Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Brion, Anicée Alvina, Catherine Jourdan
Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
A brilliant polymath, the author of novels which deconstructed the contract between author and reader, screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ exquisite but notoriously incomprehensible Last Year at Marienbad, and a director in his own right of ten slippery and occasionally shocking films, Alain Robbe-Grillet is the sort of French cultural figure who can seem, to British sensibilities, dauntingly high-brow, not to say wreathed in pretentiousness. Now the first six of his films, made between 1963 and 1974, have been gathered together on this 3-disc Blu-ray box set from the BFI, along with 2 ½ hours in total of interview footage with the man himself. If we’re ever going to make sense of Robbe-Grillet, this seems like a fine time to start.
This review goes through the films chronologically. You’ll find comments on the high-definition transfers and extras at the end of each individual critique.
Shot in Turkey (apparently a Belgian wool merchant had some money tied up there which he decided to spend on making a movie), The Immortal One (1963) has a distinct feeling of Last Year at Marienbad 2, or Last Year at Istanbul (although Robbe-Grillet actually claimed to have started work on it before collaborating with Resnais). Like Marienbad, it’s a love story that plays out through stylised tableaux and cryptic colloquies, only this time with various Istanbul beauty spots as a backdrop. A dull, black-suited man (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) falls for a beautiful but mendacious woman (the gorgeous and immaculately coiffed Francoise Brion) who seems, on balance, not to exist – which perhaps says something about the nature of infatuation. He then pursues her, full of questions, around a city where nothing is quite as it seems – the ancient mosque the woman visits is more likely to have been built in the 20th century and an antique he buys for her is a mass-produced fake. Meanwhile, he in turn is shadowed by a sinister heavy with a pair of hunting dogs.
Like Marienbad, the film forks and doubles back and reboots and plays various tricks with perspective, creating a maze-like structure with no exits and a feeling of dream-like anxiety. They might have the unnatural calm of tailor’s dummies, but there is something about the film’s sleek, evasive, rootless, self-mythifying characters which makes them chime with modern concerns for belonging and self-realization. But the movie can also be enjoyed on an entirely superficial level. Again like Marienbad, it is ravishingly, stupendously chic. Especially so on this demonstration quality HD transfer, which brings out the smooth allure, the stunning sharpness and depth of field, of Maurice Barry’s cinematography: an early wide shot of the protagonists sitting in an open-topped car, while a steamer passes in the background and the waters of the Bosphorus sparkle like crushed diamonds, is enough to make you catch your breath in wonder.
Perhaps because it was a commercial failure, Robbe-Grillet had reservations about The Immortal One. But on Blu-ray, it is a revelation – even leaving aside everything going on beneath the surface, it has a moody glamour that puts many an upmarket perfume ad and Vogue photo shoot to shame. It’s certainly more like Marienbad than anything else Resnais himself ever made. If you’ve ever fallen under the spell of Resnais’ masterpiece, then you will certainly want to seek out this magical and mysterious film.
At this point we might as well mention the extras. Five of the films on this box set come with commentaries – actually, dense spoken essays – by Tim Lucas. Short introductions to four of the films are provided by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the director’s widow. There’s also a series of five half-hour conversations (recorded circa 2006) between Robbe-Grillet and well-known French TV personality Frederic Taddei. Taddei proves to be an ideal interviewer. These conversations are a real highlight, witty, animated and full of insights into the filmmaking process. In the chat accompanying The Immortal One, Robbe-Grillet casts some light on what is going on in the film and also explains his dissatisfaction with his working methods at that the time. His mistake, he asserts, was that he planned everything out in advance to the smallest detail and then stuck inflexibly to it rather than taking advantage of what chance and his cast and crew could bring to the table. The Immortal One was also a film that took time to make and lost money. From then on, his emphasis (surprising to anyone who might have assumed him to have been above such petty concerns) would be on making films quickly and to a tight budget – films that would please audiences and turn enough of a profit to enable him to get more projects off the ground. (It says a lot for the broad-mindedness of French audiences that several of his movies apparently performed quite well at the box office.)
