Wild Grass

Sony Classics June 25, 2010


Les Herbes Folles 




Cannes Film Fest  2009 (In Competition)–The oldest director in competition this year was Alain Resnais, 87, founding member of the French New Wave, who has been making films for six decades, claiming one of world cinema's greatest masterpieces, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," back in 1959 (which won an award in Cannes).


This year Resnais was represented with the light, whimsical tale "Wild Grass" ("Les Herbes Folles"), based, like many other of his films, on a novel, "The Incident," published in 1996 by Christian Gailly, adapted to the screen by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiert.


It's always amusing to see seemingly mature and intelligent characters making fools of themselves over minor incidents that threaten to change the stability and order of their ordinary lives.  This is certainly the case of "Wild Grass," a playful, quite sophisticated fable, a throwback to the kinds of films that are not made anymore (not even in France). 


Though the movie is entertaining, it is by no means a major work in Resnais' overall impressive oeuvre, which includes such seminal movies as "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), the English-speaking "Providence" (1977), with a towering performance by John Gielgud, and "Mon Oncle d'Amerique" (1980).


Just note the age of the protagonists, who by standards of Hollywood cinema, represent senior citizens.  The tale's heroine is Marguerite (splendidly played by Sabene Azema, an accomplished stage and screen actress and regular in Resnais' films), a middle-aged femme-dentist with a long frizzled red hair.  In the course of the narrative, Marguerite gets involved in a minor incident that spirals out of control, thus bringing her into contact with characters that are just as (perhaps even more) as eccentric as she is. 


In the first scene, Eric Gautier's dynamic camera tracks her from behind, as if refusing to reveal her identity, as she shops for yet another pair of shoes.  Walking quite happily out of her favorite store, she is suddenly attacked by a guy who snatches her purse, which contains a very red wallet and some cash.  What's a woman to do?  Staying cool, she heads back to the store and asks for a refund for her shoes.  The gentle owner and his cordial staff oblige with a smile.


Cut to a suburban parking lot, where Georges (vet thespian Andre Dussollier), a retired man happily married to Suzanne (Anne Consigny) and father of two kids (Sara Forestier, Vladimir Consigny), finds the red wallet.  He decides to take action, both as a good citizen and curious voyeur; he's a bored man have too much free time to spare. Georges is intrigued by the photo of Marguerite, and later by the revelations that she is a single woman who flies airplanes as a hobby. 

From that point on, Resnais materfully constructs sort of a puzzle, based on a web of tangled interactions and emotions.  It includes two clownish, extremely amiable cops (the ever-versatile Mathieu Amalric and Michel Vuillermoz).  It's one of the film's running jokes that whenever Georges or Marguerite calls or visits the police station, they always encounter the same policemen.


Relying heavily on voice-overs, all the characters reveal a healhty and humorous identity split, a schism between their vivid fantasies, in which they rehearse alternate lines of action, and more mundane actual conduct, which is of course tamer, more cautious, often childish and cowardly.


It's to Resnais' credit that the comedy is engaging despite the fact that in the first half of the movie, which could be described as a comedy of miscommunications and mismanners, Georges and Mareguerite interact via notes and phone conversations, or rather messages they leave for each other on their respective answering machines.  Later on, when they actually meet, and sort of go on a series of dates, there are plenty of mishaps, unanticipated events, faux remarks, misinterpreted gestures, and so on.


What marks "Wild Grass" from other contempo French comedies is the subtlety in which the film is staged and acted.  The only concession to broad humor is evident in the sessions that describe Marguerite's practice as a dentist, often taking her anger on her obnoxious patients and colleague (lovely Emanuelle Devos).


The last three of four pictures of Resnais have had limited (or no) exposure in the U.S., mostly in festivals, but I hope "Wild Grass" gets a thetarical distributor.  Along with Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer (89), he is a distinguished member of a vanishing breed of auteurs.


End Note


Rohmer died after this review was written.