The language of film is a pervasive one. Since the inception of cinema, people have learned the codes and subliminal language of film. As time marches on new codes are invented, messages change, yet underneath it all the same traditions can still be found lurking. It has to be said the language of film- and media in general- is one of most powerful forms of communication to exist in the Western world today. For the most part audiences are expected to be passive participants- there to receive the messages either obvious or subliminal- of the filmmaker’s choosing. Under such terms, people can be and are manipulated. Stereotypes are formed; social conscience can be implied, moral messages can be fed to the audience. Every so often a filmmaker will come along and subvert those rules, play with convention and churn it up to make it fit their own playing field. Even within these margins most filmmakers have their own agendas- be it personal, social or political- it is for the viewer to unravel the underlying message and, therefore, achieve some form of enlightenment; knowledge is power after all. But what if a filmmaker were to give that power back? Place the rules in the hands of the audience; make them think for themselves? French filmmaker Alain Robbe- Grillet did just this in his series of highly provocative films in a directorial career that spanned from the early 60’s to 2006. Here for the first time in the UK the BFI present their landmark release of the year, Alain Robbe- Grillet Six Films 1963-74. The collection boasts a large portion of Robbe- Grillet’s previously impossible to find work- the only missing entry from the 70’s is Playing with Fire (1975) – beautifully restored, and accompanied with some highly valuable supplementary material. For all those who enjoy cinema that completely abandons convention in every sense of the word, this has to represent the must buy package of the season.
Just as he did with literature- a pioneer in the nouveau roman movement – Alain Robbe- Grillet took the medium of film- with all its associated trappings- and totally deconstructed it. Robbe- Grillet did not just subvert the rules he destroyed them completely and this- for this reviewer at least- represents the biggest challenge in appreciating the auteur’s work in general. In order to understand the messages we receive, psychology dictates we draw from our own experience. Therefore, nothing is ever truly subjective because from the minute we are born we are influenced by our surroundings and the wider social conscience that moulds us. If we apply this to the nature of cinema, we read messages from the screen, in a way that we have been conditioned; a tone of voice, lighting, a narrative strand, sound effect, the camera angle, can all indicate to us on a subconscious level exactly what we are supposed to think and feel about a film. However in the case of Robbe -Grillet none of the above applies and, therefore, in order to truly appreciate his work the viewer must therefore free themselves from conventional thinking. The images he presents to the viewers seem to be loaded in symbolism bringing the endless compulsion to find meaning- just what is this filmmaker trying to say? A frustrating experience if you allow it to be. In the auteur’s own words he made fragments of stories, he wanted the viewer to make their own definitions. Robbe- Grillet was far more interested in what he termed ‘manipulating images’ and as such he strips down film to art in its purest form.
“But there is absolutely no need to decipher the code. The public realizes that a structure exists precisely because it is not the same as the customary one. Since the public does not recognize this structure to be one of traditional narrative, it perceives an alternative structure. There is no need to deconstruct it”.*
There are some who would scoff at the thought of Alain Robbe- Grillet films being likened to an art form. It is true that the sexual sadism and female nudity rife in his work has caused controversy. The filmmaker here achieves a rare hybrid status where he straddles to the worlds of high and low brow, rather successfully. This consistent approach stands as a testament to his status as a true maverick in cinema. There is an unadulterated approach at play here which if not appreciated must at least be admired. A free spirit whose, at times- almost childish wonderment at the world through his camera lens presents some of the most beautiful, haunting and surreal imagery ever committed to celluloid. The world of Robbe -Grillet is nothing more than a lucid dream, A Freudian psycho-sexual nightmare, beautifully wrapped in gorgeous cinematography, where even the harshest violence or the most mundane of objects becomes a thing of beauty. The director- as even Robbe- Grillet is not free from external influence- often pays homage to the artists and writers he admires in his work- he recreates paintings, characters, scenes, emotions- he uses film as a canvass to paint or recreate images. It is up to the viewer to provide the context under which they can be read.
