When Matt Damon's Mark Whitacre first launched into his scattershot interior monologue as he strode across the drab, open-plan offices of Archer-Daniels-Midland, the cinetrix was struck by an unexpected echo. Perhaps a week earlier I'd been fortunate to catch a press screening of Alain Resnais' latest, Wild Grass, which opened this year's iteration of the New York Film Festival and, yes, featured a similar, all-synapses-firing narration increasingly at odds with the images.
Soderbergh's third film with the RED camera adopts an intentionally beige-blah 1970s palette, making it -- visually -- an odd bedfellow for the lifted-from-Hitchcock [Vertigo] jewel tones Resnais deploys from our first glimpse of Sabine Azéma's penumbra of red hair onward. That's because The Informant! shows us Whitacre's world as others see it, where the only bright spots are the paint jobs on his ever-growing fleet of cars and the corn cob on his plate. Wild Grass, on the other hand, shows us the world as it should be, according to dreamer Georges, one where chance and circumstance lead naturally to fated romance, clinches, and irises out [or else]. It's what the movies have always promised, as the stinger-like uses of the 20th Century Fox fanfare on the Grass soundtrack [and, indeed, Marvin Hamlisch's entire blowsy caper score for The Informant!] are quick to remind us. But if you close your eyes and listen carefully, the music and the cock-eyed contrapuntal sound effect created by the films' bizarre voice-overs suggest a strange aural kinship.
Given that The Informant! and Wild Grass are each [unlikely] adaptations of [unlikely] books about deluded dreamers, the presence of narration is not surprising. Voice-overs are frequently used to give audiences access to characters' interiority when they leap from page to screen. The tone, however, is. Both works tell the stories of small men struggling with the task of self-fashioning in worlds that have already typecast them as supporting actors. So it shouldn't surprise us that when Whitacre turns informant to help the F.B.I. uncover Archer-Daniels-Midland's role in an international price-fixing scheme, he wants to shout it from the rooftops. Hell, he pretty much does, claiming at one point that he's "secret agent double-oh fourteen" -- because he's twice as smart as 007 -- and narrating every excruciatingly banal detail of his workday once he starts wearing a wire. The attention of the F.B.I. validates him, tells him that he matters. He's a hero. But should we trust our eyes? Access to his inside voice provides our only clue that this guy's story is as unlikely as his toupé. It caroms from Michael Crichton and The Firm, to repeating "quart, quart, quart" to himself, to this gem: "Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do polar bears know their noses are black? Did they look in the water one day, see their reflection and say, 'Man, I'd be invisible if it wasn't for that thing.'"
Invisibility is Georges' greatest fear. He resents being written off as an older man, out of the game and ignored by young women walking by, who are unable to hear what we can -- narrator Edouard Baer's voice-over matter-of-factly revealing Georges' murderous impulses. Is he actually some sort of criminal? Who knows? It hardly matters. He fancies himself not just dangerous but, after recovering flame-haired pilot Marguerite's stolen wallet and turning it into the police, yep, a hero. The trick is persuading her and the rest of the world. To that end, Georges embarks on a stalkerrific campaign of phone calls, voice messages, letters, lurking, and slashed tires. We even see these weird inserts of him rehearsing his calls, honing and discarding each detail. Understandably wanting this harassment to cease, Marguerite involves the police, but, after they intervene, the narrator informs us, she catches his contagion and starts calling Georges, taking tea with his wife, and even apprehending him outside a showing of The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
Preparing a face to meet the faces that they meet is harder than it looks for these latter-day Mittys. The trick is to listen. The voice-overs tell us outright that these are untrustworthy narrators, building their stories on shifting sand. Little wonder, then, that The Informant! and Wild Grass each give us several sequential denouements from which to choose, all of them plausible enough. Whitacre offers up reveal upon reveal to the agents who trusted him and the lawyers who represent him, blithely changing the "facts" to fit his story as long as he retains the hero's role at its center. Georges, too, tries on several possible endings when he [and his wife] at last end up at the airfield and then aloft in Marguerite's small plane. Is it his fear of flying or indeed any sort of closure that causes Georges to catch his shirt in his fly, arresting the narrative as it sends the plane in a low path over the trees. Could be. Do they crash? Do they live? [And what the hell do kitty nibbles have to do with anything?] Who knows. We cannot see them. Worse still, we can no longer hear.
I found scribbled in my notes, "After the cinema, nothing surprises you," but not who said it. Was it Georges or the narrator? Does it even really matter? Resnais himself at the press conference avered, "I enjoy giving the audience the choice to end the film as they wish." The voice-overs in both movies do much the same. Only when we close our eyes and listen can we truly see the world these dreamers see.