Review: Alain Robbe-Grillet – Six Films 1964 – 1974

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Blu-ray. BFI

For a director so critically praised, the works of Alain Robbe-Grillet have been surprisingly hard to see – not widely available in the UK for decades, never turning up on TV and only occasionally having retrospective screenings. So this new collection, featuring the bulk of his work from the 1960s and 70s (only 1975’s Playing With Fire is missing) is very welcome.

Robbe-Grillet was – and is – best known as a novelist associated with the Nouveau Roman writing school, who made the move into cinema by writing the screenplay – complete with specific direction instructions – for Alain Renais’ masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad. From here, he made the move into directing, making a series of films between 1962 and 1975 before slowing down to a Kubrick pace, making one film in the 1980s, one in the 90s and one shortly before his death in 2008.

Robbe-Grillet’s film work is a curious contradiction. He is entirely uncompromising in his style, making no concessions towards commerciality, yet he has had box office successes – and his movies are, oddly, often connected to genre cinema, even if he is deconstructing it. He was clearly a man at home with exploitation cinema and low culture, as well as deviant sexuality – his private life with with Catherine (a frequent collaborator and author of famed sado-masochistic novel The Image) was known for it’s BDSM rituals, and these sexual fantasies frequently bled into his work. If Godard said all you need for a movie are a girl and a gun, Robbe-Grillet might have added a spot of bondage to the mix.

There are themes and images that run throughout the films. A fractured, looping narrative that slowly reveals itself like the layers of an onion being peeled away; the repeated use of names like Jean Robin; images of breaking glass; a fascination for beautiful, enigmatic and mysterious women – femme fatales, by conventional standards; and, of course, bondage imagery. All these elements immediately mark the film out as a Robbe-Grillet creation.

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The Immortal One

His first film as director was L’Immortelle (The Immortal One), made in 1962. Although ostensibly a compromised Robbe-Grillet – his plans were undermined by a crew who didn’t trust his ideas, by all accounts – this nevertheless feels very much a film from the mind that brought us Marienbad. It has a similar approach to narrative, even if the visuals are rather more stilted (again, the fault communication problems between the director and the cameraman), and a similar sense of unfolding mystery. In Istanbul, a teacher (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) meets and becomes obsessed with am mysterious woman, L (Françoise Brion), who he loses then finds again, only for her to die in a car crash. Within this simple narrative, assorted mysteries are spun.

The film is an interesting companion piece to Marienbad – it has a similar sense of slightly altered repetition, the search for truth constantly undermined by a slippery narrative and unreliable memory. The film seems to make one or two direct visual references to Renais’ film too. The jumping visual style, the displaced sense of structure. Added to this though is a deeper mystery – there is a sense of investigation going on here, though of course there is no expectation that the mystery will be solved. Throughout, the film taunts us that what we see isn’t real – the reconstructed ruins of Istanbul, our perceptions of events, the conversations we hear.

Under different circumstances, this could be a conventional European espionage thriller – the exotic location, the mysterious woman who is not what she seems and mysteriously vanishes, the sinister characters watching and listening, the people who deny all knowledge of past events, the hapless hero who stumbles into something outside his understanding. As it is, the film perhaps more resembles a ghost story, with its mysterious, possibly unreal central character and the doomed man who becomes obsessed with her. And after all, the title itself hints at such a supernatural possibility. But these things are left, ultimately, for the viewer to decide if this woman actually exists at all.

It’s an extraordinary, dream-like film, so entirely hypnotic that at points I found myself falling asleep, not because of any sense of boredom – in fact, the film is entirely engrossing – but because the nature of the repeating narrative, the unsettling score and the dream state of the events start to lull you into a point where you lose touch with conscious reality. It doesn’t have the ambient strangeness of Marienbad but nevertheless plays with your sense of reality. And prefiguring other Robbe-Grillet films, it features moments of provocative sexuality – the woman in lingerie with a threat of sexual violence being an image that would be built on in future films. While generally seen as an inferior film, it might, perversely, be my favourite of his movies.

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Trans-Europ Express

1966 saw Trans-Europ Express, his best known movie and a film with a rather more conventional narrative, at least on the surface – it’s a play on the crime movie conventions that Godard and Melville were already subverting, with Jean-Louis Trinitignant as a drug smuggler involved in moving dope between Paris and Antwerp. On the one hand, it’s a satire, playing with crime movie conventions and mocking them – the raincoats, the secret meetings, the double-crosses and of course the femme-fatale, in this case played by the extraordinary Marie-France Pisier, with whom Trinitignant has a kinky affair full of rape play and bondage. But on the other, it is a film-within-a-film, as the story constantly returns to Robbe-Grillet himself, on the titular train and working out the narrative, changing the parts that no longer make sense as he goes along. So the crime story frequently contradicts itself, jumps and has its inconsistencies pointed out – something that you might think would stop it working as a narrative. In fact, it doesn’t at all, and oddly, both the crime drama spoof and the fractured structure work very well.

