“After the cinema, nothing surprises you,” offers one of Wild Grass’ many unreliable narrators a little more than an hour into this 104-minute cinematic souffle. “Anything can happen. It doesn’t surprise you. Anything can happen as naturally as possible.”
A little bit of everything happens in Alain Resnais’ madcap mash note to film language, and a fair amount not so much surprising as downright manic and baffling. The director who half a century ago tickled the visual cortex with such serpentine enigmas as 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour and 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad returns with another temporally slippery descent into a movieland rabbit hole. Only where the spasms of memory and forgetting in those two finely polished diamonds are suspended in melodrama, Grass, as with a fair amount of Resnais’ recent output, dives right into farce, at times straddling the surreal and the downright preposterous. Ostensibly the story of an amor fou between an older gentleman and the woman who’s wallet he finds, Grass darts from romance to comedy to mystery to absurdist prank, sometimes artfully and sometimes as clumsily as a teenage boy pawing at a brassiere’s clasps. Its pictorial power often intoxicates, but trying to latch onto its narrative thrust is more pointless than trying to shake hands with an eel.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t entertaining, just that some of its parts are much better than its whole. Middle-aged dentist and amateur aviatrix Marguerite (Resnais’ wife Sabine Azéma) lives outside Paris and travels to the city to treat herself to the shoes she prefers. While there, her pocketbook is stolen, and her wallet is eventually found in a parking garage by the retired older gentleman Georges Palet (Resnais regular André Dussollier), who finds himself intrigued and a little attracted to the woman who’s picture he finds on her aviator’s license—perhaps because he so adored planes as a young boy. He turns the wallet into the police, who return it to Marguerite, who wants to thank the man who found it. After one incredibly awkward phone conversation between Marguerite and Georges, she’s fine being through with him, but he wants something more—though he’s not sure what kind of more he’s seeking, completely ignorant to infatuation’s effect on his inexplicably understanding wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny). Marguerite, who initially rebuffs his attentions, soon finds herself seeking him out, much against the wishes of her friend and dental practice partner Josepha (the irreplaceable Emmanuelle Devos).
Now, just don’t mistake the relatively schematic plot synopsis above to be indicative for how Resnais constructs his story: Grass can feel scavenged together. A seemingly omniscient voice-over narrator (Edouard Baer) almost constantly comments on and qualifies the onscreen action, and his duties are occasionally usurped by the movie characters’ interior monologues, which follow perhaps imagined chains of events until they pool into tangential cul-de-sacs. Resnais’ montage often suggests relationships that haven’t been borne out yet (and sometimes never do); characters’ names and their relationships to one another are revealed almost over the course of the entire movie. Even the “omniscient” narrator breaks into the first person at one point, hinting at an intimacy with the characters and story he’s narrating that the movie never admits.
Other cinematic syntax curveballs get thrown in: a FIN title card accompanied by 20th Century Fox’s brass fanfare appears a few minutes before the movie’s actual end. A snippet of text from Flaubert serves as a narrative transition. Flashbacks get cut into scenes as if they’re contemporary events (well, maybe they’re flashbacks). And the soundtrack music leapfrogs from mainstream Hollywood thriller cheese (courtesy American TV veteran Mark Snow) to boilerplate crime-flick jazz. It’s as if Resnais hijacked Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Anne-Marie Miéville’s politically charged formal 1970s experiments with film language for the purpose of making a particularly nutty Julia Roberts romantic comedy.
How much you enjoy the result depends on how willing you are to go with Resnais’ whimsical flow. Fortunately, the movie’s top-shelf star is cinematographer Eric Gautier, who manages to give some of Resnais’ unusual compositions an enervating energy. For instance, in the movie’s opening introduction of Marguerite, Gautier stalks her from over her shoulder, never revealing her face, and prismatically following her in the act of shopping: her feet being fitted into a variety of shoes, the attendant placing unwanted pairs back in boxes, her purchase being nestled into a tissue paper-lined bag. When her purse gets snatched, Gautier shoots it with the thief’s hand clutching its strap and the bag itself trailing behind as if a flag rippling in the wind. Gautier can’t sustain this creative vim throughout, but even before the story jettisons casual logic for free-wheeling irrationality, the cameraman offers dollops of simple visual pleasures.