The work of French experimental writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet is rooted in enigma and riddle – qualities that veritably flow through the pages of his elliptical Nouveau Romannovels and permeate his works for the screen, the former subverting the norms of genre fiction in order to play obscure, enigmatic games with the literary mechanisms which help to generate meaning in the minds of their readers and entrench the illusion of objective reality, and the latter attempting to undermine and exploit cinematic narrative conventions in much the same way and towards the same ends, through manipulation and subversion of the established customs of film vocabulary. But perhaps the most frustratingly enigmatic aspect before now of this singular artist’s filmmaking career, which began in the early-sixties when Robbe-Grillet was already in his forties, is the near impossibility of being able to see very much of it apart from “Last Year at Marienbad”, his alternately celebrated and derided 1961 equal partnership collaboration with “Hiroshima mon amour” director Alain Resnais, for which Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay, and which was famously delivered by him already bearing detailed notes on camera moves, sound cues and other creative aspects of the production such as décor and even the very gestures and poses that should be adopted by the actors, fully pre-specified in his script notes for the work. Now the BFI’s stunning new six film collection brings restored, subtitled HD versions of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first five films (and one spin-off side-project) together in a much needed overview of this important missing link between the worlds of genre/exploitation cinema and high-end abstract arthouse film.
Before the international success generated by Marienbad’s elegantly inscrutable abstraction of the cinematic conventions for depicting spacial and temporal relations on film as a function of subjective memory and imagination, the writer had already embarked upon prep for the first of nine film projects of his own, only finding time to write Marienbad after being approached by producer Pierre Courau during a hiatus in production on “L'Immortelle” (“The Immortal One”) because the military coup d'état in Turkey in 1960 disrupted shooting around the evocative locations already scouted by Robbe-Grillet’s wife Catherine (who also appears in the film) in the city of Istanbul. Although it won the Prix Louis-Delluc after being entered into the 13th Berlin International Film Festival, “L'Immortelle” was a critical and commercial failure upon its release in 1963. Robbe-Grillet himself considered the film something of a missed opportunity, citing a lack of cooperation by the experienced crew assigned him by his Belgian producers, particularly veteran cinematographer Maurice Barry who would often simply refuse to carry out Robbe-Grillet’s instructions because he felt they violated established rules of lighting, in a project conceived as a means of exploiting Belgian funds tied up in Turkey, hence the pre-specified shooting location of Istanbul.
Robbe-Grillet also felt he made a mistake in treating the film in the same way as one of his novels, where he would normally have complete mastery and control over the information the reader can be made privy to … something he soon realised was not possible with film, where the actors and locations bring with them details and other indefinable qualities to the work that can never be fully anticipated by the work’s ‘author’, and which set off resonances of their own that might have originally been unintended. However, almost fifty-years after it was made, during which time the film had been almost completely unavailable for viewing apart from the occasional festival showing, “L'Immortelle” emerges once more into the light as an utterly entrancing piece of poetic filmmaking, which marks a clear junction point between the established arthouse traditions embodied by Robbe-Grillet’s stated film influences (Antonioni, Buñuel, Godard) and the outer reaches of the fantastique euro-cult tradition (literally) exploited by outsider auteurs who have only found their niche in recent decades thanks to the DVD explosion … artists such as Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, whose work ploughs a similarly lonely furrow in which oneiric existential rumination meets melancholic erotic obsession on the fringes of soft-core pornography. Works by Franco such as “Succubus”, “Venus in Furs” and “Nightmares Come at Night” are clear spiritual cousins of “L'Immortelle” -- which expounds on the ethereal ‘doomed romance’ genre of detective/mystery pulp fiction enshrined in film classics such as “”Laura” and Vertigo” by Hollywood directors Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock respectively. It’s a tradition also enthusiastically embraced in the post- “Lost Highway” work of David Lynch, who puts the mysterious troubled woman motif at the centre of a series of noir tinted surrealist essays in deconstructed identity which free-fall through Hollywood’s dream factory generated landscape to blur distinctions between the inner lives and the fantasy lives of their protagonists.
