In Wild Grass, octogenarian French filmmaker Alain Resnais tackles love among the oddballs.
Some movies deserve their own column all to themselves. Though far from perfect, Wild Grass is certainly such a film.
Wild Grass (Sony Pictures Classics)
When you see (and write about) a lot of movies, it's inevitable that the sheer bulk of cinema you're digesting makes it harder to remember specifics about any one film. You might assume, then, that this means I largely forget the terrible films, while the real gems remain firmly etched in my mind. But that's not entirely true: A lot of perfectly competent good-to-great movies get flushed out of the memory banks pretty quickly because they lack anything that's genuinely memorable. In truth, quality has little to do with it; a film's ability to get at my emotions (whether good or bad) helps make me remember it.
I say all that because, while I know I'll see dozens of films this year that are better than Wild Grass, the new comedy-drama from French filmmaker Alain Resnais, there probably won't be that many that will have me actively fighting with myself as much as this one has. I know how I feel about Wild Grass, but its tonal curlicues and bold, odd flights of fancy leave me uncertain. And so rather than tossing the film into the pile of discarded cinematic experiences, it remains lodged in my brain, refusing to go away.
The trace outlines of the plot sound like suitable fare for a nice, genteel evening out with your best gal. Based on a novel by Christian Gailly, Wild Grass is about two middle-aged souls: the dentist Marguerite (Sabine Azema) and the melancholy Georges (Andre Dussollier). They don't know each other, but Georges would like to change that. After her purse is stolen, Marguerite's wallet ends up on the floor of a parking lot nearby where Georges has left his car. He picks up the wallet, sees her picture, and becomes instantly enchanted. Sure, she's an attractive woman, but the level of his interest seems to go deeper than that. Besides, he's already married to a very attractive (and younger) woman, played by Anne Consigny. And yet he pursues her, conspiring to find a way for them to meet.
French films of a certain whimsical temperament concerning the potential coupling of eccentric, lovable individuals are nothing new and, given their frequency, are clearly encouraged by the smart set's date-night crowd. But while Resnais is interested in whimsy, he's also after something deeper and stranger -- something I don't think even he entirely understands. Indeed, not since the masterful Punch-Drunk Love has a love story been this willfully loopy and beguiling. Some films frustrate you with their digressions and off-key moments; here, they're part of the decor.
The secret of Wild Grass is that just like Georges, whose infatuation for Marguerite soon flirts with stalker-ish behavior, the film itself feels genuinely, gently unhinged. (Even the movie's unseen narrator starts to seem unreliable.) Just as Paul Thomas Anderson's schizo romantic-comedy seemed to take its erratic tone from its blissfully odd-duck couple's nervous rhythms, Wild Grass only slowly starts to announce itself as a sort of slow-motion portrait of midlife crisis and regret. Resnais never explains anything in his film -- what precisely draws Georges to Marguerite, what eventually wilts her reserve, why exactly two unlikely characters among this ensemble later engage in a passionate lip-lock -- and although such ambiguity can lead to charges of self-indulgence, the confidence of the filmmaking is such that I was willing to let Resnais dictate the terms.
But only up to a point. Wild Grass glides along to its own tune, powered by an exceptional score from X-Files composer Mark Snow, but Resnais never quite brings these unusual characters into focus. Part of this is almost certainly due to design, making Georges and Marguerite's cockeyed, not-quite love story an unknowable mystery, much as our own penetrating love for that special someone can seem unfathomable to outsiders. (Speaking of special someones, my wife is much less charitable than I am about the film's lovebirds: She hasn't hated characters in a major filmmaker's movie this much since Happy-Go-Lucky.) But Dussollier and Azema ultimately feel a bit at the mercy of their director's grand design, which is sumptuous and feverishly romantic. Nonetheless, it's that lack of the messy human element that ultimately drags down Wild Grass.
And then there's the ending. When it premiered at Cannes last year, colleagues mentioned that the finale was utterly baffling and/or brilliant. (And as a faithful apostle of 2001, I especially thrilled to comparisons to Kubrick's greatest masterpiece's mind-blowing final sequence.) Well, now that I've seen it, I think it's as stunning and frustrating as the rest of Wild Grass. The ending is executed with complete confidence and immeasurable skill. But I can't say it made me feel that much. Resnais has made a love story for the head and the eye. Most love stories don't even go that deep, which makes it all the more sad that he doesn't complete the hat trick and nail the heart as well. Still, more than a week after I saw it, Wild Grass keeps eating away at me. Much like Marguerite resisting Georges, I wonder if eventually over time I'll succumb to this film. Love can do that to you.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.