The film ultimately has little story in a conventional sense, but it remains oddly fascinating. Trinitignant, of course, has the look of the movie star but also can subvert convention in his performances, so is perfect as the rather hapless smuggler who is constantly manipulated, and Pisier is seductively gorgeous. The film is lighter in tone than you might expect – this is arthouse cinema, sure, but it also aims to entertain. And the kinky sex – the bondage and rape games, the exotic stripper performing a hypnotic, fetishistic show towards the end of the film – is impressively provocative.

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The Man Who Lies

Like Trans-Europ Express, The Man Who Lies (L’homme qui ment) – made in 1968 and the last of Robbe-Grillet’s black and white movies – takes a fairly conventional genre narrative and distorts it. In this case, it is the post-war thriller, where a man who may be a hero of the resistance or may be a traitor returns to face his past.

In a sense, the film sees a return to the enigma of Marienbad and L’Immortale – a mysterious figure played by Trinitignant,who we first see being hunted by WW2 German soldiers in a forest – though he is clearly dressed in 1968 fashions – arrives in a small town, where he is looked on with suspicion by locals and meets three beautiful women living in a crumbling chateau. He initially calls himself Jean Robin, a resistance hero, before also introducing himself as Boris Varissa, the traitor responsible for Robin’s death. Or he may be the mysterious figure known only as The Ukranian. Perhaps he is all three; perhaps he is none of these people.

The voice-over narration deliberately confuses the issue – we can’t even trust this narrative, as it contradicts the events we see on screen. At one point he talks about entering an empty cafe, while the images on screen show it to be crowded. Time shifts and jumps. He attempts to seduce all three women – the maid Maria (Sylvie Bréal), Jean Robin’s sister Sylvia (Sylvie Turbová) and his wife Laura (Zuzana Kocúriková), telling each of them conflicting stories about his heroism, his cowardice, his betrayal and betraying. We have no idea is any of this is true, given that we as the audience are also being lied to. It’s possible that even Trinitignant’s character is unsure of the truth.

The sense of false reality in the film, with it’s continual rewriting of the past, prevents the viewer from ever trusting the narrative, making this a fascinating puzzle of a film. It’s clear that the women don’t believe his stories, yet play along anyway, possibly because they enjoy playing games – we first meet them as they play Blind Man’s Bluff, and later they will engage in a kinky and oddly seductive spot of sub-dom role play.

You can see here the influence on Jean Rollin’s films, with it’s twisting narrative, playfulness and the seductive, beautiful and mysterious women who live in the mysterious chateau – had they been revealed as vampires, it would not have been a major narrative shock. In fact, Robbe-Grillet’s films have a curious similarity in style to Rollin’s most experimental works, and you wonder how that director’s career would have developed if he had not been stuck in the sex and horror ghetto.

Like Trans-Europ, The Man Who Lies is satirical and comedic, making it more entertaining that you would expect. It’s perhaps a little less interesting than Robbe-Grillet’s other films, but is still head and shoulders above the work of most other directors, and is twisting enough to keep you intrigued throughout.

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Eden and After

Transitioning Robbe-Grillet’s work from the 1960s in the 1970s and from black and white to colour, Eden and After (L’Eden et aprés) is a trippy, erotic and violent fantasy that is initially based around a bizarre art cafe that looks like a day-glo open plan office and is populated by students acting out role-play games of sex and violence to stem their boredom and fulfil the roles assigned to the by society.

The Stranger (Pierre Zimmer), and older, suited man, arrives to impress them with tales of Africa, magic nightmare powder and magic tricks, sending Violette (Catherine Jourdan) into a bad trip before arranging to meet her by the canal, which turns into a weird, dark dream world within a disused, multi-coloured factory where, as usual, reality and fantasy start to bleed into each other – and then things get stranger and stranger, with the film relocating to Tunisia and taking a curious kidnap twist that you wouldn’t see coming, turning it into a satire of action-adventure films with the action centering around a valuable painting that is, in Hitchcockian terms, a MacGuffin – a meaningless item designed to propel the narrative. That the film makes it all too clear that the object is unimportant just subverts the narrative more, which of course may all be a dream anyway.

The film starts out looking like the worst sort of experimental self-indulgence and for the first few minutes, it feels like it will be hard work, but I should’ve have doubted Robbe-Grillet. Slowly, imperceptibly, the film becomes oddly compulsive, developing its own curious narrative and mystery.

This is Robbe-Grillet’s first openly ‘erotic’ film – thanks to censorship relaxation as much as anything I imagine – with extensive nudity and lovemaking, as well as much more open sado-masochistic and torture imagery, most of which comes within an extensive, mostly dialogue-free sequence about an hour into the movie. There’s also a mix of graphic violence (the film makes the most of its colour, especially red!) and sexuality that will still challenge modern audiences, no doubt. The nudity is also presented with a dramatic sense of beauty and structure, shown more as works of art than sexual objects. Yet there is genuine eroticism here too – the shot of Catherine Jourdan rising from the water, her wet and transparent dress clinging to her astonishing body, is one of the most strikingly sensual images ever caught on film. It’s a remarkable moment from a remarkable film.

