I can't remember the last time I experienced such a gap between what the reviews told me and what a movie delivered as Alain Renais' Wild Grass. According to reviews good and bad, it's "cute", "freewheeling", "zany", and a lot of other adjectives that might lead you---certainly led me---to think it's a brightly-hued, albeit surreal, romantic comedy, ruefully self-aware and polished with Gallic wit.
Wild Grass is nothing of the sort. Like Resnais' classic Last Year At Marienbad, it's a horror movie about the fundament of misogyny: a man imposing his ontology on a woman with no regard for her subjectivity---but this time made much creepier by the director's ambivalent complicity in that imposition. It's also genre-damaged, confused, and profoundly slippery; I still can't decide if it's a cunning attack on the romantic comedy and the romantic thriller, or merely an old Frenchman's grumbling act of gender senescence, like listening to your Grandpa complain about not being able to pat the waitress' butt.
Misogyny drives the plot at every step, beginning with Margaritte Muir getting her purse (ahem) snatched by a young man outside a shoe store. Elderly ex-con Georges Palet finds her wallet, but before he can return it, he becomes fixated on Muir's ID photo. She calls to thank him for the purse's return, but like many a self-important male, Palet convinces himself that a simple act of decency merits a free pass to her vagina. He begins--- really there's no other word for this---stalking Muir, starting with angry phone calls and escalating to tire slashing. Muir calls the police, who warn him off in a marvelously-observed scene charting just how to give a suspect enough rope.
Now here's where things get really icky. When Muir attempts to confront Palet at a movie theater, she finds herself feeling affectionate, maybe even a little in love with her stalker. She ignores her friend Josepha's warnings and starts more or less pursuing him, though always insisting that his long-suffering wife come along. Her attraction to Palet (every woman's attraction to Palet!) is never explained, or even formally accounted for; even a tipsy Josepha seems unable to resist his liver-spotted charms, going from angry and afraid to putty in his hands the instant he moves in for a kiss.
The idea of an bitter, charmless old man who's irresistibly attractive to woman thirty years younger than him is a pretty standard trope of commercial cinema (and the repulsive late novels of Phillip Roth, prominently displayed at one point in the film), and it's disappointing that Resnais can't bust out something at least more unusual. Worse yet, the script blatantly violates the Bechdel rule, portraying a world where women, when alone, talk about nothing but cute boys. It's hard to believe the man who made Last Year At Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, either of which could serve as surrealist versions of The Handmaid's Tale, is making any kind of prescriptive pronouncement about womanhood. And there's certainly enough metacinematic gags to make me resist simply psychologizing the characters, or treating this behavior as reflecting Resnais' assumptions about the world. But there's not a firm enough satiric perspective to make the idea that this film is simply an apologia for sullen male privilege completely dismissible.
The semiotics of the movie make it even harder to pin down what Resnais' attitude towards his characters' lunacy is. As Palet's stalking escalates, Resnais deploys the long, wide shots and skittering strings of a standard-issue woman-in-peril thriller. But then, many of the scenes with Palet and Muir are scored with chipper jazz, and surrounded by bright colors, as though Resnais was making a parody of romantic comedies, where behavior that would get people put in a loony bin is just accepted as charming. In interviews, Resnais has said it's a movie about l'amour fou, but there's not much amour on display here, just a series of purely selfish demands, made with contempt and executed joylessly. It's like The Stepford Wives from the husbands' point of view.
The result isn't so much fascinatingly ambivalent as deeply unsatisfying, in no small part because the movie pivots on deliberately irrational behavior but bounces between genres where behavior is everything.. In a comedy, especially a parody, we accept characters doing ridiculous things because that's what happens in comedy. But if you're making a thriller, implausible action kills audience tension; it's not very scary to watch a moron walk off a cliff. Resnais refuses to commit either way, but it seems less like he's trying to do both than like he's trying to do neither---the shots aren't iconic enough to be comedy, nor withholding enough to thrill. There's occasionally low-comedy situations, like an extended open-zipper gag, but they're never very funny, and the sheer ferocity of Patel's contempt for women (and the movie's complacent furthering of that contempt) makes the laughs stick in the throat.
Many of the critics consider it "prosaic" to treat the movie's specifically gendered freakiness as being at all relevant to actual gender politics. But no one seems to have an idea what, if not misogyny, the movie is actually about. Is this an elaborate fantasy of Patel's that Resnais is cooly transcribing, like a highbrow Brent Easton Ellis? The film opens with a shot of wild grass piercing the pavement, but Georges is a relentless mower of his carefully-planted lawn; is this a satire of bourgeois repression? If so, it would need to explode its narrative more than it does, the way Resnais' early films emphatically did. Like Palet, the movie seems to have something violence and uncontrollable lurking beneath its manicured facade, but it never quite allows it to escape, and the result is a painful wreck.