When I saw Wild Grass last year at a New York Film Festival press screening, I found it mildly enjoyable but too preposterous to like very much. My favorite part of that screening was the Q&A after with director Alain Resnais, a charmingly direct man whose Night and Fog probably shaped my understanding of the Holocaust more than any other single artifact. Then I read some reviews—including one by The House Next Door’s own Keith Uhlich—by people who found the movie profoundly meaningful, and after all, this IS Resnais. So when my husband said he wanted to see Wild Grass this weekend I decided to go back and give it a second chance. I actually liked it less the second time around. Only one new thing resonated for me, and that was something Georges (André Dussollier) tells Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) after rewatching a movie he’d loved as a boy. It just didn’t do anything for him this time, he says.
When we first encounter these Marguerite and Georges, he seems to be living inside that Talking Heads song about the beautiful house and beautiful wife that the singer feels completely alienated from. Then Georges finds Marguerite’s stolen wallet and becomes obsessed with her based on her photo and pilot’s license. There’s some logic behind this infatuation, since he’s been an aviation nut since childhood, but all reason pretty much ends there.
The voiceover that lets us in on Georges’ state of mind helps humanize him, but it also makes him seem dangerously unstable and prone to unprovoked outbursts of rage. Broad hints are dropped about a past felony conviction and breakdown of some sort, and his unaccountably understanding wife (a graceful but sorely underutilized Anne Consigny) inquires frequently about his mental health. The first time I saw the movie, I wondered if the red Resnais keeps associating with the henna-haired Marguerite foreshadowed her bloody death at Georges’ hands—especially after he slashes her tires when she tells him to leave her alone.
I’m usually glad when a movie keeps surprising me, but time and again, things people do in Wild Grass are not just surprising; they’re baffling. No sooner has Marguerite enlisted a sympathetic cop to scare Georges off, for instance, than she apparently starts missing his attention and turns the tables to stalk him for a while.
I say “apparently” because nobody’s motivations are clear, starting with why Georges’ seemingly lovely wife and the accomplished and stylish Marguerite would put up with this man for a minute, let alone fall for him. The screenplay is adapted from a novel, and Resnais said at the NYFF screening that it’s very faithful to the original—right down to the playful ending, which is so aggressively nonsensical that it feels like a private joke. Resnais credited the book’s author, Christian Gailly, with the rhythm as well as the meaning of his movie, saying: “Unless you’ve written the screenplay yourself, you can’t call yourself the author of the film. And I’m far too lazy to write anything.”
Fair enough, but the director chose the book, breaking his self-imposed rule about filming only original screenplays for the first time in his 50-year career, and that makes it his story too. And I just don’t get what he saw in this stalker story, which seems to me like a more sophisticated (okay, much more sophisticated) version of Management. Yes, the heart has its reasons, and I get that the point of this movie is that people don’t always do the logical or rational thing. But just knowing that human train wrecks like this can happen isn’t enough to make me want to watch a movie about one—especially if I feel like it’s asking me to root for a relationship that seems seriously unhealthy for the woman involved.
I did enjoy the film’s style—its exuberant colors, the restless, ever-curious camera, and the way it wove ominous undertones into an essentially light surface—and of course I enjoyed the loving references to the power of movies. I also liked the playful tidbits the filmmakers insert at intervals to illustrate its characters’ thoughts and emotions, like the thunderclap sound and sudden zoom that make you feel the force of the belated coup de fedre that hits Marguerite as Georges catches her eye from across the street one day.
But even those bits of business sometimes feel labored or miss the mark. Why the coyness, for instance, in how Marguerite is introduced, repeatedly shot just from the waist down or from behind? Was that supposed to mirror Georges’ emerging view of her, or were the filmmakers just amusing themselves? And what’s with all the shots of Azéma’s feet? I know she’s Resnais’s lover, so I’m glad he likes them, but do we need to see so much of them? The Gustave Flaubert quote Resnais tosses into the mix feels wrong too, with its implication that this is the story of a great but failed affair (“No matter, we shall have loved each other well.”) As far as I’m concerned, Marguerite and Georges’ neurotic dance has nothing to do with love.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.