Robbe-Grillet put this into practice with his next film, Trans-Europ-Express (1966), a movie that – in feel and mood if not in theme – could hardly be more different to The Immortal One. It’s a playful riff on American film noir and dime novels in the manner of early Godard or Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste. The luxurious Trans-Europe-Express train travelling from Paris to Antwerp was at that time very new and state of the art. A trio of filmmakers (including Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine, playing themselves) are on board, working on a story about a drug-runner heading to Antwerp to collect a suitcase of cocaine. There, too, sharing a compartment with them at one point (although they mistake him for Jean-Louis Trintignant, the actor playing him), is the drug-runner they are writing about, but it soon becomes apparent than he is less interested in drugs than in having S&M-tinged dalliances with a coquettish Belgian prostitute (Marie-France Pisier).
It’s a film that seems to be in transit, in search of a settled purpose and meaning. The story changes as it goes along, hiving off false starts and all manner of inconsistencies which Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s embattled script girl (standing in for the viewer) desperately tries to keep tabs on, even as the director heads off on his next flight of fancy. Which might sound too cute by half, but it’s all done with a brio and a raffish, shoulder-shrugging charm that defuses criticism. Uniquely among Robbe-Grillet’s films, it has the feel of the street. The use of locations is bold and imaginative – not just the TEE itself (they shot on the real train, mingling with real passengers), but the Gare du Nord, the port of Antwerp and Antwerp Central Station (the TEE didn’t actually arrive there, but never mind, that’s the magic of cinema for you). Willy Kurant’s camerawork feels loose and improvised, letting light and air and a sense of the outdoors into Robbe-Grillet’s shadowy universe.
Maybe because the film was shot so quickly (in the same raw, grainy black and white you see in early Nouvelle Vague movies), the transfer has a misty-soft, almost charcoal texture, with some of the close-ups almost as spotty as a blown-up newspaper photo. But it also has plenty of nuance and luminosity (plus no blemishes to speak of), and the sketchy quality of the visuals adds to the pell-mell, off-the-cuff feel of the movie.
Trans-Europ-Express comes with a 6-minute introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet in which she mentions the director’s long-term interest in detective stories. In conversation with Taddei, Robbe-Grillet talks about the locations in the movie and reveals that the strip club scene at the end was shot on the revolving stage of the Crazy Horse with one of its performers. (Taddei puts Robbe-Grillet on the spot by boldly asking him whether filming such a scene turned him on. His answer: not at the time, but perhaps afterwards when he saw it again.)
The director’s next film, The Man Who Lies (1968), set out to do for war movies what Trans-Europ-Express had done for gangster films (with nods to the Borges story, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, that was to be the basis for Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem). The setting is an unnamed occupied country. Claiming to be a long-lost comrade in arms, a rather hapless interloper (Trintignant) tries to inveigle his way into the lives (and beds) of the widow and sister of a famous war hero, spinning various unlikely stories in an effort to impress them.
Once again, Robbe-Grillet plays games with the viewer. The protagonist, whose name might be Boris, gets shot and comes to life again; he provides a voice-over narration which is no more to be trusted than the things he tells the girls. (Lying is a common thread in these movies – it’s in The Immortal One and it crops up again in Successive Slidings of Pleasure.) But compared to its immediate predecessor, The Man Who Lies is rather plain and uninviting. The plays of fancy in Trans-Europ-Express are rooted in specific, recognizable locations, but here a dreamy lack of context (this was a Slovakian production, shot in a gloomy, forest-enshrouded ski resort in the High Tatras) works against the story and drains it of exuberance.
Still, the stark, high-key cinematography by Igor Luther (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid’s Tale) comes across well on Blu-ray, and in the accompanying interview Robbe-Grillet talks in a fascinating way about his travels in the region. There’s also an amusing moment where Taddei asks him, “What do you say to someone who has seen one of your films and says, ‘I don’t get it’?” Answer: “Neither do I.”
