The 88-year-old Alain Resnais’s latest film, WILD GRASS, shows him remaining true, all these decades later, to the principles of the French “Nouvelle Vague” of which he was a leading proponent: anarchy, whimsy, visual antics, nonlinear and nonsensical story lines, abrupt endings, randomness and deliberate artifice. Although many of these devices, so revolutionary in their time, have now become part of mainstream film vocabulary, in Resnais’s hands they are played full-force, making his work unlike anything else made today.
It’s hard, or at least feels beside the point, to give a plot summary of a movie in which plot—which is also to say, any ethical underpinning—matters for little. Suffice it to say a lost wallet incites a meeting between the world’s least likely dentist, the wildly flame-haired Marguerite (the elegant Sabine Azéma, Resnais’s muse and companion in real life) and the dour, possibly homicidal and unemployed but somehow wealthy Georges (André Dussollier), whose yellow chickie fluff hair somehow makes his deeply lined and frowning face appear even more sinister.
Aided by a deeply humanistic policeman (Mathiu Almaric, in my favorite performance in the movie), the two connect and reconnect in a wobbly spiral of obsession, fantasy, and counter-transference.
Never mind that Georges is married to an improbably beautiful, young (although she is apparently supposed to be the same age as Georges), and ridiculously tolerant and understanding Suzanne (played by the gorgeous Anne Consigny, who is a good 15 years younger than Georges and looks it and makes an unconvincing grandmother and mother of grown children). Georges broods upon this new chance encounter with Marguerite, seeming to find in it some answer to the ennui and idleness of his daily life.
That makes this movie sound sombre, which it isn’t. All this takes place against a brightly colored, nearly cartoonish, setting, accompanied by a soundtrack that is the musical equivalent of clowns piling out of a clown car. Sometimes the cute tricks—such as the fake-out FIN card—amuse. Other times the madcap grates, when it doesn’t disturb. Georges often seems wildly misogynistic, not to mention angry. But then, he’s just French, right?
As for Suzanne, why is she such a doormat? Does she not care that she is married to an insane man? And how much of this is even happening, and how much of this is the product of George’s criminally deranged mind? Why else would two stunning women like Suzanne and Marguerite (not to mention, in a strange interlude, Marguerite’s business partner Josepha) throw themselves at a charmless bastard like Georges?
The final third of the film, after Marguerite (rightly) reports Georges to the police, descends into a fevered dream. Some critics have gone into raptures over the onslaught of images and miniature set pieces (including an out-of-nowhere near-musical in a hangar by a devoted cadre of airplane mechanics) in this last section, but I can only conclude that Georges is indeed sociopathically ill, his tenuous hold on civilized behavior broken by what he perceives as Marguerite’s betrayal.
The last half hour can be read as the unabashed wish fulfillment of a man who fears humiliation, fears or maybe just hates women, whose only source of pleasure seems to be a childhood fixation on airplanes and aviation. There is a family dinner scene, with hints of tension between Georges and his children, and sometimes he does the household chores assigned him by his cheerful, productive wife, but for the most part Georges broods. Is it all a revenge fantasy? Now, inexplicably, Marguerite is stalking him, can think of nothing else but him.
(You can tell this film is all the fantasy of a man because although there are purportedly children, they are invisible, at least until the final moment, when one is needed for the surreal send-off. Ah, children… they say the darndest things when you hold up the cue card! Georges and Suzanne have a grandchild, but that child is not even present at the family dinner. And surprisingly, at the end we learn that Josepha also has a child, who is apparently magically cared for when her mother works, goes out in the evenings, and runs around town doing Marguerite’s bidding.)
And then there is the recurring footage of the wild grasses of the title, an image which works all of never. Alain Resnais is a legend of our time. (Like many college students, I studied his masterpiece, HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, in French class.) WILD GRASS has gotten reverent reviews the world over, won an award at Cannes and opened last year’s New York Film Festival. It is inventive, light-hearted and surprising from beginning to end—both ends.
However, stylistic flourishes aside, it also seems to me the work of someone who has little of interest on his mind. Resnais has always been heartless, even amoral, and his self-involvement and heavy-handedness set him apart from Godard or Truffaut, who are charming even at their most anarchic. Resnais’s films works like Georges.
They insist, they stalk, they obsess. They tickle the eye and puzzle the mind, but in the end they care neither to make sense nor exist in any sort of existential framework. While it’s refreshing to see a film that defies conventional demands for cogency and seamlessness, it’s hard nowadays to watch one that gives us little else. Unfortunately, WILD GRASS made me wonder if it wasn’t time to put the now-middle-aged Nouvelle Vague out to pasture.