Known mostly for his groundbreaking early works, the haunting documentary Night and Fog, and his two features at the outbreak of the French New Wave, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais has not only worked consistently for the past 55 years, but he’s also never went a particularly long stretch without releasing a solid film. At age 88, Resnais is not simply sputtering along near the end of an unusually long and productive career; he’s producing exuberant, aesthetically engaging works that retain the intellectual fervor of his earlier films while adding a light-hearted romanticism and formal dexterity that keeps him at the forefront of this century’s French cinema.
In addition to featuring several wonderful actors from Resnais’ previous film, Private Fears in Public Places, his new film Wild Grass adds Arnaud Desplechin mainstays Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos — two personal favorite actors of mine — into the mix. With this stellar cast, Resnais examines desire and obsession in all its bizarre incarnations. The film begins with Marguerite’s (Sabine Azema) trip to a shoe store that she visits on a weekly basis — which is motivated by an inexplicable attraction to one of the female workers (interestingly, the film chooses never to clearly define her sexual preference) — to try on dozens of shoes for her self-professed strangely shaped feet. Upon leaving the store, her purse is stolen and her wallet is ditched near Georges’ (Andre Dussollier) car. Georges flips through the wallet and instantly becomes fascinated with her. When he later receives a call from her thanking him for turning her wallet into the police, he asks her to meet him. She denies, he protests, and from there, the duo’s offbeat and imbalanced dance of desire begins.
With a Hitchcockian attention to objects and the mysteries and importance they signify (the yellow purse acting as a not-so-subtle yet still much-appreciated nod to the Master of Suspense’s last great film, Marnie), Resnais spins a remarkably entertaining yet dark yarn about all-consuming desire and unrequited love and the mess these inevitable inconveniences of life leave behind. Stylistically, Wild Grass is ultra-modern, featuring acrobatic camerawork and self-reflexive flourishes that force the audience to examine the differences between their expectations within and outside of films. The un-reality of the film heightens as it goes along — including a comical use of the Twentieth Century Fox theme and repeated shot of Georges leaving the cinema — yet it is no less emotionally resonant. In fact, this transformation in the film’s second half helps to make sense of Georges’ increasingly bizarre behavior; it makes us question why we’d wish for the two to be united Happily Ever After when Georges clearly crosses the line from interested party to outright sociopath. And yet, Wild Grass does not take the oftentimes cheap shortcut of a film-within-a-film, instead choosing to build its own complex reality that is achingly human yet brimming with artifice.
Resnais’ cinematic playfulness gives the film a certain buoyancy, while the enigmatic nature of the script avoids simplistic psychological explanations in favor of a more elusive existential exploration of Marguerite and Georges’ exceedingly dangerous game of cat-and-mouse. Ultimately, anyone looking for concrete conclusions or psychological realism will be left immensely disappointed: the film’s logic operates solely within the illogical boundaries of passion and desire. On the other hand, those willing to embrace the film for its graceful aesthetic and self-deprecating humor will be amply rewarded. Although Wild Grass doesn’t reach the heights of Resnais’ earliest works, it provides ample evidence that the director can still produce vibrant and thrilling work and hopefully will continue to do so through his 90s as well.