Wild Grass kicks off the 47th New York Film Festival, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with two sold-out screenings tonight. The film will be released stateside by Sony Pictures Classics next year.
When you see Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass, as The L heartily recommends you do, it’s almost a shame you won’t be seeing it at a press screening: when the film’s busybody narrator intones, “After the cinema, nothing surprises you. Everything is possible”, you’ll miss the sound of a hundred-odd critics scribbling in their notebooks as one. This line is the closest the New York Film Festival’s weirdest Opening Night selection in recent memories comes to justifying itself: this Dada comedy of impending mortality, a loop-the-looping tale of amour-foolishness, asserts cinema’s capacity for realizing the irrational hungers of the human heart.
The 87-year-old Resnais has explained that his film’s title—and insert shots of grass spouting up through cracks in concrete—refers to the irrepressibility of human desire. Based upon a novel (by Christian Gailly, as yet untranslated into English) called L’Incident, Wild Grass begins by delineating the sequence of coincidences which leads, like fate or the plot of movie, to Georges Palet (André Dussollier) discovering the wallet of Marguerite Muir (Resnais’ wife Sabine Azéma), a Miss Frizzle-haired dentist and amateur pilot of restored WWII-era dogfighters. Naturellement, he immediately becomes obsessed with her. His hounding becomes more serious—his schizoid inner monologue seems to suggest that he killed a man in his youth, a thread that is abandoned as breezily as it’s introduced—progressing from letters, to phone calls, to slashed tires (the camera tracks all the way around Marguerite’s yellow car for four successive Dramatic Reveals). As it does, Marguerite becomes more receptive—as does her fellow dentist and best friend (Emmanuelle Devos), and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigney). Desire is viral, it seems, or aesthetically persuasive.
It seems germane to note that Resnais has previously directed a film called Love Unto Death. Georges is introduced pondering his own mortality—surrounded, of course, by ticking clocks, a goofily obvious, exaggerated metaphor. Aging seems to have stripped Resnais’ protagonist of his inhibitions; Resnais, too, who indulges his impulsive characters with a primary-colored neon lighting scheme, crane shots, genre-signifying music (light jazz and baroque thriller strings in particular), and absurdly literal stagings of their speculations. (When Georges imagines Marguerite, she’s always done up like Amelia Earhart.) Resnais whimsically follows the course of his own whims, seeding Wild Grass with throwaway sight gags and digressions. When Georges drops Marguerite’s wallet off at the police station, no cop is on duty—they’re all in the back room, silhouetted against glazed glass, chortling over cocktails. Marguerite spends much of the movie in a black Sgt. Pepper jacket (she has Warhol-lite silkscreens of the Beatles in her office). Anne Consigny seems not to change her clothes for weeks on end. In a climactic montage, perfervid Marguerite drills patient after patient to excruciating pain, then flings off her surgical mask to drive off and sleep in her cockpit. (She’s woken by her quartet of mechanics, wearing bomber jackets and scarves, serenading her and bearing breakfast in bed.)
And, as critics have noted with varying degrees of perplexity, Wild Grass ends on its most abrupt dogleg, in which the warm, wacked-out spirit of Resnais’ characters seems to be reincarnated in a completely different, similarly sweetly bizarre movie. Perhaps the line that we all should have scribbled in our notebooks wasn’t the narrator’s proclamation about the movies, but something Marguerite says to Georges shortly afterward. Wistfully, she admits to him that she doesn’t get out in her plane as much as she used, but that “I hope to fly again soon.” Don’t we all.