Like the 102-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, the 88-year-old Alain Resnais gets a lot of publicity mileage out of staying active in his old age. While seniority hardly necessitates critical leniency, the most impressive aspect of “Wild Grass,” Resnais’s twenty-fifth directorial effort, comes from its energetic youthfulness. Adapting Christian Gailly’s novel “L’Incident,” Resnais employs a series of endearingly playful, almost juvenile stylistic methods. By capitalizing on zany visual flourishes, he constructs a lightly poetic modern fable about the pratfalls of growing old.
The early narrative experiments that put Resnais on the map of the French New Wave’s Left Bank hold a unique spot in the history of the medium for their dense philosophical motives. “Hiroshima mon amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” continue to enthrall and perplex audiences today as achievements that the comparatively simplistic “Wild Grass” seems unlikely to replicate. But that’s not to say it lacks sizable ambition.
Looser and more spirited than the director’s strongest features, the movie nevertheless has a likeminded structural dexterity. The story takes cues from an insightful omniscient narrator as a series of coincidences lead to the intersection of random lives. The happenstance occurs with a breeziness that borders on fantasy, echoing the emotional fragility of its aging protagonist, a man in constant denial of his own problems.
After an introductory sequence in which the middle-aged single woman Marguerite (Resnais muse Sabine Azéma) loses her purse to a thief on wheels, the focus shifts to Georges (André Dussolier), a spacey gentleman who randomly comes across Marguerite’s discarded wallet in a parking lot. After developing an immediate obsession with her solely from her photo, Georges begins to pester Marguerite with repeated phone calls and letters. Initially shocked, she enlists the help of a stern police officer (Mathieu Almaric) to mute Georges’s affections. Later, however, a sudden role reversal finds the stalker turning into the stalked.
Georges and Marguerite find themselves drawn together as the key performers in a movie principally devoted to sweetly captivating imagery. Resnais opens with the image of grass peeking through a crack of concrete, suggesting the sense of beauty that sneaks into daily routines. The world of “Wild Grass” thrives with such unexpected poetic sights, often captured by cinematography Eric Gautier in luscious yellows and greens: The slo-mo shot of Marguerite’s stolen purse in the thief’s hands, the close-ups of feet in a crowd scene, and the image of Georges walking backwards into a movie theater with his eyes closed all function in the service of an enjoyably lyrical tone.
Resnais treats his characters as pawns of his existential farce, even setting their romantic encounters to the 20th Century Fox fanfare on two separate occasions. His techniques are so cinematically extreme that some viewers might consider them obnoxious. But “Wild Grass” never screams to be taken seriously – the narration has more in common with “Arrested Development” than, say, “Night and Fog.”
Ending with a random dark turn upended by the script’s final goofy non-sequitur, “Wild Grass” mainly amounts to a series of surrealistic indulgences. Resnais’s capricious tendencies could be seen as irksome if we assume the director loses credibility when he drops the gravitas. But if his latest feat lacks focus, then it successfully embodies the subjectivity of its memorably neurotic subjects.
[Sony Pictures Classics opens “Wild Grass” in New York and Los Angeles Friday.]