The exotic oriental landscape in “L'Immortelle” plays an all-important role in arriving at the film’s vividly effective brand of perceptual phenomenological surrealism. The apparent historic concreteness of the city of Istanbul and its architecture provides the legend-permeated setting for a hazy series of remembered encounters between a doleful schoolteacher now on holiday leave there (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and the beautiful vivacious woman (Françoise Brion) he apparently meets at the harbour on the edge of the tumultuous river Bosphorus … someone who may or may not have been named Lelia. We’re given little anchorage from which to untangle a clear narrative line or even a definite subjective psychological underpinning but the opening series of shots leads to the impression that the entire film is a series of jumbled memories of a romantic tryst between the two, unspooling in the mind’s eye of the male protagonist as he reflects upon past events from an unknown vantage point. The first half of the film details their various encounters in the city, but subsequent changes in clothing or the woman’s hair denote the different stages of the progression of the relationship, with episodes occurring in non-chronological order and taking place amid deserted esplanades or in ornate mosques; on a beach and on the deck of a ferry on the Bosphorus waterway against the backdrop of its resplendent riverside palaces; and on an escarpment, where ancient ruins are being painstakingly excavated. Later, an abandoned graveyard becomes relevant, as well as a number of other sites, punctuated by tentative references to the real or fantasy sexual encounters which take place between the two back in the man’s shaded apartment overlooking the harbour.
A creeping sense of paranoia soon invades the film as we’re given veiled hints which allow us to entertain the idea that ‘Lelia’ might also have been involved in some sort of prostitution racket: several men in dark glasses keep re-occurring in her presence; one of them, always present in the background with two Dalmatians on a lead, appears to play a significant role in her life. There are eavesdroppers everywhere, and Lelia herself appears to have more knowledge of the Turkish language than she lets on, seeming to secretly communicate at various points with several people who might be contacts helping her avoid certain other shadymen who might be on her trail. It’s no surprise that editor Bob Wade was the only crew member retained for future projects by Robbe-Grillet after this debut effort, since his editing is one of the primary factors in the film’s success: the constant manipulation of the juxtaposition of images to suggest subjective memory in flux becomes the film’s replacement for the normal progression of narrative and character development, with Robbe-Grillet relying instead on the viewer’s familiarity with the conventions of espionage writing and noir fiction to fill in the blanks in plot while knowing full well nothing can be taken for granted.
Variations on the same scenario are repeated; a double of the mysterious love object starts to appear mixed in with the protagonist’s memories of Brion’s character; and the film becomes a kaleidoscope of re-lived and re-edited experience combined with erotic fantasy tainted by the clichés of the orient, where Marienbad-like frozen figures alternately appear lost in their own individual headspace or covertly and en masse track the male protagonist across empty town squares as though the whole city has become a chess board populated with statuesque sentinels. As is the case in all Robbe-Grillet’s films the viewer is forced to actively participate in the creation of theories about what one is witnessing, and repeated viewings of the film only adds to the resonance of the subjective effect of it all, since our own previous memories of the film’s contents later flow into our subsequent reading of it to allow for yet more re-interpretations to accrue, like images reflected in a repeating series of mirrors. About half-way through the picture the Françoise Brion character disappears and the undemonstrative, plank-like Doniol-Valcroze (a film director and critic who was married to his actress co-star in real life) attempts to track her whereabouts through their mutual acquaintances. But he finds all trace of her existence has melted away, as though she was only ever a fanciful dream conjured up by his imagination. An air of guilt, paranoia and regret suffuses a procession of increasingly tenuous enactments which acquire a heavily noir-like flavour after Brion re-appears to lead the protagonist towards what might be both the end and the beginning of his experience. The tension between the idea of Istanbul in legend and the concrete reality of its presence as a filming location and backdrop informs the wistful air of a film in which reality, history and memory become indistinguishable from dream, fiction or imagination.
Robbe-Grillet’s second film, and his most well-received critically and commercially, was “Trans-Europ-Express”, made three years later in 1967. It takes an equally deconstructed approach to narrative but is more upfront in presenting itself as a freeform game being played by the author with the clichés and tropes of spy fiction and its film offshoots, in a manner which the viewer is being invited to participate in. The feel of the work, though, is radically different from “L'Immortelle”, and is marked out by its affinity for the approach of the then-in-vogue ‘60s French Nouvelle Vague films of Jean-Luc Godard (who was one of Robbe-Grillet’s few acknowledged film-making influences) and the gritty Gallic gangster thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville. Whilst his first film had been painstakingly scripted and prepared in advance, leaving nothing to spontaneity, here Robbe-Grillet shot cheaply and quickly over a period of two weeks in almost gruella-style, using grainy black-and-white film stock and filming around crowded city train stations, traffic-noisy side-streets and clamorous ports in the cities of Paris and Antwerp, with a loosely defined screenplay that was able to incorporate happenstance and chance events within its underlying framework. Many scenes are often clearly shot amongst crowds of pedestrians and passers-by who cheerfully gaze directly into the camera lens, and everything takes place in real, unadorned and undressed locations.