“There is nothing I want to express. I have nothing to express. I feel like manipulating forms. I paint because plastic forms interest me. I write literature because the structures of sentences and words interest me, and I make films because the image and the sound interest me. But for me, there is no relationship among these different activities. Well, yes, there is a relationship — myself; that is all”*
L’Immortelle (The Immortal One) (1963).
After writing the screenplay for Alain Renais Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Robbe-Grillet transgressed into making his own films. The Immortal One makes for a strong directorial debut. The film follows along the lines of an existential nightmare for a lone French stranger-known only as N (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) – who after moving to Istanbul meets a mysterious girl- L (Françoise Brion) – and embarks on a romantic affair that has serious implications for both of them. The film flows along building in a rhythm of repetition-that may or may not have significance to the unfolding ‘plot’- and constantly backtracks on itself. The ‘story’ plays out like a train of thought constantly interrupted. Our central character feels alienation and despair as he tries to get closer to the girl, and the ambience carries an air of paranoia and suspicion. That is indeed if there is a girl, or could it be that the events on screen are all part of some wild fantasy on the part of the protagonist? Robbe -Grillet constantly plays with the cinematic landscape paying no attention to continuity, flow, pace, or coherence. The soundtrack causes further confusion with sounds factored in like a chirping cricket that features over several apparently unconnected set pieces, only adding to the disconcerting nature of the piece. The lush cinematography captures a gorgeous backdrop of Istanbul in black and white, enriches the experience further, as one becomes utterly absorbed in the plight of the lead male. But then who can blame him, Françoise Brion as the strange girl is strongly enigmatic in her role- captivating and alluring, it is easy to see why it is so easy to get caught up by her presence. As N seeks to find out the truth about his mate, so the audience becomes complicit with him in his quest, his search for something real in a world that is apparently fake, the human need to build connections. Every time the lead gets close to the truth it is as if he only sees a reflection in water, when he reaches for something solid the reflection ripples and disappears. Ironically this sentiment can be applied to the task of searching for a meaning in the films of Robbe- Grillet, for it is one that could be endless. No matter how many times you dip your hand in the water; you will never find that solid object our rational mind requires us to search for so fervently. The key to accepting this is just letting go.
Trans-Europ Express (1967).
For this piece the filmmaker changes tact, ever so slightly, and uses the clever ploy of a film within a film. When film director Jean (played by Alain Robbe- Grillet) and his team Marc (Paul Louyet) and Lucette (Catherine Robbe- Grillet) board a long distance train, they begin to construct a plot to a film that features a drug runner on his debut mission. As a result, the runner Elias played by Robbe-Grillet favourite Jean-Louis Trintignant finds himself in plenty of intriguing and difficult situations and also embarks on a relationship with a local prostitute Eva (Marie- France Pisier) who allows him to act out his violent sexual fantasies. Of all the films contained in this set, this one seems to be the most coherent. Robbe- Grillet still toys with the narrative, reinventing scenes as our narrators change the story, and backtrack to move the plot in a different direction. Ultimately things move on a circular structure for which there can never be a beginning or end; a key factor that comes up in some of the director’s other work. Trintignant holds everything together as a central component, infusing his role with comedy, eroticism, alienation and paranoia in equal measure. His performance is nothing short of beguiling. As with the previous work Pisier provides another stunningly beautiful and haunting female lead. Scenes that play out between both Trintignant and Pisier are fuelled with a strong element of sexual tension, as Robbe -Grillet ups the ante and becomes more daring and explicit when it comes to the facets of S&M contained herein. Just as the previous piece featured the theme of erroneous storytelling, so too does this film- in The Immortal One the tale was built on the premise of either memory or fantasy, here it becomes an organic process that is seemingly being made up as it goes along. Proceedings take place this time in Antwerp- again we have the outsider theme come into play- and the cinematography spares no attention to detail, making for yet another stunning background for events to unfold. Ultimately Trans-Europ Express plays out as an enchanting offbeat comedy, with elements of mystery and suspense. For those just starting their journey into the director’s catalogue, this one provides a good starting point, as it represents one of the more accessible examples of Robbe- Grillet’s work in film.