Robbe-Grillet’s next two films, Eden and After (1970) and N. Took the Dice come as a pair (in French the second title is an anagram of the first). They’re a cinematic counterpart to the sorts of experiments with randomness and accident that the avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez was carrying out in the late ’60s. In Boulez’ concert piece Domaines, a solo clarinettist moves around five groups of instruments, choosing the order in which they will play, with the conductor taking over this role in the second half. Similarly, Eden and After developed out of group improvisations by the cast, while N. Took the Dice reworks the same material according to principles of chance (a character rolls a pair of dice on screen).
At least that’s the theory. To a dispassionate observer – and it’s very much a movie you look at rather than enter into – Eden and After is first and last Robbe-Grillet’s psychedelic film. It even seems to enact the period’s hippy trail east for spiritual enlightenment by packing its characters off to the island of Djerba for a trippy idyll. Robbe-Grillet elaborates upon his interest in all things ludic by presenting us with a group of students who play games as a way of staving off existential boredom. Then they meet an older man (Oliver Reed lookalike Pierre Zimmer) who spices things up by teaching them some new games which take on a life of their own. “You juggle with ideas, but you won’t get involved with living matter,” he chides them (which, ironically, is exactly what someone who wasn’t a fan might say about Robbe-Grillet).
From there things quickly dissolve – the molecular structure of storytelling breaking down before your eyes – into various planes of the imaginary or the possible to the point where anyone trying to follow what is happening has to simply throw up their hands and go with the flow. For instance, the whole second half seems to be a day-dream one of the characters is having while she watches a documentary about Tunisia, but you can’t say for sure. Yet however mystifying you find it, Eden and After is undoubtedly one of the most visually arresting of Robbe-Grillet’s films. This was the director’s first foray into colour, and it’s full of hot reds and oranges and even the whites are warm and yellowish. (“I had a sort of revelation that I could make a colour film just as long as there was no green in it,” Robbe-Grillet tells Taddei.) The early scenes, taking place in a café (the Eden of the title) decorated with Mondrian-like panels, feel like the record of a lively art happening. And it’s also memorable for a totally committed performance from the crop-haired, long-legged Catherine Jourdan – striding through a medina in knee boots and a tiny shirt dress one moment, naked in the embrace of a lustful sculptor (Pierre Zimmer again) the next. The whole thing is like a mirage, with the difference that the closer you look, the more you see.
As for N. Took the Dice, it’s a strange beast. Wanting to make a second film in keeping with his scheme but lacking the resources to do so, Robbe-Grillet vamped something up by recycling material from Eden and After, to which he added some travelogue footage and an on screen narrator (who has a faint whiff of the Open University about him) discussing the artifice of narratives. The end result doesn’t make for easy viewing, but look out for some very nice Tunisian pottery.
On Blu-ray there’s a Polariod-like quality to the Eastmancolor film stock in both movies, with big grain and smudgy hues, but as with Trans-Europ-Express you wouldn’t necessarily wish it otherwise – the grain, dissolving faces into points of pigment, actually seems to add to the dream-like uncertainty of what we’re seeing.
For a film that seems the very epitome of late ’60s Parisian chic, it’s surprising to learn that Eden and After was a Slovakian/Tunisian co-production, much of it shot in Bratislava. In a 7-minute introduction packed with juicy anecdotes, Catherine Robbe-Grillet talks about how her husband got beaten up by a drunken Soviet policeman and lost two teeth (which she shows to the camera, kept in a little bottle) and reveals that he had an affair with Catherine Jourdan after the shoot, during the editing. Robbe-Grillet and Taddie have a slightly prickly conversation (you get the impression Taddei wasn’t a fan of this one). Robbe-Grillet talks about the musical theory behind the films, and explains that he hired the actors on a basic contract without knowing which parts they were going to play, casting Jourdan, who ended up with the lead role, just three days before cameras rolled. He also tells a fun story about shooting in a vast, unused, Soviet sugar beet factory and repainting it in bright colours, just because he could.
