At the ripe age of 87, and exactly half a century since dropping a cinematic atom bomb with “Hiroshima mon amour,” Alain Resnais continues his career-long experiment in filmmaking with the playfully flamboyant melodrama “Wild Grass.” More freewheeling than 2006’s “Private Fears in Public Places,” but with a similar networking structure that connects the destinies of several melancholy adults into one intriguing web, the pic is marked by superb performances and a dazzling technical display by the helmer and praiseworthy cinematographer Eric Gautier. “Grass” should spread abundantly among the auteur’s enthusiasts, but probably won’t grow far outside the arthouse lawn.
Like “Private Fears” and several other recent features by Resnais, the film is an adaptation of an existing work that the director (this time aided by relatively inexperienced scribes Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiert) transforms into his own, often elusive, but rarely misguided dramatic vision.
Based on French writer Christian Gailly’s 1996 novel “L’incident” — which recounts how a stolen wallet results in an unlikely and unrequited love affair — the story starts with the event itself and then quickly spirals out of control, taking its characters through hilarious scenarios and digressions while always maintaining a dark undertone.
The two opening scenes, which trail protags Marguerite (Resnais regular Sabine Azema) and Georges (Andre Dussollier, impeccable) with lush tracking shots reminiscent of the helmer’s work from the ’50s and ’60s, show Georges scooping up Marguerite’s wallet in a suburban parking garage. Revealing their faces only at the end of each sequence, yet providing ample voiceover from both of them, the helmer portrays the characters doing one thing while imagining the amusing opposite — a technique he repeats throughout the movie.
As it turns out, Georges is a happily married family man with a lovely wife, Suzanne, (Anne Consigny) and two charming kids (Sara Forestier, Vladimir Consigny), while Marguerite is a single dentist who flies airplanes as a hobby. Immediately drawn to a photo of Marguerite in the wallet — and the fact that she’s a pilot — Georges nevertheless can’t decide whether to make contact at first, but eventually chases her down in harassing fashion.
For the first hour, the narrative dances around the couple’s numerous miscommunications, and Resnais keeps things interesting and surprising by delving into techniques that hail back to classic studio filmmaking. Employing several impressive pans, push-ins, and crane shots, the camera of d.p. Gautier (“A Christmas Tale,” “Into the Wild,” and Resnais’ “Private Fears”) is forever roving, but manages to hit the perfect closeup when one of the actors delivers a pivotal line.
The images are matched by Hollywood composer Mark Snow (“The X Files: I Want to Believe”), whose playfully retro soundtrack runs the gamut of themes from jazzy Lalo Schiffrin-esque rhythms to pounding thriller beats from the ’80s. Another form of music comes from the voiceovers themselves, whose succinct, lyrical flow mimics author Bailly’s simple but abstract writing style.
When Georges’ come-ons begin to feel dangerous, Marguerite contacts a pair of Keystone-style cops (Mathieu Amalric, Michel Vuillermoz), who show up at Georges’ for a hysterically offbeat interrogation scene. But nothing, not even Suzanne’s half-concerned questions, can stop this bizarre yet passionate romance from happening, and Resnais carries things toward a sadly inevitable conclusion that’s pulled off with supreme skill, as well as some of his trademark dissonance.
Always a strong and demanding director, the helmer gets marvelous performances from all the cast members, with Dussollier’s representing one of the better ones of his long career. As usual, Azema is completely on point in portraying someone who’s all over the place — a sentiment illustrated by her hairstyle, which looks like it was concocted with the help of a humidifier. Less forceful in its depiction of doomed extramarital affairs than his masterly “Mon oncle d’Amerique,” yet sharper in wit and comic virtuosity, “Wild Grass” shows that although Resnais has grown more light-hearted in old age, he hasn’t lost his desire to challenge the viewer on all levels.