Wild Grass is cute stuff—maybe too cute. It’s as if, well past 80, and belatedly responding to a now-established younger generation of oh-so-clever, cinema-mad filmmakers like Arnaud Desplechin, Alain Resnais has set out to make a film exclusively built around the idea of movie-love, comprised primarily of witty little moments of cine-invention. But while the Last Year at Marienbad auteur’s work has always seemed aware of itself as cinema, in the majority of his past efforts there’s at least been something of interest—a rigorous intelligence at play, an engagement with some kind of outer world—behind the technique. With Wild Grass, strip away the endless bits of quirky business and there’s nothing left to the picture.
Unfolding as a romantic seesaw between married sixtysomething Georges and kooky dentist Marguerite (played by longtime Resnais regulars André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma, respectively), the film announces its intentions to fetishize the offbeat (and color-coded) from the start, when its frizzy redheaded heroine has her hot yellow handbag stolen while walking down the street. The bag discarded by the thief, Georges discovers her wallet—bright red, just like her hair!—sitting in a parking garage. (Later we see that Marguerite drives a sports car whose color matches her handbag and that her apartment is decorated with red, yellow, and blue neon bars.) Intrigued by the two pictures of Marguerite he discovers in the wallet (in one she appears sad, in the other playful), he begins making a series of increasingly aggressive—and unwanted—phone calls to his would-be lover. Only after he’s warned off by the police and stops his pursuit does Marguerite begin to reciprocate his now waning interest.
Of course, all this is really an excuse for Resnais to throw whatever he feels like up on the screen, and so the film abounds in clever camera setups (as when the director pans around Marguerite’s entire car to establish that all four of her tires have been slashed), clever dialogue exchanges (two cops doing the fast-talking bit while Resnais rapidly zooms in on them), and open declarations of cinephilia (the film’s narrator announces “after the cinema, nothing surprises us”). But unlike this year’s other quintessential anything-goes late film, Tetro, in which just about every weird thing Francis Ford Coppola tried worked magnificently, Resnais’s offering suffers from the mistaken belief that merely poking fun at a movie’s artificiality is an inherently amusing tactic. So while some of the director’s offhand bits of reflexivity—as in a dental montage that he shoots like a sequence from a slasher flick—are at least amusing, far more typical is the film’s meta-nadir, an intentionally exaggerated embrace between Georges and Marguerite cued to the 20th Century Fox theme and emblazoned with the repeatedly flashing graphic “fin”—even though we’re still some minutes from the movie’s end.
And if you don’t dig these jokes, then you’re really out of luck, since there’s not a whole lot else going on. Resnais has never been a particularly warm filmmaker, but even here, when he dips, at least structurally, into the romantic drama, there’s almost nothing that seems genuinely felt—it’s all just a lot of half-clever nonsense. In the end, Resnais has a tender regard for the movies (witness the repeated shot of Dussollier framed by the doorway of a cinema, seeming to inch backward into its loving embrace), but he looks upon his characters as if they were little more than the titular stalks of wild grass to which he compares them in the opening montage and that he keeps intercutting into his film to drive home the thematic parallel. All of which would be fine if the film were half as clever as it wanted to be, but as it is, Resnais’s latest is little more than an intermittently amusing round of meta-play.