The kicking off point for the whole idea had been a train journey Robbe-Grillet had once taken via the modern luxury international railway service Trans Europ Express, which he subsequently thought would make an ideal setting for a movie. Accordingly, the film actually begins with the writer-director himself, playing a film director called Jean who is traveling on the TEE line while contemplating ideas for an espionage thriller about a drug trafficker set on the same Paris to Antwerp route he and his two colleagues are at that moment taking, with his producer (played by the real producer-actor Paul Louyet) and continuity girl (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) considering possible plotlines and details from the comfort of their luxury train compartment. The tentative initial set-up is spun out of disparate elements subliminally noted during the opening scenes as Robbe-Grillet is seen making his way through the bustling Parisian station Gare du Nord: the model in a girlie magazine and the detective fiction cover story from an issue of L’Express on a newsstand provide the frosting of glamour and pulp cool used to set the creative processes firing, while a man in a raincoat holding a scarf gets incorporated into a soon-to-be-discarded plot about a drugs’ mule, played by French superstar Jean-Louis Trintignant, who buys a false-bottomed suitcase for conveying three kilos of drugs from Paris to Antwerp while being pursued by a beautiful woman (cabaret singer Clo Vanesco – she also crops up again as a different character at the very end of the film) who is either a spy for a rival gang or a policewoman. The trio can’t decide which she is, and so eventuality dump that whole subplot altogether and start again some twenty minutes into the movie, leaving their star at that moment walking the streets of Antwerp with no history and, as yet, no mission. While they’re considering options though, the smuggler seen in these early draft scenes actually comes in and briefly sits down in Robbe-Grillet’s carriage, and is identified as the actor Trintignant after he leaves, thus inspiring the trio of film-makers to consider casting him as their lead actor!
This meta-textual game of interweaving levels of reality continues throughout the rest of the film with authors and characters competing to displace each-others’ influence and to dominate the narrative while imposing varying meanings on the opaque concatenation of details piling up throughout this putative tale of espionage and mystery, shadowy contacts, drug lords and undercover detectives. Trintignant’s sketchily outlined mission in Antwerp is constantly subject to revision and improvisation as changes become necessarily for continuity reasons, or plot developments have to be backtracked on in order to incorporate a sudden burst of inspiration that takes the narrative in an entirely different direction. This structure, of course, mimics that of a conventional mystery story, where surprise is generated by implying one set of facts or eventualities but then revealing the truth of the matter to be something else entirely. Here, though, the signs, significations and codes of spy fiction are merely being copied, parodied and played with in another hall of mirrors effect that refuses to provide any ultimate bedrock of reality from which to judge the events depicted.
The film-makers may decide to throw out a scene in their script-in-process that no longer fits, but that scene has already become a part of the film by that point, and has already been witnessed by the viewer. So where does it belong subsequently in the narrative? Robbe-Grillet sees the ordering of reality through the processes of narrative conventions as being inimical to truth, period -- and one of the aims of the film seems to be to playfully illustrate this fact by taking every opportunity to undermine the story’s continuing and very palpable capacity for persuasiveness despite its increasing lack of coherence. Trintignant’s character finds himself being directed from location to location, constantly being issued convoluted instructions which seem to lead nowhere, until the authors decide he’s a trainee underling in a European drugs gang, being tested to see if he is trustworthy. The strikingly beautiful Marie-France Pisier plays an enigmatic prostitute-cum-agent called Eva, who is part of numerous plays by different sets of interested parties, and who willingly complies with Trintignant’s disturbing S&M rape fantasies and bondage scenarios, which are presented as a series of comic-strip panels shot New Wave Godard-style in a drab hotel room, highlighting the kinky underpinnings of much popular espionage fiction, particularly Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, which is directly referenced several times including via a poster for the recently released movie version of “From Russia with Love”.