L’Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies) (1968).
Where the nature of flawed storytelling plays a part in the previous work of Robbe- Grillet, here in The Man Who Lies it becomes the foundation on which the entire film is based; for the film is exactly what is says in the title, it is about a man who is seemingly unable to tell the truth about anything. We meet this strange man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he arrives at the edge of a village, being chased by WWII German soldiers- while he is decked out in some fine looking designer late 60’s fashion- bringing confusion for the viewer with him from the outset. As he tells his story we learn very quickly he is not to be trusted, as even his words do not correlate with what is being shown on screen. He goes by different names, Jean Robin or Boris Viasso. Meeting three beautiful women who are holed up their village castle our protagonist uses his powers of persuasion to infiltrate the family home; the women are waiting for their hero to return, and Jean/Boris promises news; thus, he embarks of the telling of a series of stories about this ‘hero,’ each one wildly different to one another depending on who he is telling his story to. Constantly reinventing itself at a furious pace, The Man Who Lies becomes simply an exercise in the art of storytelling and Jean-Louis Trintignant makes for a mesmerising narrator absorbing himself into the role and creating a raw energy and power that remains prominent for most of the time he is on screen; again he injects little flourishes that demonstrate comedy aspects, sexuality and drama into his performance. The biggest conundrum here for the viewers is to decide why the man is lying, with no apparent motive, he appears to be unable to even project the truth to himself, and with a ‘plot’ that again sways back and forth, often repeating itself, the story can take on a number of meanings. This was the last of the director’s films to feature in black and white, and in a universal fashion the photography is outstanding, an element that further supports the fantastic performance provided by Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Glissements progressifs du plasir (Successive Slidings of Pleasure) (1974).
While previous work had toyed with sketching out elements of S&M on screen, Successive Slidings of Pleasure uses its main narrative strand to carve out those aspects in explicit fashion. The main focus here is the ‘story’ of ‘The Prisoner’ who is detained in a religious institution after her flatmate Nora is found stabbed to death in the apartment they shared. As The Prisoner sits in her cell and is confronted by various people in power who are anxious to get to the truth, she in turn responds by reeling out a number of erotic stories based on her own sexual fantasies- including graphic details about her relationship with Nora. Our lead toys with her interrogators and remains unrepentant about the crime, insisting that an unknown assailant had broken into the apartment while, on the other hand, showing no grief toward the death of her former lover. The film mirrors the sentiment of all of Robbe- Grillet’s work; essentially this girl is using her predicament as a playground, just as the director is using his films to play games with the audience. Although initial appearances may suggest otherwise there is a playful spirit imbued in a lot of his work. Also present here- as with all the other work- is an obvious love for the female form. While some have cried out sexism, and pointed out the objectification of the female body based on this approach, this- female- reviewer would seek to argue otherwise and state what is captured here is the spirit of female sexuality as power; a concept rarely seen in film, not at least in its purest sense. On this basis fans of Jess Franco, and indeed Jean Rollin, will find a lot to enjoy in the work of Alain Robbe- Grillet. Of all the films, this aspect would seem at its most prominent. Visually the piece is phenomenal, hauntingly beautiful, Robbe- Grillet exploits the use of colour against a white background to startling effect- demonstrated in spectacular fashion in a scene where The Prisoner paints herself red and uses herself as a human paintbrush to daub the blank walls of her cell. Anicée Alvina puts in a commanding performance as the starring role, setting tone of the scene perfectly she commands attention, flirting with the audience as she recounts her erotically charged tales of lust, violence and pleasures of the flesh- intertwined with themes such as witchcraft, vampirism, and religion- thus producing a strongly intimate feel that forces viewers to be complicit in her games. Jean-Louis Trintignant makes an appearance again in a small, yet unforgettable role, as the investigating officer who is first to attend the scene when Nora’s body is found- playing his part in offbeat fashion he adds an extra layer of the peculiar to the feature. While Olga Georges-Picot as Nora/ The Lawyer gives the perfect balance as passive slave- living doll, and worldly wise advocate.
