I’ve seen relatively few films by Alain Resnais and certainly nothing since the 1970s. However, I was primed for Les herbes folles because several people had asked me to explain it. They seemed angry because it had been so frustrating.
Approaching the film from this perspective, I rather enjoyed the whole thing, but it did feel like an extended joke about cinema, narrative and the emotional responses of audiences. No bad thing perhaps? My enjoyment was heightened because three of the leads were familiar from many of the French films from the last few years. I hadn’t noticed before that André Dussollier has worked consistently with Resnais for many years, as has Sabine Azéma. I don’t remember seeing her before, but she seemed familiar somehow. (She is also Resnais’ partner.)
Plot outline (no major spoilers – they probably wouldn’t help anyway!)
Marguerite (Azéma) is a dentist with a passion for shoes and flying (i.e. being a pilot of a small aircraft). One day she buys some new shoes but has her bag snatched in Paris. Georges (Dussollier) is a (retired?) house husband in a solidly bourgeois outer Parisian suburb. He finds Marguerite’s wallet abandoned by the bag snatcher and eventually takes it to the police. A set of awkward relationships then develop between Marguerite and Georges, the police (Mathieu Amalric), Marguerite’s colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny). There are clearly ‘back stories’ for the characters that don’t fully emerge, so as an audience we must try to make sense of where these relationships might lead and what the characters’ motivations might be – or whether this is indeed important or not.
Resnais and narrative
There are several clues to the Resnais style/approach that make it much more accessible. First, Resnais is a fan of theatrical comedy and in particular the British writer-director Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais has adapted two of Ayckbourn’s plays. He also draws some of his cast from the Comédie-Française. I got a strong whiff of Ayckbourn in many of the encounters in Les herbes folles – which often seemed to comprise a series of sketches. Resnais has generally adapted either plays or novels as the basis for his films and in his early career he was associated with the avant garde nouveau roman movement, adapting works by the leading figures Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Les herbes folles is an adaptation of a novel by Christian Gailly called L’incident (1996). As far as I can make out, Gailly is also interested in narrative and self-reflexivity. I think I read somewhere that Resnais makes two jokes about adaptation in Les herbes folles. First he has an extended sequence in which Georges goes to a screening of a re-released Hollywood film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a Korean War drama with William Holden and Grace Kelly. Resnais is often associated with the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. I’m not sure he actually ‘fits’ that description, but showing visits to the cinema is a central feature of the films of Truffaut and Godard. You know that they will have chosen a specific film for a reason. Here, however, Resnais stages the sequence in a highly artificial way and he claims never to have seen the film – he is only using it because it is in the novel. At the very end of Les herbes folles, there is a short scene that appears to have no connection to anything else. Resnais says that it does occur in the novel – but elsewhere in the narrative.
Yet, to return to film references, the approach to narrative in Les herbes folles seems to invite audiences to think about other films that they might have seen. The opening of the film is quite striking, focusing mostly on the feet and legs of Marguerite with her yellow handbag. One of my first attempts to study film in terms of its textual detail focused on the opening to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) – which begins with a close-up of a yellow handbag and pulls back to follow the handbag’s owner, shown only from the rear and mostly from the neck down. Another famous Hitchcock opening, Strangers on a Train (1951) begins by following two pairs of feet/lower legs arriving at a railway station. I don’t know the extent to which Resnais was a Hitchcock fan but there are Hitchcockian elements in the humour/farce here. In fact the film moves easily between romance, film noir, comedy and horror. Rona watched the film with me and commented at the end that Resnais should leave ‘Lynch country’ to David Lynch. I’m not much of a Lynch fan, but I could certainly see something of Blue Velvet, especially in Resnais’ use of a bold of palette striking colours. The other strong thread running through the film is flying with Georges as what in the UK would be called an ‘anorak’ (having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific topic, usually requiring technical terminology/detail) and Marguerite referred to in terms of the female aviation pioneers of the 1930s. One film that also came to mind in the aerodrome sequences was Patrice Leconte’s Tango (1993). The Bridges at Toko-Ri also features a flying narrative.
So, Les herbes folles is an elaborate puzzle narrative – but don’t go expecting a satisfying resolution, there isn’t one. Enjoy its playfulness, lovely performances, glorious colours etc. Personally, I found it very funny. I’ve seen it described as ‘youthful’ and ‘skittish’ but it seems more like the (confident and assured) work of an 88 year-old who knows everything about cinema and feels able to indulge himself.
Here is the (terrific) American trailer in HD which illustrates most of the above. Enjoy!
. . . and here is the opening to Marnie (watch at least the first 7 minutes):