The drug smuggler’s attempts to fulfil his erotic fantasies lead to some of the most inventively shot scenes in the film, climaxing in an atmospheric cabaret rendezvous at a seedy strip club which is reminiscent of Jess Franco and Radley Metzger at their most theatrical and erotically artistic. For while “L'Immortelle” only hinted at Robbe-Grillet’s obsession with eroticism and particularly with the staged bondage scenarios which subsequently come to dominate many of his films, here sex – scored with extracts from Verdi’s La traviata (The Fallen Woman) rather than the original score which accompanied his debut feature film -- is made a central component of the motivation for Trintignant’s actions, his sadomasochistic leanings eventually imposing themselves on the narrative but also leading to his undoing and to the impossible revelation in the final moments of the film that what we’ve taken to be merely an improvised story made up in a train compartment has also been played out for real when Eva’s strangled corpse is reported to have been discovered in a hotel room in Antwerp in the headline of a newspaper the filmmakers pick up at the station … and yet Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier greeting each other on the platform as Jean and his colleagues depart is the film’s final image!
Robbe-Grillet’s predilection for sadomasochistic eroticism turns up yet again in the second film he made with Jean-Louis Trintignant, “L'Homme qui ment” (“The Man Who Lies”) which was shot in and around an evocative derelict castle location and a nearby village as well as forested regions of the Tatras Mountains on the border of Czechoslovakia and Poland, not long before the Soviet Invasion of the region prompted by the reforms of the Prague Spring. Three beautiful young women live in a sparsely furnished, partially abandoned 16th century castle – the wife and sister of a missing wartime Resistance fighter, and their subservient maid Maria. The film’s most purely cinematic portions portray the relationship between the three isolated and abandoned young women and the semi-erotic qualities that attend their idle play as they wait for the return of the heroic male who seems to define their relationship. A game of blind-man’s bluff in a room crammed with portraits and framed photographs of the missing Resistance fighter, who’s name is Jean Robin (Ivan Mistrík), is made pregnant with latent sensual possibilities, as is a stylised playlet which comes as a sort of intermission about midway through the movie, staged by the three women as an ancient Greek tragedy with random props taken from the castle’s cluttered attic. Here Robbe-Grillet lets his sexual predilections shine through in an artfully constructed tableau edited in the style of “Masculin feminine” era Godard. Trintignant’s involvement with Laura, the wife of the Resistance fighter (Zuzana Kocúriková), his sister Sylvia (Sylvie Turbová) and the younger maid Maria (Sylvie Bréal) locates him as a modernist Jon Juan figure and hinges on his repeated attempts to seduce each one of them in turn by presenting the women with different stories that connect him to Jean Robin in a variety of mutually contradictory ways -- each having been calculated to appeal to various aspects of the women’s personalities. All of his stories deal in the tropes and clichés that attend not the exotic espionage genre which provided the template for “L'Immortelle”, nor the gangster/spy thrillers which provided inspiration for the inter-textual play of “Trans-Europ-Express”, but of wartime movies and inspiring dramas about the French Resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War.
But, as one might have guessed with Robbe-Grillet’s fictional world, things are not as straightforward as this merely being about a man who lies his way into a succession of beautiful women’s affections and thus their beds. “Trans-Europ-Express” questioned the basis from which we judge reality and truth, but for much of the time it did at least present its viewers with a set of guidelines by which they could determine a structure to its multivariate levels of narrative play, even if it did then go on to cheerfully undermine that structure. In “L'Homme qui ment”, the only unassailable truth we have to latch onto at all is that the actor Jean-Paul Trinitgnant is playing a role of some kind in it; but it’s a role that seems to be constructing itself as the film goes along, taking random features of the environment as an initial basis for his character’s history but then revising, erasing and adjusting elements of a multitude of possible competing narratives as the character is first of all ‘born’ during opening scenes in which he appears to be pursued through a dense forest by the Nazi Wehrmacht, although there is a sense of unreality and dislocation from the off about even that, as Trinitgnant is never seen in the same shot as his ‘pursuers’ and is dressed in a none-period-appropriate, sixties-era suit & tie – a style of dress he subsequently retains throughout a host of adventures one assumes to be taking place during the early 1940s given the prominent presence of Nazi officers in the village in which Trintignant’s ‘character conducts most of his business. Subsequently, we see the forest disappear and the protagonist go on to devise a suitable story for himself from surrounding details of the isolated village he then enters, before coming upon the castle and the three female associates of Jean Robin.
