I walked into Fresno Filmworks’ screening Friday night (Oct. 8 ) of “Wild Grass (Les Herbes Folles)” at the Tower Theatre with a totally blank slate — no preconceptions whatsoever. I left with an overwhelming sense of “Whaaaaaa?”
The latest film by 88-year-old director Alain Resnais (still best known for his ’50s masterpieces, “Night and Fog” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”) is about shoes, stealing, stalking, obsession, double obsession and airplanes — and a whole lot of confusion.
The film was nominated for a Golden Palm at Cannes last year and four Cesars (the French Oscars) this year. (Resnais also won a Special Jury Prize and a Special Award at Cannes last year for his body of work.) I would’ve thought one of the nominations was for Weirdest French Film.
The story starts with Marguerite (Sabine Azema), a striking older woman with a shock of dyed-red, punkishly wild hair, trying on pair after pair of gorgeous shoes at a store before setting on a wonderful, and expensive, pair of red patent Marc Jacobs pumps to commit larceny for. (Girls notice these things …) She leaves with her purchase — and a kid on inline skates boosts her purse and speeds off.
Hours later, a white-haired older gentleman, Georges (Andre Dussollier), leaves the watch shop where he just bought a new battery for his timepiece. Back in the parking garage, as he gets ready to enter his car, he sees a red wallet. It’s Marguerite’s, with all the info still intact, including her driver’s license and her pilot’s license. Seems Georges has had a lifelong fascination with planes, and between that and the photos on her IDs, reflecting what seems to be an interesting life, his curiosity is more than aroused.
Back at his house, Georges — the father of two grown kids and the husband of a pretty blonde (Anne Cosigny) who seems to be not much older than the kids — is obsessing over how to return the wallet to Marguerite. Does he just call her? (He’s already looked up her phone number.) Does he bring it down to the police? Just seeing his thought process play out makes you uneasy and it makes you wonder about Georges’ mental state. Is he obsessive? Is he paranoid? Does he have early-onset dementia? Something’s just not right about him.
He brings the wallet down to the police station. Not too long after that, he gets a call from Marguerite, thanking him for returning the wallet. The film then gets weird, starting with an agitated “Is that all?” in response to her thank-you.
Upset that she didn’t find it necessary to meet at least with him for coffee, Georges writes her a lengthy letter, leaves a phone message every night and eventually slashes the tires of her sporty yellow Smart roadster. After that, the cop who took the wallet from Georges (Mathieu Amalric) and his partner (Michel Vuillermoz) come to the house and ask Georges not to contact her anymore.
But from there, it gets even weirder. Marguerite, feeling badly for Georges and perhaps missing the attention of a would-be suitor, starts obsessing about him in a increasingly intense danse macabre of unrequited love. And she becomes a stalker right back. She calls the house late at night, where Georges’ wife — who, despite being upset about hubby’s obsession — tells her what movie house he went to. That leads to her coming face to face with him (“So you do love me” is his first line to her), and some more odd, tense interactions between the two.
Which leads to even weirder heights — somehow, Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos), Marguerite’s best friend and partner in their dental practice, gets entangled in what suddenly becomes a bizarre love quadrangle. (And who saw this coming?) Which leads to a trail of pain in all their hearts and in the mouths of Marguerite’s poor patients.
And the questions start to pile up. Marguerite is a beautiful, well-rounded, extremely interesting woman with a successful dental practice, a beautiful place, an unusual hobby (she has her own plane and part-ownership of a World War II Spitfire), a cool car and all the shoes she could want. If she wants a man so badly, why does she choose a stalker? Georges has a beautiful and talented wife (Suzanne sells pianos) and, likewise, a beautiful house (with an indoor barbecue grille, to boot). Why does he need to pursue Marguerite? And why does Josepha, who warns Georges to stay away from her friend, give into him — but more than that, how does the way it happened make any sense? And why does Suzanne put up with any of this, and passively? To bring everything around to an earlier question, is it because Georges is a little unbalanced to start with, or does he have some sort of dementia?
And speaking of not making any sense, the non-sequitur ending just places an odd-shaped, odd-colored cherry on top of this mess.
The film is lavishly shot, with extremely rich colors no matter the time of day or setting. The scenes in Marguerite’s apartment particularly exude a sense of warmth and serenity which belies what’s going on beneath the raging red hair.
But all the window dressing in the world can’t hide the weirdness inside this story. And maybe, on some level, that’s just the point. Love doesn’t make sense sometimes. Nor do the seemingly random circumstances that lead to it. And we can’t readily see it beneath the surface of others, but it sometimes manifests itself in the strangest ways and circumstances. Or maybe there’s a stereotypical French-vs.-American sensibility thing going on here. Perhaps the French relish and understand these irrational premises better than we do, where people do unexpected things and men get entangled with two women who are not his wife.
In any sense, you’ll remember the stylishness and color that Resnais brought to “Wild Grass,” but you’ll remember more what a twisted and confusing film this is.