The career of 88 year old Alain Resnais is one of arthouse celebration and commercial anonymity, especially in America. While critics have clamored for classics like Night and Fog (1955) Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) as prime examples of the French New Wave, he’s had little limelight impact through the ’80s and ’90s. Now, it was is arguable the twilight of his creative years, and resting, relatively speaking, on his laurels, he offers Wild Grass, based on a novel by Christian Gailly. It centers around a mysterious older man, his doting younger wife, and a matronly dentist destined to become the third vertices in this unusual lover’s triangle. Set up like a mystery, played out like a stylized romantic comedy, and peppered with other genre-specific dynamics along the way, Resnais is clearly having fun with his late in life choices. Sadly, the audience will feel very little of his obvious artistic joy.
When dour DDS Marguerite Muir has her purse stolen, it’s just another bit of bad luck in a life filled with failed ambitions and broken dreams. When “retired” businessman Georges Palet stumbles across her billfold, he is immediately smitten by what he finds – an intriguing passport photo, a current pilot’s license. He soon becomes obsessed with Marguerite, calling her with unusual demands and stalker-like seriousness. When she reports the problem to her local policeman Bernard de Bordeaux, he promises to get to the bottom of the trouble. Suddenly, Georges goes from serious threat to the subject of Marguerite’s own incurable prying. Her passion for a man she barely knows drives a wedge in his marriage, as well as her relationship with an office co-worker. Eventually, Georges and Marguerite realize they need to be together, their family and friendship obligations be damned.
When viewed through the prism of a life spent in service of cinema, Wild Grass looks like a real renaissance – of sorts. It’s all movie mannerisms and tweaked celluloid conventions. With a voice over narrator explaining the buoyant backstory and subtextual emotions of the characters and a plot that meanders around from insinuation to confused clarity, it’s clear that Resnais has lost none of his mid 20th century verve. The problem is, none of what he has to offer resonates in 2010. When Quentin Tarantino can riff on such hyperbolic strokes in a single shot, when a wealth of wannabe auteurs beg, borrow, and steal from every historic source to realize their mash-up visions, Wild Grass‘s “wildness” is tame in comparison. It’s like watching David Lynch’s understudy try to forge a reasonable whodunit out of some pretty Parisian locations. Even worse, Resnais is providing no answers and claiming no responsibility for his incompleteness.
The problems begin right off the bat. Marguerite is an enigma, a high strung professional that few would want drilling into their incisors. She’s weird, her mop of red hair supposedly a sign of eccentricity when insanity would be a much more viable rationale. When she learns of Georges, her emotional mood swings are so violent you can feel the cinematic whiplash from the back row of the movie house. While this is her ninth appearance in a Resnais film, actress Sabine Azéma is awkwardly uncorked here. We can never follow Marguerite’s train of thought as she bounces from one implausible position to another. As the policeman forced to put up with much of her mania, Mathieu Amalric looks equally lost. He’s supposed to be sympathetic and supportive. Instead, he comes across as a reluctant accomplice in a project he no longer has confidence in.
As Georges, André Dussollier is an even bigger problem. All throughout the first half of the film, Resnais suggests a scandalous, criminal history. We hear the character thinking about his previous punishment, about a possible stint in jail, the inappropriateness of his actions, the warnings to…and then nothing. No clarification or attempt to fill in the blank. As he grows violent, then sexual, then seductive, than silly, we marvel at how unlikeable he is. There is a specific moment when confronted by the police where you think Resnais is going to give it all away, when he will reluctantly let Georges spit out the truth and take the film in a rational, realistic direction. Instead, all we get is more whimsy, more worldview veiled through a filter of hot primary colors and carefully composed frames of celluloid.
If geeks can be accused of loving otherwise lame movies, Wild Grass is pure critic kryptonite. You can actually hear the heavy thinkers in the journalistic brotherhood going out of their way to heap praise on Resnais’ latest release. But this is not a masterpiece. It’s a folly, never fully realized and reeking of the arrogance that came after the French reinvented the artform 60 years ago. Wild Grass is so confrontational, so obvious in its preplanned impracticality that you just know that someone, somewhere, is basing their entire motion picture aesthetic around it. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with praising this film as being something noteworthy and far outside the mainstream. But it’s also correct to call out an aging emperor when he struts around the screen without a significant stitch on.
As it toddles along, as Georges goes from real threat to misunderstood Romeo and Marguerite steadily slips into all out quirk, the 88-year-old icon behind the lens manipulates and maneuvers our expectations. Unfortunately, we don’t really care how it all turns out. Nothing about the two leads — or their effect on others — makes us hope for their union or desperate for their destruction. As Georges family unravels and then reestablishes, as Marguerite rediscovers her love of flying, Wild Grass goes from idiosyncratic to irritating. Of course, the collective groan from the mainstream moviegoer will be drowned out by those who want to celebrate Alain Resnais. Too bad they can’t simply recommend a revisit to his previous triumphs. Recommending Wild Grass would be like suggesting that William Friedkin did his best work with 1990’s The Guardian. It might represent a legend proving his position, but that doesn’t make it engaging or entertaining.