But the very landscape appears to change as his voiceover narration improvises the story being told, and over the course of the film Trintignant will claim to be at least three different people during his attempts to seduce each of the women, and will appear to die at least four times. The film seems to be about how the language of storytelling defines and moulds perceptions of history -- both personal history and history on the grand stage; the protagonist variously claims to have been a Resistance ally of Robin called Boris Varissa who helped him escape capture whilst they were being hunted through a forest, and, later, to have broken him out of a local police cell being used by the Nazi troopers who’ve been posted in the village. He then claims Robin is not a Resistance hero at all but a traitor; and when this is challenged by Robin’s sister Sylvia, ‘Varissa’ then claims that it is he who is in fact the traitor, while a later narrative told by the barmaid at the inn pitches Jean Robin as an adulterer whose affair with a treacherous village pharmacist (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) leads to disaster.
But since none of the characters in the film, including Varissa (who also claims to be someone called ‘The Ukrainian’ at several points, as well as the actual reincarnation of the dead Jean Robin!) have any grounding outside the competing narratives which the film externalises and then has compete with each other in an arena that appears to spurn all psychological depth, there is no centre from which to derive any firm basis for the fragmented shards of narrative we witness interacting and reacting with and against each other throughout a film that eventually arrives at a circular (non) end point. The sound design by Michel Fano is equally as perplexing as the echoes of familiar plotlines ricocheting through the film’s labyrinthine structure; recognisable music is, in the main, spurned apart from the occasional cacophony of percussive effects utilised at key moments, in favour of often extremely odd foley effects that appear often to be entirely at odds with what is supposed to be transpiring on screen. There is no denying that this is an extremely ‘difficult’ film to get to grips with, its intricate games and puzzle-like construction (apparently there is a precise mathematically derivable symmetry to the film, in which every single scene is able to be paired up with another that expressly contradicts it) appearing to lead nowhere; but there is something uniquely compelling about the obsessive quality of Robbe-Grillet’s complete unwillingness to offer his viewers any concessions to traditional narrative outlets. The film seems to posit a conception of reality that is entirely dependent on the structure of the human mind and its need for narrative closure: in effect there is no reality without narrative; reality is narrative but is therefore a lie.
“L'Homme qui ment” was the last of Robbe-Grillet’s expressly literary black and white films. Here the influence of the literary character Don Juan, the plays of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello and, in particular, the novels and short stories of Franz Kafka are felt strongly, particularly the latter’s famous book “The Castle”, which is clearly a major source of influence on Robbe-Grillet’s handling of the setting and subject matter here, this film coming closer than any other screen work (including that of Orson Welles with his adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial”) to replicating the indefinable sense of allegorical dislocation that attends all of Kafka’s written works. However, Robbe-Grillet’s next film, 1970’s “L'Eden et après” (“Eden and After”) would be shaped instead by the influence of modern abstract art and music rather than by specific literary works or post-structuralist theories about literature and psychology. Rather than its content being derived from a conventional screenplay written by the author in advance, the film is instead organised around principles derived from Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone-technique, which, in music composition, is a method of organising the twelve notes of the chromatic scale around a set of series rows.
Instead of a script, Robbe-Grillet continued his fight against narrative diegesis by developing a chart containing a set of twelve generative word themes which included such terms as ‘imagination’, ‘labyrinth’, ‘blood’, ‘sexual violence’,’ prison’, ‘double’, ‘water’ ‘tableaux’, etc. All twelve themes had to appear in each of the film’s five ‘series’, which amount to five sequential chapter headings,which were all the director had written down on the page in terms of screenplay ideas when he began working with the actors chosen to appear in the film. The rest was worked out during rehearsals as improvisation, Robbe-Grillet and his editor Bob Wade then applying their ‘twelve-tone’ organisational principle to the results of these efforts in the editing suite. Once again the film was made, at least partly, in Czechoslovakia (just one year after the Prague Spring had been quelled with Warsaw Pact troops placed there at the behest of the Soviet regime), much of it around the student campus of the Bratislava University of Technology; and also on location in Tunisia on the heat-drenched desert island of Djerba, and was a co-production between the two countries. Robbe-Grillet’s new art-influenced approach had been prompted by the desire to make a film in colour whilst avoiding the colour green (which he for some reason always hated) and the movie is indeed strikingly beautiful to behold as cinematographer Igor Luther makes the most of the heightened unreality of his glossy Eastman film stock to shoot the amazing Mondrian themed Eden café set created by production designer Anton Krajcovic, and the striking blue & white coloured architecture that dominates the landscape of the Tunisian locales; but what stands out this time round is how completely rooted “L'Eden et après” is in a hip, acid-soaked late-sixties/early-seventies milieu -- aimed squarely at its student counter-cultural audience in much the same way as David Harald Vilgot Sjöman’s “ I Am Curious (Yellow)” or Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” had been.