N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les dés… ) is less a new film as it is a radical remix of Eden and After, made for television using mostly footage and outtakes from the first film – with some new footage – to create something original. The film is a mystery – it marks itself out immediately as an anti-detective film, criticising the way crime films are too clean, lacking the enigmas and the vagaries of real life. And so here, the titular character throws the dice to decide randomly what will develop in this story.

The resulting film is a fascinating example of how you can make something unique from existing material – the familiar becoming unfamiliar as the narrative offers new interpretations of the scenes we have already encountered. The very nature of the film means that it is inevitably one of Robbe-Grillet’s less regarded works, but it remains fascinating – and in some ways just as satisfactory as a pure cinema experience than Eden and After.

These two films are spectacular examples of late Sixties psychedelic cinema – visually vivid, lurid even, freeform in narrative and imagery. There’s weird jazz and banging rock music, and Jourdan – with her shimmering golden mini-dress, thigh boots and cropped hair, looks very much like the archetypal hippy chick of the era. In that sense, you can say the films are dated. Yet cinema like this was so unique even at the time it was made that the two films remain a unique and striking experience – and seen in HD, the colours positively leap from the screen.

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Successive Slidings of Pleasure

If Robbe-Grillet’s earlier films had toyed with genre – the crime film, the war film – 1974’s Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir ) does likewise with exploitation cinema. In fact, the film is a prime example of how the arthouse and the grindhouse all too often collided in the 1970s, with ‘serious’ filmmakers like Robbe-Grillet playing with the imagery of horror and porn cinema while the exploitation producers experimented with form and structure to create some of the most challenging ‘commercial’ movies you’ll ever see. Certainly, this is the most explicit of the films here – well, ‘explicit’ might not be the word, but it’s the film with the most nudity and unambiguous sexuality.

The film opens with a murder, possibly committed by young and innocent looking Alice (Anicée Alvina) on flatmate / lover Nora (Olga Georges-Picot). She is arrested and interrogated, but her willingness to admit to the crime – even though she seemingly isn’t actually responsible – confuses her male accusers, and she uses her sexuality to subvert their beliefs, finally breaking each of them down. Inspired by witch trials, the film is gleefully subversive, shocking and sexy.

The film plays with exploitation film imagery – the murder resembles a scene from a giallo (complete with a black gloved killer at one point) while the lesbian nuns and kinky sex dungeons of Alice’s cartoonish prison are straight out of nunsploitation cinema – they also provide an opportunity for Robbe-Grillet to engage in his BDSM fantasies. These sex scenes are deliberately stylised – they are unquestionably erotic, yet somehow de-eroticised at the same time, with a disconcerting soundtrack adding an eerieness to the kink.

Similarly, the scenes of Alvina being interrogated by the priest immediately bring to mind The Exorcist – or, more accurately, Italian Exorcist knock-offs with their emphasis on seduction and sexuality. And the film pays tribute to Yves Klein with a striking body painting art scene.

This is cinema at it’s kinkiest – the whole film is essentially a fetishistic dream. That doesn’t mean it’s soft porn, because I don’t believe it really works on that level – the audience is too distanced, the events too strange to really work as erotica. And the film taunts the audience for their desire to see sex and violence. In one scene where Alvina is taunting a priest, she says “Claw my delicate skin. Crush my flesh in your hands and arms”, before turning to the camera to add “you’d have thrilled at my cries and gasps” – a message clearly for the viewer. Similarly, when the lawyer asks another prisoner if stories of torture are true, the girl denies it, but adds “it might be amusing”. “For whom?” asks the lawyer, at which point the girl looks over her shoulder to the camera and smiles “for the audience”. Robbe-Grillet clearly knows what will turn his viewers (both the highbrow and lowbrow) on, and is mocking our desires even as he panders to them.

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Successive Slidings of Pleasure

However, this is still very much a Robbe Grillet film. The narrative again plays with form and structure, as events are replayed and reinterpreted and the film plays out in non-linear, non-realist fashion. And here, the sense of repetition leads to a neat little twist ending that is cynically amusing.

All six films in this collection are fascinating, challenging, provocative and intellectual, but just as important, all six are very watchable. Robbe-Grillet offers uncompromising experimental cinema that still works as entertainment. There might be pretension here, but it is not so overwhelming as to make the films seem like hard work – and it is not the misguided pretension of the vacuous, a problem with far too many of today’s self-styled subversive film makers.

The films alone would make this essential, but the collection comes with five 30+ minute interviews with Robbe-Grillet from 2003, which are great – he’s an entertaining and informative interviewee. There are also fascinating introductions to several of the films by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, adding extra insight, as well as the usual booklet and collectors postcards. A likely contender for release of the year, then…

DAVID FLINT

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