and then followed it with classics like Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and La guerre est finie (1966). His rap sheet runs to almost 50 movies over more than seven decades.
The movies mentioned above don’t conjure up a sense of playfulness; however, the director’s more recent output has run more to the whimsical with features like Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and Private Fears in Public Places (2006), both adapted from comedies by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Wild Grass is alternately funny, bizarre, disconnected, ominous, vibrant, and dangerous.
Resnais begins with long introductions to his two principals, Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) and Georges (André Dussollier), whom we follow, without seeing their faces, while a narrator (Edouard Baer) sketches in some background. Marguerite is a striking-looking middle-aged woman with a shock of frizzy flaming hair that resembles a chia pet with wild red grass and a wide-eyed look of perpetual
astonishment. She’s a dentist, a pilot, a shoe fetishist, and a lonely single woman who may be on the lookout for love from either side of the gender aisle. There is the vague suggestion of intimacy with her best friend Josépha (Emmanuelle Devos), a dentist with whom she shares office space. As the film opens, Marguerite goes shopping for a pair of shoes, because she likes the touch of a particular salesgirl. As she leaves the store, her purse is snatched. “A commonplace incident,” the narrator observes, and one that sets the story in motion.
Her discarded wallet is found in an underground parking garage by Georges. As he examines its contents, a couple of tacky teenage girls walk by, and Georges, reflecting that “everything is excusable except bad taste,” finds himself experiencing and quickly repressing what seems to be an impulse to violence. There is something sinister in Georges’ past to which we are never privy. Is it a sex crime? Did he do time? Is it all in his head?
This notion of unreliability reverberates through the movie. Resnais will not be pinned down. It’s often impossible to tell what’s real and what’s a figment of the imagination. The film is narrated by several voices, the main narrator buffered by interior monologues supplied by the principals, and none of them is what you would swear was dependable. Georges, for instance, several times volunteers the information that he is about 50, the accuracy of which claim is belied by his grizzled features.
Georges is intrigued by the photos in the wallet he has found, and even more by Marguerite’s pilot’s license. He’s an aviation fan and finds himself yearning to meet this woman. Unable to reach her on the phone, he finally turns the wallet over to the police but continues to be obsessed with her. Georges, it must be said, has a lovely and apparently loving wife (Anne Consigny), but this does not seem to keep him from going out most nights on the prowl.
The story, said to have been very freely adapted by Resnais and screenwriters Alex Réval and Laurent Herbiet from Christian Gailly’s 1996 novel L’Incident, moves through a series of stalkings, plot twists, police incidents, and unlikely encounters as this bizarre love story unfolds on various levels of credibility. Some of it is Resnais having fun with movie conventions, using split-screen inserts, and cinematographer Eric Gautier’s candy-hued palette of colors, swooping and leaping with ecstatic pans and crane shots, drenching the whole thing in Mark Snow’s jazzy score. He even provides us with a couple of endings — a “Fin” on the screen over a Douglas Sirkian lovers’ embrace is followed by another denouement. Resnais, like his colleagues in the New Wave, was in love with Hollywood movies before that romance soured. In Wild Grass, Georges goes to see the William Holden-Grace Kelly Korean War drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri, only to remark sadly upon leaving that it doesn’t seem as wonderful as it used to.
Resnais works with some of his regular actors and gets delicious performances out of them. Dussollier, in particular, is irresistibly elusive as Georges. Azéma is appealing in an off-kilter, unreliable sort of way. And there’s a hilarious deadpan turn as a cop by Mathieu Amalric ( The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
The wild grass of the title is the unquenchable sort that pushes up through the cracks in city pavement, defying the odds and the most inhospitable of environments. Symbolically, it could refer to the unlikely romance that flowers, or never quite flowers, between the middle-aged principals. It could also be extended to Resnais, who keeps sprouting marvelous artistic herbage at an age when most of his contemporaries are pushing up grass from a different perspective. At last year’s Cannes Festival, the old war horse got a lifetime achievement award, possibly because the organizers couldn’t figure out what to make of him.
This movie packs a wallet: Mathieu Amalric, left, and André Dussollier