The opening sequence of Resnais’ latest film is an abstract one; a non-narrative medium-shot of a tower in a field, disused one assumes, into which the camera passes, through a blackened doorway. From this blackout, an edit posits us in close-up above a crack in a road or pavement, concentrating on the rugged grasses, or the herbes folles, of the title, obstinately growing there.
The next shot sees the camera flowing through a field of tall grasses, tracking forward, which cuts to the bustle of a busy Parisian pavement, at ankle-height, immediately making the link between the reeds; hardy, urban grasses and the hardy, urbane inhabitants of this and, by extension any, city the world over.
Whether this overture is a surprise, depends, one assumes, on whether one knows Resnais as the director of Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963), or of Not on the Lips (Pas sur la bouche, 2003) and Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs, 2006). We have been assured, by the critics, especially those at Cannes, that Wild Grass sees Resnais, quite nearly, back to his best. Truthfully, it is a film, which, whilst negotiating plains formerly and frequently investigated by the director, falters before reaching the cerebral brilliance of his earlier works.
Following the cryptic start, we meet Marguerite Muir (played with zany sparkle by Resnais’ current muse, Sabine Azéma), and discover the first hints that Resnais is re-visiting his past; a temporal mis-en-abyme of sorts as his oeuvre investigates various strata of ‘the past’ within itself.
Marguerite purchases shoes, but is mugged outside the boutique; her handbag snatched from her shoulder; and the film slows down, the yellow satchel suspended against the sun. Seconds later the film speeds up, unnaturally enhancing the efficiency of the shoe-shop staff, when she returns the shoes for cash. Time, is, of course, that topic to which Resnais regularly returns, like a memory persistently rediscovered for pleasure.
Already, one has the impression that Resnais is playing with ‘time’ and, in particular, mocking his perceived obsession with it. In combination with these simple accelerations of natural chronology, he employs flashbacks and an inorganic time-lapse. The latter is a roving, swivel through time (reminding me of the opening of Withnail and I) which begins with the protagonist, Georges Palet, his wife, their daughter and son-in-law, sitting on a sofa in their living-room, the camera passing right, delicately tracking over the empty room and, without edit, halting on Georges serving food from a barbeque, the other three gathered around a dining table a few metres away. The shot takes seconds, but in ‘real’ time it must be minutes later. Truffaut used this same device to brilliant effect in Les mistons (1957).
This sequence is succeeded by a scene glazed with a perfect, and painfully, bourgeois domestic bliss. Along with the episode of the exaggerated efficiency of the shoe-shop attendants, and other scenes to follow, it seems that the director’s manipulation of time is associated with the disorientation of the viewer, and the characters; locating all in a dreamscape.
Resnais invites a reading of parody, woven with an element of the fantastical, in presenting his (anti-)hero, Georges. The sequence opens on a close-up of a pocket-watch, and Georges’ voice remarking that ‘It must stop, soon it will run out…we all do’. We then cut to a watch-shop where Resnais concentrates his camera on a succession of shelves full of watches; their ticking reaching a crescendo on the soundtrack. Georges is tormented by time (as we can all be), the tick-tock emphasising every second’s passing, and reminding him he is progressing toward his own end. Much like the plethora of timepieces in Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) can be seen to forbode the eponymous character’s fate.
Georges’ obsession, race, with time is also reminiscent of that of the White Rabbit in the ‘Alice’ stories. Not only because of his anachronistic pocket-watch, but also when later a policeman (played by Mathieu Almaric) highlights that Georges’ hair is ‘…mostly white…’. This and the opening shot, delving into a blackened hole, Marguerite’s shock of red hair (the Red Queen or Queen of Hearts?) are hints that Resnais has placed his characters in a surrealist, fantasy world, a la Carroll.
The voiceover which hovers over the film, like an authorial pen over a page, more often simply expanding the narrative, metamorphoses at points into what is distinctly Georges’ voice. The ‘narrator’ could, in theory, always be Georges, but I could not find evidence to support this on one viewing. The first scene in which Georges’ voice is apparent in voiceover, describing his thoughts diegetically, is that in which he discovers Marguerite’s purse, stolen with her handbag, in a shopping centre car park. He looks at photos in the purse, including that of Marguerite’s aviator’s certificate, and we hear his lustful reaction, and then how he fantasises murdering a passing girl for the aesthetic faux pas of wearing black knickers beneath white trousers. This is, to a Thursday evening British Film Institue audience very, very funny.
Here Resnais also employs for the first time notes of cinematic genre tropes on the soundtrack, as a distinctly thriller/espionage string arrangement interjects into Georges’ thoughts. The soundtrack is imperative in the construction of the disjointed hyper-/un-real world which Georges, and, later, Marguerite, inhabit, as it flits from soft jazz standard to soaring invocations of pastoral beatitude; from the 20th Century Fox theme to horror movie shriek.
