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
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. Highly recommended.