In Alain Resnais' Wild Grass
(Les herbes folles), many things happen that are impossible
to describe. Resnais' famously idiosyncratic style and clinical approach
to psychodrama render plot and behavior so charged with the potential
for literally anything to happen, that I find myself at a loss for words
- especially since this intuitive unpredictability is the chief feature
of the film's tone. Resnais' characters speak, make choices, and interact
with one another in ways that at first seems "normal." But
the tension that creeps under the surface, and the filmmaker's visual
choices - among other factors - subtly alter the plot and dialogue in
wholly unexpected ways, placing attempts at gathering meaning and significance
tantalizingly beyond arm's reach. I do not suggest that Resnais' films
are in any way devoid of tangible content, but at least in the instance
of Wild Grass, that content is only partially accessible to this
writer. Wild Grass is rich in incident, visual information, oblique
thematic gestures, obfuscatory dialogue, and hard left turns against
the grain of expectation. There is a lot to process here, and the film
demands multiple viewings and a lot of meditation.
Resnais' style in Wild Grass
is not enormously different from many of his other films: the camera
is fluid, there is some tricky editing that achieves unusual effects,
and characters' motivations are often veiled. These elements are a large
part of what make Wild Grass ceaselessly fascinating; they also
prevent a really incisive discussion of the film based on a single viewing.
What is intended for the big screen often cannot be translated into
words, and a master of cinematic form such as Resnais will confound
a writer every step of the way. Writers more confident in their craft
than I will go to great lengths to create strings of sentences jam-packed
with the language of critical theory, fooling readers with a web of
"insights" that only stand as an obstacle to the film itself.
What they won't admit is that there is something going on here that
is simply impossible to translate into their chosen medium.
Nonetheless, I will describe a few
of the most important things that happen in Wild Grass. First,
a woman named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) has her purse snatched
outside a Marc Jacobs in Paris. Next, Georges Palet (André Dussollier)
finds Marguerite's discarded wallet in a parking garage. Palet, a married
man who lives with a dark and undisclosed secret, seeks to return the
wallet personally to Marguerite. When she proves elusive, Palet leaves
it with the police. Marguerite retrieves the wallet from the police
and then feels compelled to thank Palet, which leads to a series of
awkward phone calls and attempts at communication. Palet finds himself
revealing some of his deepest desires, including his passion for airplanes;
as an amateur pilot, Marguerite eventually agrees to take him up in
her small plane. By this point, Palet's wife (Anne Consigny) and Marguerite's
friend Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) have been drawn into this odd relationship,
which has gone through a number of iterations before finally achieving
a strained mutual understanding.
Wild Grass moves in the slow
but irresistible manner of a lava flow, and the film's depiction of
elemental human desires suggests the bubbling action of submerged primordial
impulses. Color is of immense importance, varying from neutral earth
tones to crazily gaudy neons; the production design is meticulous and
forceful in this regard. The loving, fluid widescreen camerawork of
the great Éric Gautier and a remarkably graceful editorial style (thanks
to regular Renais and Polanski collaborator Hervé de Luze) merge in
some striking imagery, particularly during the film's final sequence,
which concludes with a pulse-pounding series of pans and cuts across
an alien, barren landscape before delivering a final blow with one of
the most jaw-dropping lines of dialogue of all time.
At age 88, Alain Resnais is in no way
off his game. Wild Grass challenges viewers to engage with cinema
in an unusually intense way. Nothing is to be taken for granted, nothing
is done for the sake of storytelling convenience, and every assumption
we have about the conventions of filmmaking is challenged whenever possible.
The inventive and eclectic score by Mark Snow matches the rapid shifts
in tone, from the comic to the foreboding, and there is an unnamed narrator
whose relationship to the film's characters and events is wholly nebulous.
There are suggestions of infidelity that may or may not have happened,
a group of singing pilots, occasional dental work, and expensive shoes.
Wild Grass is an investigation of deep-set human brain activity
- the ways and means by which we perceive and process information and
experience. As a counterpoint to the easy solipsistic "answers"
provided by most films, Renais has composed a searching, fascinating
The enhanced widescreen image looks good. Production design and
use of color are key elements in the film's overall effect, and the
bright colors are rendered with good fidelity. The film was shot
using a soft-focus effect, too, which gives the proceedings an unreal,
dream-like - if clichéd - quality. Lest anyone have the impression
that the picture is overly soft, the image of the DVD replicates the
theatrical experience ably. Colors are bold - almost neon-like
in many cases - and blacks are deep, with a certain amount of grain.
Compression artifacts are present but negligible.
The original French soundtrack is presented in a 5.1 mix that is immersive,
involving, and filled with subtlety. The eclectic musical score
by Mark Snow is given a broad soundstage to work with here, and sound
effects are plentiful. It's a good track.
Unfortunately, bonus content is excessively slim. There is
a short featurette about the film's production designer Jacques
Saulnier (6:30) and a theatrical trailer (2:05).
Wild Grass is bizarre, captivating,
and fanciful. Although it occasionally strays into tonally baffling
comedy, it continues Alain Resnais' tradition of creating highly academic
cinematic experiences that are entertaining, searching, and confounding.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.