At 87, 50 years after Hiroshima mon amour, French director Alain Resnais continues his long, fruitful experiment in filmmaking with a jubilant movie that defies genres and categories. If anything, Wild Grass would have to be shelved under “human comedy” – “French”, some grumpy souls might add (I’m referring here to its amazing success at home and the bafflement among some foreign audiences). But that would be missing the universality of real geniuses, be they filmmakers or plumbers.
Succumbing to the current adaptation frenzy, Resnais based his new film on L’incident, a novel by fellow Frenchman Christian Gailly. Both recount how a stolen wallet results in an unlikely and misrequited obsessive love affair between the married sexagenarian Georges Palet (Resnais regular André Dussollier; superb) and the Mankiewiczian-named Marguerite Muir, a fifty-something single dentist who moonlights as an aviatrix (Sabine Azéma; another regular and Resnais’s wife).
Both novel and film start with the “incident” itself – the theft of Marguerite’s purse, which is seen flying through the air – and spiral back, 104 minutes (or 256 pages) later, to the flight motif (it’s a looping plane this time) in an unexpected ending. In between, Georges finds the aforementioned purse and we follow his hilarious agony as he daydreams up many scenarios of its return to its fantasized owner and her anticipated reaction. Of course, nothing happens the way he imagined it would and George, who’s a bit of a creep behind his proper middle-class pater familias façade, obsesses away.
Resnais’ camera glides through the extravagant plot, taking full and obviously jubilatory advantage of his cinematic tool box to express (as opposed to illustrate) the texture of Gailly’s book. Voiceover, superimposed images, slow-motion rewind: there seems to be no limit to his creative freedom. The film invokes a dreamlike atmosphere amplified by the amazing Fauve-coloured, cartoon-like shots – neon greens and incandescent reds dissolving into people’s faces – elliptical plot and mood jumps, all perfectly orchestrated by Mark Snow’s musical score (from Hollywood to free jazz).
The film’s title literally translates as “crazy grass”, and the characters are as crazy as the grass which, against all odds, grows in the crack in a wall or creeps in between a patch of concrete and an office building. “These are two people who have no reason to meet, no reason to love each other. In French, ‘les herbes folles’ means a plant that grows in a place where it has no hope of developing. I wanted to say that I consider these two characters to be completely deprived of reason,” said Resnais. And aren’t we all reasonless when we finally let go of daily social conformities to act on our own, individual whims?
It is so refreshing to see characters larger than film devices: at no time do their actions and motivations seem to make sense to the viewer, or worse, take the script anywhere – an arguably unsettling experience for some. But as the dynamic between Georges and Marguerite spirals onwards, the film blossoms and elevates itself towards new, rarely explored cinematic possibilities. When it culminates with Marguerite’s small vintage plane pirouetting out of control in an early spring sky, we’re on cloud nine.
LES HERBES FOLLES (WILD GRASS/VORSICHT SEHNSUCHT) Directed by Alain Resnais (France 2009) with André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric. French OV. Starts April 22.