The fantasy worlds of Hollywood and Georges’ mind exist symbiotically. This raises plenty of questions as to who exactly our protagonist is. When later he pesters Marguerite with phonecalls and letters after returning her purse, and then progresses to slashing her tyres, one can imagine him reaching for the lapin and saucepan. If that would not be cannibalism.
When later he leaves a cinema, having seen the war film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) the voiceover states; ‘After the cinema nothing surprises you…Anything can happen’. Marguerite is waiting outside for him, and, after a brief chat and once she has left, he is seen outside the cinema again, where he walks backwards, moving in time, as an iris shot closes around him. He is regressing into early cinema, ‘classic’ genre movies (possibly via the nouvelle vague); romance, war, crime, even the film noir, and, from there, through reminiscence, into childhood.
This is one of many clues that Georges is, whether consciously or not, escaping a reality through these old films (and the planes in them; he spots and describes, on at least three occasions, particular warplanes).
The preoccupation with planes is mimicked in the myriad aerial shots throughout the film, the camera swirling and soaring in the air, viewing from above (and in Marguerite’s exploits as a pilot). Again, this begs questions about Georges’ sanity. Is he entering the first stages of dementia, a ‘second childhood’? (Note the prevalence of basic, primary colours in his memories, his fantasies.) We hear, once, from him, that his mother has recently passed and it may be that he is evading the reality of his own mortality, or that the grief forces him into this filmic fantasia; a world defined by his early memories.
Of course, being a Resnais film, it is no surprise that Wild Grass is about memory, or, more exactly, memories, reminiscences. His long-established cinematic vernacular; describing the philosophies, the questions, of memory, that oft-quoted Bergsonian realm, is imposed here, again, after years of absence.
Particularly, there is the repetition of the third shot of the film, that persistent memory, the camera travelling through long grass where it is difficult to be ceratin of spatial progression from the first instance to the last, grass being grass. Yet, this is strikingly prosaic; the quiet, slow, linear move through nature, when compared with the flailing aerial shots and the refined, slight editing (reminiscent of, but less effective than in Muriel) of the rest of the film. These interjections reminded me of comparable scenes in Andrzej Wajda’s 2009 Sweet Rush, and, similarly, Wild Grass is a late, thought-provoking film, sadly an exception, at the end of the career of one of the indubitably great European filmmakers.
The film’s conclusion collates its themes when Georges and his wife are invited to take a flight with Marguerite. When they arrive Georges needs to visit the Gents in one of the airfield buildings, where, once relieved, his trouser-zip gets caught, midway to dock. Marguerite comes to find him, they affect a Hollywood romance embrace, the Fox theme swells on the soundtrack, and ‘FIN’ appears on-screen. Yet, it is a faux-fin. The film persists, and they take the flight. When they are air-born, Georges is offered and accepts the controls, only for Marguerite to discover his exposal, his embarrassment looks like that of a pre-pubescent youth in the same situation, but, simultaneously, reminds one of those dreams when you leave your house with no clothes on. The camera tracks back and the too beautiful flight continues, only for the plane to veer into somersaults, the voiceover explaining that this is not an aircraft in which to attempt stunts, before a medium shot reveals what looks like Georges deliberately directing it into a steep ascent. As the camera cuts back to long-shot, the plane disappears behind a line of trees and, as the camera begins a pan left, we hear what could be the muffled extra-diegetic sounds of a crash.
The pan continues through kempt gardens, a graveyard, craggy, seaside rocks, and into a tiny hamlet, where it begins a forward track towards a cottage, cutting to a young girl in bed, who wakes and asks ‘Mum, when I’m a cat, will I be able to eat cat munchies?’; as maybe Alice would wake from her dreams/fantasy, with questions regarding cats.
As mentioned, Resnais is manipulating (his) cinematic language and the vagaries of ‘time’. Wild Grass is full of nods to his own cinematic past; the African mask in the corner of Georges study, alluding to his and Chris Marker’s Les Statues Meurent aussi (1950-53); the surrealistic cocoon of uncertainty surrounding the couple, conjuring thoughts of Marienbad; and the editing reminiscent of Muriel. Resnais is, in a sense, mocking this filmography, but, also, posits himself not so far from his central character, regressing, as he does, into films of the past.
The evocations of both Marker; via Les Statues and the references to Alice which elicit his The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), amongst others; and Varda, through Cleo (an African mask also appears therein as a nod to Les Statues); surround Wild Grass with the multitude of films, and history, of the ailurophile, rive gauche filmmakers, making of it an infinite loop of memories and some truly exceptional films.
Kierran Horner lives in London where he works and writes and previously studied English Literature as an undergraduate, and, as a postgraduate, Film Studies both at the University of London.