Wild Grass Review
As with almost all the director’s work post-Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980), there’s something of a social or human behavioural experiment in how Alain Resnais’ films gather together a group of characters who are subjected to external pressures that have unforeseen complications that reveal something quite unexpected in them. Often these revelations are internalised conflicts that are consequently difficult to put into words and even more difficult to depict on screen, but if anyone is capable of achieving it, it’s Alain Resnais, now 87 years old and still one of the great innovators of French cinema.
As the opening title sequence makes clear, the title Les herbes folles (Wild Grass) relates to the extraordinary tenacity with which grass can take seed in the most unexpected of places and flourish – in a crack in the road, on a roof, on the side of a wall – resisting all attempts to tame and control it, breaking through to the surface and thriving. Similarly, in the film itself, which seems to start off floating along to its own regular rhythm following a glamorous lady, Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) through the expensive boutiques of Paris, a seed is implanted in the form of an unexpected and unsettling incident that randomly introduces an initially unwelcome, but nonetheless unavoidable new element in her life.
That incident comes in the form of the theft of Madame Muir’s yellow handbag, snatched from her hand immediately after she has left a shop after a long but agreeable transaction to buy an expensive new pair of shoes. But that’s only one half of the equation. The red wallet that was is the bag is later found in a car park, with no money left inside but all the lady’s identification and credit cards, by Georges Palet (André Dussollier). Georges does his duty and hands the wallet into the police station (which in itself is not entirely without incident involving an altercation with the on-duty officer played by Mathieu Amalric), but the discovery of the wallet, the name and the identification inside, and particularly for some reason the discovery of the lady’s pilot’s licence, all serve to implant a wild grass seed in the head of Georges, leading him to start making somewhat inappropriate advances to Madame Muir, initially through phone-calls and letters without ever meeting or even seeing her in person.
There are several ways of viewing the often bizarre incidents and behaviour that subsequently develops in Wild Grass. Anyone who has been unconvinced by Resnais’ work on recent films which have varied between music-hall melodrama and highly stylised theatrical adaptations are unlikely to see any change here. The altercations between Azéma and Dussollier – both playing more than a little over-the-top – their relationships with the people around them, and the increasingly bizarre incidents that ensue from this central incident, would seem to drive the film to level of pure farce, but Resnais, through his unconventional techniques, is able to draw out something much more meaningful than this, even if it is to varying degrees of success.
Although the director has adapted music-hall, theatre and even scientific studies before and worked with several notable writers (Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Alan Ayckbourn), Wild Grass is, to my knowledge, the first time Resnais has adapted an existing novel for the screen. Adapting freely from Christian Gailly’s L’incident, Resnais’s intention however is to get into the world depicted by the author in all of his books and find a way of expressing on the screen the conflict and disparity between intentions and realisation. Questions and choices made by the characters in the film are never straightforward, but come about as a result of a number of conflicting, random and indeed sometimes even inappropriate impulses, a process that that Resnais seeks to express through light, colour, dialogue and situation.
One could suspect that some or even all of the characters are somewhat imbalanced, but in reality Resnais manages to show that all human behaviour, when you examine the underlying internal thought processes, external influences and past experiences that go into influencing behaviour and reactions, can indeed be rather more strange and complicated than is evident on the surface, particularly when characters interact and don’t behave according to the preconceptions one has formed of them in the mind. In the matter of the subject then and the way that the director fearlessly continues to explore and experiment with ways to depict the bizarre experience that is human mind and human behaviour in a social context, Wild Grass, if not among his best work, remains firmly within the sphere of Alain Resnais’ concerns and worldview, showing that the director is still vigorously experimenting and having a great deal of fun in doing so, and at 87 years old, is still one of the most fascinating and important filmmakers in the world today.