Initially the results of this rather intellectually formal-sounding approach to film-making are as austere and perplexing as you’d probably expect them to be. What holds the viewer’s attention through the first twenty-minutes or so of am-dram studio improvisation and various theme-related playlets concocted by the young cast of good-looking hipsters populating this obscure exercise, is that amazing multi-coloured abstract café set – the first actual studio set ever seen in a Robbe-Grillet movie – which is beautifully designed and gives the film its formal ‘living painting’ qualities. Each colour-coordinated chapter plays out a variation on the students’ desire to go on some kind of literal or abstract journey, and their efforts to finance their excursion by selling a valuable painting owned by one of their number -- a mini-skirted elfin blonde called Violette (Catherine Jourdan), who they either plot to poison or to steal it from. Things change once again after an older ‘beautiful stranger’ called Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer) appears and takes command of the group in their habitual Eden café haunt, directing their imaginative play acting, influencing them with mesmeric powers and eventually catapulting Violette into a bizarre, hallucinogenic world after directing her to sniff a mysterious powder-like substance. This leads to events segueing from a sinister horror-themed scenario that plays half like a claustrophobic early David Cronenberg movie and half in anticipation of the bravura stalk-and-slash opulence of Dario Argento’s cinema of the mid-70s, set at night inside an abandoned factory dreamily lit with blue gels, and from their into a sexploitation murder mystery full of typical motifs such as stolen keys and cryptic postcards discovered on the person of a murder victim left bloodied at dawn on the banks of the Danube.
But the film comes alive with Catherine Jourdan’s elevation from amongst the nondescript student ranks to become the film’s unplanned principle lead – a major development for Robbe-Grillet’s cinema since all his previous films had centred upon male protagonists. This was a completely unforeseen change of emphasis, since the film had no script and so no pre-specified roles for its cast. However, the captivating young actress was having an affair with Robbe-Grillet at the time of the making of the film, with the full knowledge of his wife Catherine (who is also in the movie and shares several scenes with her husband’s lover), and the minute the young actress gets to dance the Jerk (‘dance’ is another of the film’s generative themes) on-screen to some rousing sixties rock the movie instantly becomes Jourdan’s. By the time her character Violette -- now dressed in an impossibly short, gold-patterned mini and knee-high leather boots -- finds herself in the middle of a Tunisian desert reverie that has the feel of an Arabian adventure movie in which her fellow students take on the roles of a gang of kidnappers and extortionists, and Duchemin becomes a sculptor who makes art sculptures that look like medieval torture instruments, viewers more familiar with the works of grindhouse auteurs such as Jess Franco will feel much more at home with Robbe-Grillet’s new palette as elements of women-in-prison movies, spy flicks and chicks-in-chains horrotica themed around sadomasochistic torture scenarios and artistic tableaux take centre stage.
One can almost intuit the precise moment Robbe-Grillet’s affair with Jourdan must have started, since, all of a sudden, about half-way into the movie, the erotic content becomes tenfold more explicit than anything the writer-director had committed to film up to that point -- most of it centred on an exploration of the lithe body of his de facto female star performer. But ultimately, “L'Eden et après” lingers in the mind because of its hauntingly beautiful but simultaneously offbeat imagery; reaching the hypnotic apotheosis of its strange lysergic surrealism with a sequence in which Violette meets and eventually merges with her own almost-double, whom she happens across while hallucinating in the desert having recently escaped half-naked from kidnappers planning to hold her to ransom in order to obtain the valuable ‘blue’ painting. The film becomes an inner voyage of self-discovery and, according to Robbe-Grillet at least, female emancipation that escapes its retro roots to take its place alongside other such midnite move standbys that are as different from each other as they all are from the mainstream, as David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession”, and perhaps also Jonathan Glazer’s recent “Under the Skin”, to be seen as one of a handful of genuinely unclassifiable works of film that manages to inhabit fully the world of low budget exploitation whilst being capable simultaneously occupying a serious arthouse category playing like some sort of deranged gallery installation piece.
