The key scene in Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s cherished cinematic collaboration Last Year at Marienbad (1961) which was cut from the script was one of sexual violence, leaving the film with a lurking possibility of menace but nothing explicit to challenge its ‘U’ certificate. Sadism and particularly sexual sadism was to be a theme that Robbe-Grillet would increasingly explore in his solo efforts, but it would also put the handbrake on his reputation as an auteur – with many of his films unavailable due to this. This BFI collection of six of his beautifully remastered works comes as a timely corrective and will, for many, prove a revelation for one of the lesser-seen French directorial talents.
Robbe-Grillet had already made a name for himself as a prize-winning novelist with the successful 1953 surrealist detective novel The Erasers when he ventured relatively late in life into the world of cinema. While Last Year at Marienbad was being made, Robbe-Grillet was prepping his first film, The Immortal One (1963). Set in Istanbul and shot like a René Magritte painting come to life, The Immortal One tells the story of a man, N (played by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze), who is entranced by a mysterious woman, L (a fine Françoise Brion). Discovering a city that he may or may not be dreaming of/inventing, N is a Kafkaesque hero who instead of being oppressed by the forces of a callous bureaucracy finds himself confined in the grips of his own desires and their restless ineffability.
The Immortal One is as frustrating to the viewer as the voyeuristic pursuit of L is to N, but this is in no way a criticism. The camera moves to and from scenes and settings. A night time street scene is unnervingly empty and then suddenly crowded by people. Sound effects (gunshots, breaking glass, dogs growling) intrude from non-discernible sources; a sense of menace and threat lurks but – as with Kafka – the ‘victim’ is not necessarily innocent, having his own cruel needs. The plot is a spiralling dilemma with everything cleanly logical but nothing making any sense. This brilliant hypnotic ambivalence is somewhat damaged by the overenthusiastic subtitling. Robbe-Grillet’s intention was to not subtitle the Turkish dialogue, keeping the uninitiated viewer among us in a state of linguistic limbo.
Robbe-Grillet’s second film was also his most commercially successful. Trans-Europ-Express (1967) was to be the first in several collaborations with actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. The film has the cheeky feel of a Godard exercise in genre. Robbe-Grillet, with his wife and collaborator Catherine Robbe-Grillet and the producer, board the eponymous train and the director immediately latches onto the idea of making a film within. Trintignant plays Elias, a small-time crook with a penchant for sexual sadism. He buys a suitcase in order to run drugs (or diamonds?) from Paris to Antwerp. However, in order to be trusted by the criminals, he’s set a series of tasks to test his worthiness. Aided by Eve (Marie-France Pisier), it quickly becomes apparent that the whole film is a series of games within games; impostures and scenarios played out with no ‘reality’ behind it. This is meta-cinema at its best, gleefully uncaring about its audience and the conventions it only momentarily takes seriously. However, behind the frivolity the darker elements of bondage and violence begin to emerge even more starkly and disturbingly, with the character of Eve a woman who seems bent on her own submission.
In a second collaboration, the triumphant Trintignant stars in the 1968 Czech/French collaboration The Man Who Lies. A surreal take on The Return of Martin Guerre, Trintignant is the umpteenth unreliable narrator Boris, a man who we first see fleeing from the Germans at the end of the Second World War. He’s apparently killed, but only a moment later gets up and wanders into a village where he claims to the unfriendly locals variously to be a friend, ally and traitor of the local partisan hero, Jan Robin – if not the actual man himself. His overlapping, inconsistent and occasionally incoherent spiel has the compulsion and charm of the practised liar who is so enmeshed is in his own falsehoods that our protagonist can no longer tell where one lie ends and another tall tale – or indeed the truth – begins.
As a satire on post-war mythologising, the guilt of collaboration and the betrayal of the partisan ideal, The Man Who Lies works, though Robbe-Grillet’s attention seems to be sliding away from this (dis)engagement and towards the blank faced beauties who are positioned and poised in ways increasingly to service some inscrutable need and which has less and less to do with the audience. Up until now, Robbe-Grillet’s films have teetered on the absurd – occasionally paddling in the shallow end whilst suggested the depths – but as his career progressed his style became wearyingly repetitive and his obsessions more exclusively personal. This isn’t to say that Eden and After (1970) doesn’t have a lot going for it – the move to a sumptuous colour palette makes for one of Robbe-Grillet’s most visually striking films – but this tale within a tale of bored students playing role playing will likely test the patience of all but the hardiest of cinéastes.
Violette (Catherine Jourdan) is one of a group of students who pass their time with murderous, sadomasochistic parlour games (to give a feel for the Neanderthal gender politics, the film begins with a simulated gang rape). The intrusion of a stranger (Pierre Zimmer) – with his fear powder and older, wiser tricks – sees the group decamp magically to Tunisia where their teasing seem to take a more serious turn. If the narrative eccentricity of Eden was not enough, 1971’s N. Took the Dice is a short alternate version of the film made up out-takes and deleted scenes and stitched together by N, who organises the narrative by throwing the dices and putting the scenes together. This is cinema at its most experimental, and it’s during such experiments that repetition and boredom can both arise.
The final film in this BFI collection is from 1974 and is a strange, alluring of sexual fantasies but played out with a disturbing joyless violence running as an undercurrent. Adhering to Robbe-Grillet’s crime story roots, Successive Slidings of Pleasure begins with a murder, perhaps consensual, of a beautiful woman Nora (Olga Georges-Picot). The suspect, her lesbian lover (played by Anicée Alvina) is grilled by the judge (Michael Lonsdale) and as she talks, she reveals in flashback her own sexual development and her relationship with Nora. On one level, the films represents art cinema colliding with sexploitation (Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle was released the very same year, playing across the street), but it’s also perhaps Robbe-Grillet revealing what was always there from the very beginning.
Whereas the sexual violence was sublimated before, in Successive Slidings of Pleasure it’s out in the open in all its gory detail. In fact, by this stage Robbe-Grillet’s direction is so in your face that disgust or arousal are inevitable – or, more likely, a messy blend of the two. The supplementary material encourages this engagement, including frank introductions by Catherine Robbe-Grillet and, in the accompanying notes, a letter her husband wrote to her detailing how their sadomasochistic sessions were to be conducted. Ultimately, these are important films by a major cinematic visionary and artist. Visually beguiling, occasionally shocking and often downright perverse, Alain Robbe-Grillet is a filmmaker who remains difficult to tie down – even if he’d perhaps wants you to.