In "Wild Grass," legendary French director Alain Resnais has created a quirky, comic tragedy about the ways in which the aging brain of a mild-mannered gent named Georges begins to come apart in the end. It's not dementia exactly, but a deterioration of thinking that shifts thoughts, ideas, actions and reactions in unpredictable, and unsettling ways.
That didn't seem to have been the intention of the director, who was 87 when he completed the film in 2009 in time to take it to Cannes. Instead, Resnais has talked of being captivated by the strange seduction that begins between two people brought together by a stolen wallet and very fanciful imaginations. And yet the ways in which the march of time, bit by bit and without taking a breath, diminishes a life flows like a river through the film.
The story begins on the most ordinary of days with Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) shopping for expensive shoes she doesn't need when a thief snatches her purse. Her wallet is dropped next to Georges' (André Dussollier) car. His discovery of the wallet sets in motion a series of conundrums as he debates with himself, his wife, Suzanne (Anne Consigny), and eventually a policeman (Mathieu Amalric) the implications of the loss and the proper way to return it.
Based on the Christian Gailly novel "L'Incident" and adapted by screenwriters Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet, what should have been a simple matter becomes a strange mating dance as Georges and Marguerite begin circling each other, intrigued as much by the enigma of the unknown as the possibilities. But then Resnais has always been far more interested in the murky mysteries of the mind rather than the sharper edges of reality, and there are ways in which "Wild Grass" echoes his 1961 Oscar-nominated film "Last Year at Marienbad."
As a story goes, that in itself might have been enough, but Resnais is on his way to a gingerbread house of fright as Georges, married with two grown children and a comfortably posh life, begins to shadow Marguerite in increasingly disturbing ways. Despite the bizarre nature of things, Marguerite, who turns out to be a successful dentist, well into middle age and more at loose ends than she expected, finds herself inexplicably drawn to Georges too.
The image that the filmmaker and cinematographer Eric Gautier ("Into the Wild" and "Summer Hours" among an impressive list of credits) come back to again and again is that of wild grass. Weeds really, that grow up around flagstone paths, or stretch out along rural roads, beautiful at a distance but lethal in their ability to choke out any rivals for the space. That's what is happening to Georges as he finds himself, a refined and cultured man, struggling to keep control of his world and clinging to the hope that connecting with Marguerite will somehow help him reclaim those bits of himself being lost to the years. But the wild grass is winning.
As he so often does, Resnais uses his characters to explore states of being, and his three leads are old hands at doing precisely that. There are hints from wife Suzanne that there have been other women in Georges' past and that his now fragmenting mind is starting to worry her. But it is all done in soft strokes — the repeated request that Georges paint the trim on the house, the worry in her voice when she takes one of Marguerite's late-night calls, the weariness with his escapade that droops her shoulders. Azéma, in contrast, lets the excitement of this adventure sizzle through Marguerite's every move.
Dussollier, though, is the master of the moments major and minor here, using the slightest flicker in his eyes, a tightening of a jaw, to telegraph Georges' discomfort with and helplessness to resist the allure of Marguerite. In a conversation with the police after a particularly worrisome incident that Marguerite has reported, we see all of his confusion at suddenly finding himself in a place he never expected to be and not at all sure how his upright citizen got there.
A passion for flying — Marguerite, who is also a pilot in the hobbyist sense, and Georges, who regrets he never became one — becomes a loose thread stitching them together at the beginning and binding their fates at the end. It speaks of the freedom to soar unbound by earthly concerns and at times it works well — an encounter at the cinema where Georges has gone to catch a late-night classic World War II film on aerial firefights has a fog-and-trench coat "Casablanca" feel. Other times, particularly near the end, it moves toward contrivance.
Ultimately, "Wild Grass" is neither Resnais at his best nor at his worst. The film is rather more a winsome reminder than a full realization of the cinematic poetry he has made over the years with such films as "Night and Fog" and "Hiroshima My Love." Still, in the hands of an auteur, sometimes that is enough.