The director’s next film was a side-project, made for French television in 1971 but not aired until 1975. Its title in French is an anagram of "L' Éden et après": “N. a pris les dés...” or “N. Took the Dice” in its English variant, and the entire film is a paragrammatic reordering of scenes from "L' Éden et après" combined with unused outtakes and alternative versions of familiar sequences, with a small amount of specially shot new material featuring Richard Leduc, one of the previous film’s stars, who becomes for this project a narrator called N., placed squarely in front of the camera for new linking scenes in order to impose a laboured narrative and voice-over on the apparently random jumble of images the viewer is to be presented with as he throws dice to determine the story’s course. The choppy story that emerges and which he relates has to do with a competitive television game show centred on a number of contestants who are searching for the blue painting that seemed to be so pivotal in the last film. But N. begins by talking about how television genre shows always have to make sense and detective fiction always clears up its mysteries, with no loose ends allowed to remain at the end. The whole point of “N. a pris les dés...” seems to be to show how the mind strains to make sense of the most meaningless material, forging connections where none intrinsically exist. The narrative being created out of scraps and re-orderings of a completely different film, with a soundtrack comprised of sound effects and music cues recognisable as having been culled from all four of Robbe-Grillet’s previous movies, imposes itself on the material despite being utterly tenuous in its connection to the images passing before our eyes, but at the end we’re told that the film itself is a game just like the one supposedly being played by the characters we’ve seen on the screen throughout it. Games have no meaning unless their participants agree to endow them with one by accepting their rules -- and once again Robbe-Grillet reminds his viewers with this recondite experiment in editing and substitution, how his codes and complex intellectual puzzles can be interpreted in a multitude of equally legitimate ways and that none of them have any particular privilege as the ‘correct’ reading outside the mind of the individual viewer.
This idea must surely be remembered when considering the last film included on this BFI Blu-ray box set, which once again involves a series of reiterated generative themes, which are this time actually pitched within the context of a genre detective story involving the investigation of a murder. In 1974’s “Successive Slidings of Pleasure” (Glissements progressifs du plaisir), images, ideas and objects are presented as clues to be examined in the mystery of who killed a red-haired woman called Nora (Olga Georges-Picot), and as punctuation points in the structure of the film overall, which are gradually allowed to bleed into the sources of its fragmented narrative. Nora’s younger, beautiful dark haired flatmate (unnamed in the film but generally referred to as Alice -- which is her name in Robbe-Grillet’s ciné-roman of the movie) played by the seventeen-year-old Anicée Alvina, is present at the scene of the crime when Nora’s corpse is discovered bound to a bed and stabbed to death with scissors by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s trench-coated detective (an unpaid and un-credited cameo by the actor, contributed as a favour). She is subsequently held for questioning in a curiously stark white cell adorned with wire-framed bed, vanity table and a looking-glass, while she is interrogated in turn by three patriarchal figures -- a judge, a priest and a policeman -- who seek to pin down the truth about the crime and determine guilt through rational deductive reasoning. A female lawyer is also assigned to represent Alice, who is made the chief suspect, but turns out to be an exact double of Nora who gradually falls under Alice’s erotic spell, as do the various male figures of the establishment who admonish the prisoner for her determination to undermine, with both her fragmented stories and the allure of her body, the order they seek to impose on the narrative.
