Oh, those French. So cleverly paying homage to the affectations of cinema while indulging in ... the affectations of cinema. If 88-year-old director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad) weren't so stylishly competent, Wild Grass would be insufferably precious and exhaustingly whimsical. Even then, it comes pretty damn close.
Is the film a) a chaotic thriller or b) a goofball comedy or c) a fanciful meditation on the irrationality of love and obsession? The answer is: fish. Which makes about as much sense as this humorously muddled melodrama based on Christian Gailly's novel L'Incident.
The movie's French title is Les Herbes Folles, which more accurately translates into "Crazy Grass" — which is more appropriate, since Resnais doesn't seem to really know what the hell he wants to do with his film. But he certainly does it with panache.
Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) is a wildly redheaded dentist and amateur pilot (with extremely finicky shoe-shopping habits) who loses her wallet to a street thug. Georges (André Dussollier) is an affluent middle-aged misogynist who stumbles across said wallet. His aborted attempt to return her billfold launches a bizarre seesaw of obsession as George stalks Marguerite, then loses interest, only to have Marguerite stalk him. Clever film references and awkward literary allusions ensue as Resnais creates a film that's an endless succession of setups that have no natural conclusion. The perspectives change, the mood shifts, and at first you think the disorientation is purposeful, a light-hearted puzzle to be contemplated over cocktails.
And there's plenty to ponder: Is George a murderer? Or worse, considering his wife's age, a former child molester? Is Marguerite insane? Why does the film have multiple fake endings, going so far as to flash "Fin" beneath its faux finales? Resnais wears his too-obvious wit on his sleeve, exploring the concept of nonexistence (notice how far George and Marguerite go to avoid actually meeting each other) and social alienation while mocking the inherent fakery (and romance) of cinema. A dentist appointment is shot like a tense thriller, a pair of police officers interrogates George with Three Stooges-like aplomb; everything is shot in neon blues and reds while the camera contorts itself into showy angles. Say what you will about the director's goals, there's no doubting his craft.
Eventually, however, it becomes clear that Resnais' surreal touches and nonsensical stunts are little more than a self-indulgent lark, an exercise in meaningless meta-fiction. And the trick grows tiresome. While some may see Wild Grass as an affectionate reflection of movie-love or even experimental filmic expressionism, there's little substance behind his heightened artificiality. The characters are cartoonish, the narrative unravels into incoherence, and everything degenerates into arbitrary and self-reflexive lunacy. If the venerable filmmaker weren't an esteemed contemporary of the French New Wave, this twilight work would probably be dismissed as a fanciful exercise in aesthetic and intellectual masturbation.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 6-7, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 13-14, and at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 15.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].