Alain Resnais' Wild Grass has plenty of fans — it copped an award at Cannes in 2009 — but I don't see what they see. The 87-year-old filmmaker's latest is an insufferable exercise in cutie-pie modernism, painfully unfunny and precious to a fault.
Adapted from a novel by Christian Gailly, Wild Grass is meant to be a madcap meditation on l'amour fou. Georges (Resnais regular André Dussollier) finds a bright red wallet stolen from Marguerite (Sabine Azéma, the director's reliably irritating muse). A middle-aged man with a suburban chateau and a beautiful, adoring wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny), Georges has an active fantasy life with a sense of indignation to match; he becomes fixated to the point of stalking the mysterious Marguerite, who was delivered to him by chance. Especially as played by Azéma, she is a fanciful creature — a maladroit dentist and a weekend aviatrix.
Marguerite initially rebuffs and then pursues her admirer in a tedious dance of attraction-avoidance scarcely relieved by the movie's fatuously self-mocking narrator and full panoply of coy narrative tricks, largely drawn from Gailly. No question that Wild Grass is a literary conceit: Flaubert's Sentimental Education is drafted as an intertitle to explicate the chaste passion of Georges and Marguerite ("We have loved each other well," Frederic tells the unattainable Mme. Arnoux. "But without belonging to one another") and a copy of Philip Roth's geriatric fantasy romance Exit Ghost is a carefully planted clue to Suzanne's infinite tolerance for her husband's nonsense. That she treats cantankerously daft Georges as a child contributes to the movie's surreal chronology: Played by a 65-year-old actor, Georges is described as looking 50, married for 30 years to a woman who could hardly have been 10 when the knot was tied.
Irrationality rules right down to the elaborate series of Freudian puns that set up the self-congratulatory non sequitur ending. Still, Suzanne's acceptance of Georges' foibles and his passion for Marguerite pale beside Resnais' devotion to the actress who plays the role, despite the "KICK ME" sign he has all but pasted on her derriere. Her hoarse quaver is extolled in the movie as uniquely charming; her mangy orange bouffant hairdo, less quirky than wildly unflattering, suggests a road-show production of The Lion King especially since the crazy, not-quite-lovers are prone to flirt and fight a la chimpanzé, all widened eyes and wildly pulled faces. (By contrast to this rampant spryness, the younger actors — Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, who plays a cop, and Emmanuelle Devos, the partner in Azéma's practice — are blessedly impassive.)
Despite a soundtrack alternating between blowzy faux-jazz and John Williams earwax, the movie is marginally less dreadful than the last half-dozen mash notes Resnais has produced for Azéma over the past quarter-century. But Wild Grass — not to be confused with wild oats — remains true to the arc of the filmmaker's career. During the period of Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais was burdened by undue solemnity; beginning with Life Is a Bed of Roses (1983), he executed an about-face and turned solemnly antic. Once upon a time, Resnais' heavy-handed themes were mitigated by his adroit editing. Wild Grass is a montage film as well and, with its skillful integration of high angles, slow motion, and mega-close-ups it's possible to watch it as an exercise — but only up to a point.
Was it the tight shot of Dussollier's bruised big toe? The zillionth exasperating view of Azéma's desiccated dandelion coiffure? When she, soon after, appeared in a tailored marching jacket, I entertained myself by mentally casting her as a passé British rocker, a degenerate dandy debauching her way to the Greek.