Robbe-Grillet builds on the prominent influence of modern art on his visual aesthetic in "L' Éden et après" with an equally striking mise-en-scene inspired by the work of French artist Yves Klein: unadorned white sets offset by startlingly vivid splashes of colour, particularly the colour red, dominate in a minimalist aesthetic that was also determined by the low budget of no more than 500,000 francs on a film shot in a matter of sixteen days. Building on visual elements such as a discarded blue shoe, shards of a broken bottle and a mannequin used as a sex doll, Robbe-Grillet introduces various story strands that contain elements of giallo and nunsploitation genres centred on Alice’s childhood crush on a teacher who died in a beach cliff fall; her later career with Nora as a Parisian prostitute; and torrid tales of vampirism and lesbian nuns in secret prison torture dungeons. The blue shoe and the shard of broken bottle crop up again and again in different contexts – venerated as fetishized icons one minute (the shoe becomes a decorative ornament kept under a bell jar and the broken bottle is displayed in a red silk-lined casket) but pictured being dug up from the earth of an open grave (by Robbe-Grillet’s editor Bob Wade, who plays a gravedigger in the film) or washed up on a beach, the next.
The connection with French exploitation cinema is made even more overt than ever here, then, and the general feel of the film carries something of the flavour of Jean Rollin’s work from around the same period, while anticipating the stark interior modernism and decorous doll-like female flesh of Dario Argento’s “Tenebrea”. Alvina and Georges-Picot spend the majority of the film completely naked while looking and posing variously like storefront mannequins or performers in Kline-like displays of sexualised artistic endeavour, while dream-like beach scenes vie with erotic tableaux involving Sapphic nuns filmed at the Chateau de Vincennes (which was once occupied by the Marques de Sade himself) to establish the film’s cyclical rhythms of ebb and flow and its languorous atmosphere in which Alice seeks to destabilise the constricting rational narrative order being imposed by the censorious judge (played by Michael Lonsdale – best known as Bond villain Hugo Drax in “Moonraker”), the exorcising priest (Jean Martin) and several decorative nuns who are the handmaidens of the male-centric desire to impose a dominant narrative on Alice’s relationship to Nora. The viewer is of course implicated in this desire too -- and the film, much as did “N. Took the Dice”, plays with our understanding of the associative methods of film editing which impose meaning and order and encourage us to make narrative connections from a jumble of signs and signifiers which pile up even as they continually slip their assigned moorings in a set of conflicting plot schematics. Chronology, place, identity and events are show continually phasing in and out of focus throughout a work that’s whole project is to create a sense of narrative propulsion without providing the release of an identifiable storyline, and which can’t actually be pinned down to any one last interpretation. At root Robbe-Grillet was inspired by Roland Barthes’ reading of Jules Michelet’s apocryphal account of witchcraft in the middle-ages, “La Sorcière”, which posited the phenomena as a form of rebellion against phallocentric feudalism and religious strictures aimed at controlling women’s sexuality. The film is a sometimes infuriating but ultimately hypnotic and beautifully orchestrated display of visual artistry that requires deep concentration from the viewer … not to ‘understand’ it as such, because there is no final puzzle to unlock (that’s the mistake made by the male authority figures in the film) but to partake in its formal play with the modes of representation, during which it presents an uneasy alliance between its middle-aged film-maker’s radical feminist critique of patriarchy and his intellectualised infatuation with alluring young actresses and the sadomasochistic tableau vivants he gets to, as a privileged controlling male figure, construct around them.
All six films look beautiful in brand new HD transfers and come with clear, readable English translation subtitles. The five main films are each provided with a brand new context-setting introduction by Robbe-Grillet’s widow Catherine (recorded in 2013) as well as fascinating video interviews conducted with the late writer-director himself, shot in French in 2007 by critic Frederic Taddel, each one running at just over half-an-hour each. A few of the films also have trailers included, but the highlight of the set extras must be Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas’s five audio commentary tracks, which manage the difficult business of being both objectively informative and knowledgeable about each of the films’ provenance while also being able to offer up interesting personal readings and interpretations heavily informed both by Lucas’s long time admiration for Robbe-Grillet’s fiction and his considerable knowledge of the fantastique genre in general, to which Robbe-Grillet’s outré films offer an immensely important adjunct. This set is available as a three-disc Blu-ray set and a five-disc DVD collection and also includes a booklet with a very readable overview of Robbe-Grillet’s literary and film careers written by critic David Taylor, a perceptive contemporary review of “Trans-Europ-Express” by Claire Johnson, published in Monthly Film Bulletin in 1969, and the text of an agreement drawn up by Robbe-Grillet for his wife Catherine in 1958, but never signed by her, setting out the terms under which their sadomasochistic relationship was to operate, written under the title “Contract of Conjugal Prostitution”.
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