Wild Grass is the sort of foreign film that makes American audiences loathe foreign films. It exploits how clever it is, teases a terribly unsatisfying conclusion with multiple endings, and, well ... it's French.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with being a French film. Some of the best and most influential films ever made have come from France, and in the past 10 years, Amélie, Swimming Pool, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (although it was directed by an American) and the radiant Marion Cotillard rank among the country's most memorable exports.
But Wild Grass feels unnecessarily French, intentionally aloof and artsy for the sake of being artsy. This is a bad entry point for someone hesitant to give subtitled movies a chance—and if you're used to reading while you watch, there are a host of better options available.
Director Alain Resnais has made much better films in his 88 years. Hiroshima mon amour, for example, is one of those legendary pieces of work from the French New Wave without which modern film would be harder to imagine. However, Wild Grass does not look like the work of a supremely experienced craftsman.
Some of the artifice here works to pump blood into an intriguing story, albeit one that, due to its nature, can maintain suspense for only so long. Georges (André Dussollier) finds a wallet that belongs to Margueritte (Sabine Azéma), who had her purse snatched after buying an expensive pair of shoes. Before contacting Margueritte to return her wallet, Georges begins acting out the scenario in his head: What does she look like? What will he say? How much can he learn about her over the phone? Georges is married, and to this point, presumably happy enough with his life. But he begins obsessing about the mystery woman with the missing wallet, fabricating ways to meet her and eventually leaving rambling messages on her answering machine.
It's here where Resnais' pacing betrays him. The film is too slow, even at 104 minutes, to get away with not pressing the story forward for most of the first hour. There are dozens of ways the story could go, and Resnais wastes even more time dropping hints about possible destinations without exploring them very deeply. Of course, it's difficult to build a movie if the main characters don't know each other and are never on the screen together, so that should have hastened throwing Margueritte and Georges together. The director's prerogative is to keep them apart for quite a while, though, and during that time, Georges' actual relationship is strained, and Margueritte slowly moves from being repelled by her new acquaintance to being compelled to meet him.
Resnais takes this adaptation of Christian Gailly's novel L'incident into some interesting territory visually, but it's usually at the expense of the story. He frames Georges' fantasies as a dreamscape, with richer colors than those in the characters' realities. It's a device, and in films, the best devices are the ones that don't dominate your attention over the journey of the characters.
Narration can be real hit or miss; stylistically, it's outmoded now, because filmmakers can show so many more things through effects, camera tricks or even locations than they could a half-century ago. Its usage here—especially during the first hour—is more of a throwback to American film noir. It works for a few scenes, but like most of Wild Grass, it gets old pretty quickly.
More than being a bad film, this is a failed attempt to make a good one. Both lead performances, along with Anne Consigny's work as Georges' ignored wife, are up to snuff, and the techniques Resnais uses to tell his story could be nice additions if the finished piece amounted to more.
However, it was never going to be a masterpiece, because there's just not enough on the page to raise it to that level. This could be a case of making a mountain out of a molehill.