And at last we come to Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974, the title rolls off the tongue better in French: Glissements progressifs du plaisir). Filmed in just sixteen days, very cheaply, using static shots with no camera movements and often managing with just one take, this is Robbe-Grillet at his most provocative and assured. It’s also one of his most accessible movies in that there is a relatively clear demarcation between reality and dream or fiction. And for once it boasts a female presence who not only looms large but is also very vocal.
A precocious teenage girl (Anicée Alvina) seems to have brutally stabbed to death her flatmate, an older woman named Nora (Olga Georges-Picot), and is locked up with nuns while the authorities investigate. The pert young murderess denies the charge and throws the representatives of law and order off-guard with tall tales and whimsical, sexually charged non sequiturs. At the same time, she claims to have used magical powers to slay a teacher she fell in love with at school (she keeps one of her blue sandals in a bell jar on her mantelpiece), while also saying, rather chillingly, of Nora: “I thought she’d make a pretty corpse.” (“You’re a monster!” an awestruck nun gushes admiringly.)
Part of the film’s appeal lies in the way it gleefully pastiches police procedurals, nunsploitation flicks and witch trial lore (is the girl bewitching or actually witchy? It’s a fine line), but you’re also aware that a lot more is going on too. With the majority of the scenes taking place either in a plain white apartment or a plain white cell, it’s a film of bold, flat surfaces. Yet you’re constantly being drawn deeper into unsettling territory.
There are troubling themes to do with society’s attitudes to female sexuality, and what women are to make of them, and also a meditation on the role of the imagination – and art in particular – as transgressor, irritant and truth-teller. Because the girl and Nora are artist and model (at least by choice; they seem to be prostitutes by necessity). There’s a sequence where the girl has a bottle of liquor – red wine, presumably, but it looks more like Campari or Pimm’s – poured over her by a kinky punter, and she then recycles the experience into art using Nora as her canvas, turning trauma into inspiration. Later on, a horrified nun comes across the girl making Yves Klein-style action paintings on the walls of her cell with a pot of red paint and her own nude body – it’s the most famous scene in the film – and the girl’s response is a mock-innocent, “Maybe you don’t like modern art?”
The blue sandal under the bell jar represents the girl’s determination to hang onto a destructive past love (which she seems to have re-enacted with Nora), but it also stands as a kind of metaphor for the film itself, for the way Robbe-Grillet’s obsessive themes are clarified and enshrined by the lens of cinema. With its fascination with the female nude, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is a film that’s always likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters, but maybe it will now get the recognition it deserves, if not among the ordinary cinema-going public then at least in figurative art and performance art circles.
As with several of the other films on this box set, the HD transfer shows quite a bit of grain but the splashes of red, yellow and orange that are a key part of its colour palette come through strongly. The introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet talks about her husband’s working methods (making regular rewrites, modifying the script as the shoot went on, all with an eye to keeping under budget) and about how she discovered the film’s young star. Puzzlingly, she claims that Alvina was only 17 when she made Glissements, although, to go by her date of birth on IMDb, she would have been around 20.
To explore the higher meanings of the film, you have to turn to Tim Lucas’ excellent audio commentary. Robbe-Grillet and Taddei have a rather laddish chat. Topics of conversation – how it was a lot easier to get actresses to take their clothes off back then, and Olga Georges-Picot’s unreal-looking breast enlargements (something which added, fortuitously, to the actress’ mannequin-like quality). The director also reveals that the nunsploitation-style scenes in the convent were shot at the Chateau de Vincennes, in the very dungeon where the Marquis de Sade was kept prisoner.
Whatever their occasional shortcomings, all of these films are evidence of a unique sensibility that expresses itself in teasing, labyrinthine structures and crisp, compelling images. And even if the films aren’t to your taste, it would be hard not to warm to the man himself as he appears in interview here – funny, down-to-earth and wearing his intellectual credentials lightly. Far from being the lofty and cerebral figure one might have feared, Alain Robbe-Grillet emerges through this wonderful box set as among the most approachable of French auteurs, and a filmmaker of considerable resource and originality who was always prepared to take risks with the medium. Bonjour, Monsieur Robbe-Grillet, nice to finally make your acquaintance.