This review contains minor plot details.
When a body of work is inherently made up of intricately layered themes and hidden caches of ideas, surmising the work as a whole can be extremely difficult. This is never more prescient than in the BFI’s release of six films by French film writer and director, Alain Robbe-Grillet; a seemingly missing link in French cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. His work is so ingrained within the era’s dismissal of formal ideas and overcoming paranoia over narrative conjecture that it’s surprising that his name is not bandied about in the same manner as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, and Alain Resnais, but Robbe-Grillet’s work violently defies its role as a hyper-active pilot fish of the new wave.
Robbe-Grillet may perhaps be best known for writing Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961) but his work as director begins to showcase the real ideas behind his role as an auteur, diluting Resnais’ film in hindsight and making it easier to spot where each other’s input begins and ends. Watching the earliest film in the box set, The Immortal One (L’Immortelle, 1963), is akin to creating the diffusion between creative inputs in a similar fashion to watching Donald Cammell’s solo work and then reassessing his role on Performance (1970) with Nicolas Roeg; the delineation between individuals becomes interesting and easier to spot.
The Immortal One is a perfect example of the difference between Robbe-Grillet and his peers. While in the same year that Godard would be questioning film through Le Mépris enjoying crime capers in Le Petit Soldat, Robbe-Grillet would be hiding a dark secret from his viewers and his lonely male character lost in Turkey. Whilst these are fantastic in their own way, they fail to capture the sense of unease that Robbe-Grillet infuses within The Immortal One. After all this is a director quoted with the following mantra: “Art exists to trouble.”
Its main theme is that of potential human trafficking for prostitution; an uncomfortable recurring theme in a number of films in the set. It seems to be the cardinal crime and the ultimate in perversion that can lie at the dark heart of his mysteries. Yet The Immortal One also sets a precedent for Robbe-Grillet that his working peers didn’t quite touch: his sense of uncontainable eroticism. While other directors would indeed address the thematic aesthetics of more risqué material (Le Bonheur (1965) by Varda and Prenom Carmen (1983) by Godard being two examples), Robbe-Grillet seems more daring to be openly building his characters around it, aptly reflecting the oncoming sexual explosion of the era. His films are filled with sexualised imagery, gradually taking over whole narratives to the point where his characters and his camera are engulfed in a sea of flesh and sadomasochism.
In his next film, Trans-Europ Express (1967), Robbe-Grillet plays a similar trick to Godard in Le Mèpris, using narrative to question the filmmaking process. However, Robbe-Grillet also puts into play another narrative device that would define his role as a creator of cinematic puzzles. While Trans-Europ Express is about a drug smuggling criminal with a fetish for a prostitute who pretends to be raped for him, the film is metaphysical in the sense that its narrative is constantly changed by three characters, clearly writing and planning out the film (played ironically by Alain himself and his wife, Catherine). This is just one of the many occasions that Robbe-Grillet would effectively use the unreliable narrator, though in this case, it’s only unreliable as the director (both within and outside of the film) hasn’t quite decided on the details of what is going to happen.
This aspect is exemplified in the strongest film of the set, The Man Who Lies (L’Homme qui ment, 1968). The second of three collaborations with actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, the film follows the haphazard journey to the truth at the heart of a resistance fighter, Boris Varissa, who is somehow mixed up with a supposed informer. Trintignant’s face is built for the screen, having a natural affinity with the visual eccentricity of Robbe-Grillet. His fourth-wall breaks are startling and as unpredictable as the real truth behind the village and the house of three women where most of the film takes place. Robbe-Grillet takes the human form and uses it symbolically; the statuesque forms of Marienbad finding their way into all of the films here, especially The Immortal One and The Man Who Lies.
After these three films, Robbe-Grillet goes completely into avant-garde territory, using a vague undertone of narrative to spring-board into familiar themes of rebellious, sexually adventurous students and young artists. Eden and After (L’Eden et apres, 1970) is one of the most strikingly colourful films of the 1970s, possessing the franticness of Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) but also using the coloured, cartoonish sense of violence similar to Weekend (1967) and Pierrot Le Fou (1965). The narrative flits between a Mondrian inspired cafe, filled with misdemeanour, before moving to a fantasy world in some mystical eastern outback, again hinting at human trade and evoking the strange realms of Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969).
Not content with simply carrying on in the same vein, Robbe-Grillet uses different footage shot for Eden and After to make a second film; the strangely circular N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les des… 1971). It’s one of the strangest pairing of films, the idea of using footage from the same project to actively discuss the thinking behind the main work is both ambitious and quite insane. It perhaps belies Robbe-Grillet’s clear distance from the medium itself; he did after all make only nine films altogether and seems to care little about being part of any particular filmic canon.
The last film in the set is a real oddity but is the best for surmising the work of the director as a whole (after all, its image is the one chosen from many more dramatic visuals to adorn the box set’s cover). Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir, 1974) is instantly a provocative watch. Combining the lurid colours of his last two films and the desire to hide the truth of the first three, the film bludgeons the viewer with an array of stark and memorable imagery as well some exceedingly controversial set-pieces. The film follows the murder of a lesbian and the subsequent incarceration and interrogation of her lover at a religious prison. Blood seems to be another theme that Robbe-Grillet continues to return to, especially when he gets his hands on colour film, whether it be its almost constant presence in this film or in the strangely beautiful image from Eden and After of a women’s corpse bathing naked in a white walk in bath of blood-red liquid.
Successive Slidings of Pleasure mixes the modernist visuals more readily acceptable as French art-house cinema with the sickly, Gothica of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). With copious amounts of sex and violence, a cameo from Trintignant (who rather hilariously references The Man Who Lies by asking about Boris), the rape of a mannequin doll on a beach (a provocative and disturbing culmination of ideas built throughout all of the films in the set), and the painting of the naked body in sickly red, the film is exhausting and reflective but ultimately a fitting end to a set that is as radical as it is entertaining.
There are a large number of extras in the package, the most useful being interviews with Robbe-Grillet by Frederic Taddei. In one extract, Robbe-Grillet likens The Man Who Lies to the Jorge Luis Borges short story, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero which really opens up the film with hindsight. The extras are filled with these sorts of moments and really help with readings of all of the films. The films also look wonderfully crisp, the early black and white works in particular looking stunning.
- All six films presented in High Definition on Blu-ray, and digitally remastered in High Definition on DVD
- Newly filmed introductions by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (2013)
- Filmed interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet by critic Frederic Taddei (2007)
- New and exclusive full-length audio commentaries for each film by Tim Lucas
- Original theatrical trailers
- Illustrated booklet with a new essay by David Taylor, full film credits and on-set photographs
Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963 – 1974 is released by the BFI on the 30/06/2014.
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