L’Eden et après (Eden and After) (1970).
Eden and After is one of the most visually arresting and peculiarly whimsical of Robbe- Grillet’s work included in this collection. A psychedelic riff on Alice in Wonderland, fuelled with trippy imagery, and a strong theme of sadomasochistic desires. Our focus this time Violette- played by the equally visually arresting Catherine Jourdan – a woman who is part of a group of bored students who play out rape and murder fantasies to pass the time. The gang spend the rest of their time in Eden a café where the disaffected youths can gather and lament about the emptiness of life in general, play out their games, smoke cigarettes and drink lemonade, served up by café staff, that is laced with illicit drugs. Such is the life of this group until a commanding stranger known only as Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer) arrives and challenges Violette to consume the powder of fear. Her drinking of this sinister substance sparks her entrance into a nightmarish world where she appears to be looking for a man and a painting, and in the process finds herself- quite literally. The film comprises of two distinct halves, before and after the arrival of the stranger. Robbe-Grillet paints his fantasy world in bold primary colour- red, white and blue- and geometric design making for a feast on the eyes before you even factor in the remarkable imagery that surrounds sexual sadism, and death- tonnes of nudity, impaled naked women, and women in cages and bondage. The set design for the café Eden alone is nothing short of breath-taking- a series of glass sliding walls and minimalistic interior make up the design, while the second act takes part in Tunisia and paints a stark whitewashed landscape that could be considered almost post- apocalyptic. Eden and After is very much a visual experience, little dialogue is given and the plot ebbs and flows along the lines of a vivid hallucination, seemingly exploring every corner of Violette’s inner psyche. As such, it works as a horror film but not in any literal sense of the word, but the key foundations of horror are there on a primal level- the intertwining of sex and death, fear, the breaking of taboos. Jourdan provides a focus in lieu of a coherent narrative; the camera following her closely as she explores this strange and often dangerous landscape, her vulnerable doe-eyed looks cast her as a bewitching centrepiece for the madness to unfold. The supporting cast all do well but stand in Jourdan’s shadow to a certain extent, her presence being that magnetic it would be hard to compete under the circumstances.
N a pris les des (N Took the Dice) (1971).
For this piece Robbe-Grillet took the footage from Eden and After and gave it another plot, although some extra material appears, it is the same film, edited into something completely different. While this could be considered a pointless exercise by some for all those looking for an angle on what the director was trying to achieve in his work the opening and closing statements contained in this piece sum up- for this reviewer- his ethos perfectly. An additional narrator is introduced this time, who on the throw of the dice tells his version of the story. Catherine Jourdan appears again now as a character with a different story and as a ‘plot’ develops she becomes kidnapped, again elements of sexual slavery are introduced to the confusing narrative. Carrying a shorter running time than Eden and After this project seems to have one key value- it is not the story being told, but how it is being told- yet another game being played by Robbe- Grillet, this time in the editing suite. The N Took the Dice narrator sums it up perfectly…
‘Let me try and explain, these stories that you see on television that are linked in such a way to be logical continuations, reassuring, are designed to put you to sleep. When real things happen around you, you will have noticed things are an entirely different matter. Detective stories on television always end with each element of the investigation being placed in the right order… it is like sterilised tinned food, hygienic and tasteless. In the real life of newspapers when you read true stories of crime or passion or everyday news it is never like that. There are things which remain incomprehensible, characters that remain enigmatic right to the end. Stubborn details that don’t fit the rest. Most of the time we choose to forget the fragments that don’t fit, we pretend not to have noticed them. We look away discreetly. Otherwise there would be no story, no truth or justice. But I don’t do it on purpose. What attracts me irresistibly to the things or people around me, what I cannot take my eyes off, it precisely which I cannot understand , words taken out of context, gestures left hanging in mid-air, images glimpsed unexpectedly, whose connection to one another appears random, anything that defies explanation.
