As the camera glides and loop-de-loops through the 88-year-old Alain Resnais’s surreal romantic comedy Wild Grass, primary colors take on a luminescent glow. Objects — a yellow car, a red dress, a blue doorway, even traffic lights — assume the heightened visual intensity of symbols in a waking dream.
Characters go about their days, as we all do, imagining what if? Their fantasies pop up in hazy live-action cartoon balloons that materialize alongside them. Eric Gautier’s voluptuous cinematography is synchronized with Mark Snow’s lush jazz-inflected music to evoke a tantalizing sense of mystery reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse game.
The movie’s opening image, one of several visual leitmotivs, is a shot of grass growing in the crevices between slabs of concrete. It is a wonderfully apt metaphor for how the anarchic imagination asserts itself in the humdrum of daily life.
Wild Grass uses a portentous narrator and includes ambiguous interior monologues. Its protagonist, Georges Palet (André Dussollier), is a suave, 60-ish Frenchman who, with his younger wife, Suzanne (Anne Consigny), has two grown children. Uncomfortably aware of the passage of time, Georges is of an age when it is tempting for a man with signs of memory loss to reconfigure bland reality by pursuing reckless passion and high drama.
As in Resnais’s other films, going back to Last Year at Marienbad, you are continually aware that Wild Grass is enchanted by the ability of cinema to seduce and play mind games that confuse the past and present. The opportunity to get lost in fantasy, of course, is a prime attraction of the movies. Resnais, instead of following market-tested formulas, makes films that defy expectations and deconstruct the moviegoing experience itself.
Wild Grass makes much of The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the 1954 Korean War movie starring William Holden and Grace Kelly to which Georges is drawn in the middle of the night like a sleepwalker. Later in the scene, in which the redheaded woman who obsesses Georges observes him leaving the theater, he is shown walking backward toward the marquee with his eyes closed. Wild Grass later uses Franz Waxman’s grandiose 20th Century Fox theme music to set up a false ending that feels more final than the real one, which arrives not long after in a weird little coda.
Did Georges commit murder many years earlier as he implies early in Wild Grass? Thoughts of murder plague him on and off, along with a lurking paranoia that his crimes are about to be found out. At the same time Wild Grass might be described as anti-Freudian. While Resnais plays with the concept of repression, his films reject the facile notion of prying into the secrets of the past to achieve catharsis.
That’s why Wild Grass is bound to frustrate viewers who demand stories that tie up neatly in ribbons and bows or that convey unambiguous messages. Although emotions swirl through this movie, which is based on Christian Gailly’s novel L’Incident, and adapted for the screen by Alex Réval and Laurent Herbiet, they don’t lead anywhere in particular.
Only if you take Georges’s behavior literally — he goes so far as to slash the tires of the car belonging to the object of his mad infatuation, leaving a note on the windshield confessing his vandalism — will he seem to be out of his mind. Wild Grass makes sense once you realize it is skipping around the levels of his unconscious. To put it baldly, it is a dialogue between the ego and the rampaging id, without the attachment of moral or psychoanalytic baggage.
The apparent triviality of the story, which begins when the purse of Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), a frizzy-haired redhead in a shopping mall, is snatched, will also frustrate some viewers. For a while Marguerite is seen only from behind. Once she is fully revealed, she is every bit as eccentric as Georges, who becomes enchanted after finding her discarded wallet in an underground garage, going through its contents and learning she has an aviator’s license.
The fiery Marguerite, a dentist, shown working in the office she shares with her best friend and professional partner, Josépha (Emmanuelle Devos), is so distracted by her thoughts that she blithely inflicts pain on her patients. She recently bought an antique Spitfire, a World War II aircraft for which she harbors an almost fetishistic adoration. In a scene so antic it threatens to burst into a dance sequence, a group of airplane mechanics serve her breakfast the morning after she spends a blissful night alone in the cockpit.
The heart of the film is Georges’s mad pursuit of Marguerite by telephone and letter. His stalkerlike tactics become so threatening that she consults the same Keystone Cops-like policemen to whom Georges returned the wallet, which is red, of course, like her hair. The moment he gives up his pursuit, the tables are turned, and Marguerite becomes the stalker.
Like its would-be lovers, Wild Grass chases itself in circles as it scrambles genres, examining seeing, thinking, remembering and imagining with a zany awareness. In Georges’s words: “After the cinema nothing surprises you. Everything is possible.”