Our narrator concludes…
‘Dear viewers whether you are going out or staying in front of the screen perhaps there is one small thing you haven’t thought of. A game means nothing in advance. It is the player who invents the game and the player is you. The random images stolen by your gaze are only images. They have no inherent meaning attached to them. They have no other meaning than which you choose to give them. A reassuring order? A hopeless order? It is you who decides…
The BFI has once again excelled in producing a quality package. The prints involved are all beautifully restored (in high definition blu-ray and DVD consecutively). Each shows no obvious age-related damage- apart from the odd spec or crackle here and there, but nothing worth mentioning. Detail is clear. For the black and white prints, lighting and tone appear well balanced, there is a strong texture and grain in line with the original film stock thus keeping the retro feel of the piece; there is no obvious noise or distortion. Likewise with the colour films, colours appear bold, deep and naturalistic, the grain is less prominent than the black and white but it still upholds its texture. Given the age of the films in question it is quite remarkable just how good they look, retaining their cinematic qualities they appear almost as if they were made only yesterday. The films are presented in their original aspect ratios and do not appear to be overly tampered with DNR processes.
For the sound the films are presented in their original French language tracks, in PCM Mono, with optional French subtitles. Sound levels are clear, well defined and demonstrate no age-related flaws.
The extras here are the icing on the cake, not only can one revel in these previously impossible to find films but it cannot be stated enough just how valuable this additional material included to enhancing the viewings. The films come with newly filmed introductions from Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the director’s wife, and long time working collaborator, and having these to hand sets the scene as you go into each feature- Catherine discusses a number of production elements surrounding each release, including the cast and crew, and provides personal anecdotes.
To top things off there are also a set of interviews- filmed in 2007- with French critic Frederic Taddei, who discusses with the late director Alain Robbe- Grillet in depth his work, and each feature. For those with little knowledge of the director, these are priceless as they open up a wide avenue to understanding Robbe-Grillet’s background, ethos and style.
If that was not enough to tempt you each film comes with an exclusive commentary from Tim Lucas- Writer, critic, Editor of Video Watchdog, which for this reviewer proved priceless in unravelling the mystery behind these previously lesser known works. Lucas demonstrates a vast knowledge about all aspects of the features involved, from director to production, to casting, to each particular scene- even giving reference to Robbe- Grillet’s writing career on occasion to set the context. For those just becoming acquainted with the work of Robbe-Grillet again it cannot be understated the value of these commentaries.
Rounding things off also included here is a collector’s booklet with archive illustrations, on set stills, and full cast and credits for each feature, plus an in- depth essay from David Taylor.
The work of Alain Robbe- Grillet is like opening Pandora’s Box, once opened there is no going back, and who knows where it will lead? The answer to that question is strictly up to the viewer, and it would seem Robbe- Grillet would not have had it any other way. The films that have remained so difficult to find for so long are now presented in a beautiful package, making for a feast for those who enjoy cinema that breaks the boundaries. The additional material is worth its weight in gold for those newcomers to the director, and there is many an hour to be spent delving into the weird and wonderful world of Alain Robbe- Grillet- thankfully The BFI have packed so much in it makes things a little easier in starting the journey. It is true these films will not suit all tastes, hanging on the margins they are almost undefinable- bridging the gap between arthouse and sleaze- the combination of sadomasochistic imagery and heavy nudity combined with luscious cinematography and intellectual philosophy make them a heady brew even for those who are accustomed to strange cinema. For those who appreciate the experience Robbe- Grillet offers this has to represent the must buy addition for your collection today. Check out the official BFI page for details on how to buy and full specs here.
*quotes taken from The Erotic Dream Machine Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films (1992), Anthony N. Fragola and Roch C. Smith and Alain Robbe-Grillet :Southern Illinois University Press.