Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

The Awesome Mind Puzzles of Alain Robbe-Grillet

I’ve been watching the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet lately. He’s best-known as the writer of Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” but after “Marienbad” he went on to write and direct quite a few films of his own. I’ll be looking at three films by him in this post, which show an interesting progression from “Marienbad”-like seriousness and obtuse structure in “L’Immortelle”, to playful post-modern French New Wave parody in “Trans-Europ Express”, to full-on Godardian anarchism and insanity in “Eden and After”, all with a healthy dose of self-awareness and sadomasochism.

Robbe-Grillet first made his mark as an acclaimed cutting-edge writer in France before making his way to film. In 1961, he scripted “Last Year at Marienbad,” a film with a labyrinthine structure, elliptical plot and archetypal characters. It’s a puzzling film, a mystery with no answers, but it has a nice rhythm and beautiful cinematography.

Following that, he wrote and directed “L’Immortelle” in 1963, which is very much in the same vein. “L’Immortelle” tells the story of a man in Istanbul who meets up with a mysterious woman. The plot is difficult to follow, and like “Marienbad”, the focus is really on the characters, their interactions, and the ideas. “L’Immortelle” may have the leg up in terms of big ideas, exploring orientalism, gender dynamics and deceptive appearances. Both films have stark black and white cinematography, and feature some similar images and techniques (such as the use of still crowds and the repetition of certain scenes). They are also both populated with characters with letters for names (L, M, N; A, X, M) who are not very deeply characterized.

The film is an enigma, and it feels at times that one would need to be a cryptographer to make any sense of it. So in many ways, “L’Immortelle” feels disappointingly like a re-hash, proving that Robbe-Grillet is capable of making a good-looking film with a strong authorial voice, but not that that voice has anything new to say.

To answer that challenge, along came “Trans-Europ Express” three years later, a playful New-Wave farce that offers a nice departure from his previous self-serious work. Unlike the glacially-paced “L’Immortelle”,  “Trans-Europ Express” gets off to a brisk start, and its premise is established within a couple minutes. Three passengers on a train decide to come up with a movie plot about a dangerous drug dealer, and then their plot is acted out by Elias, a character played by Jean-Louis Trignant.

In a meta twist, the passengers are played by Robbe-Grillet, his wife, and the producer of the film. So they are both making the actual movie and concocting the movie-within-a-movie. It’s all just the kind of self-conscious metafiction that one would expect from Robbe-Grillet, but this time done with a wink and a smile. The movie-within-a-movie follows Elias’s plight as a cocaine smuggler, as he attempts to transport cocaine from Paris to Antwerp. Aside from a few twists and turns, the plot of the movie-within-a-movie is fairly straightforward.

The real mind games are embedded within the meta-narrative of the train passengers, and they have some interesting interactions with their story throughout the film. The film also marks the appearance of Robbe-Grillet’s fascination with sadomasochism, which will appear even more graphically in his later work. In the movie-within-a-movie, Elias has several kinky S&M meetups with prostitute Eva. There’s nothing too graphic, but it is a bit more risque than was typical for the time.

The film comes on the tail end of the French New Wave, and the movie-within-a-movie seems to parody a lot of the trappings of the earlier gangster-inspired pictures like “Shoot the Piano Player” or “Band of Outsiders”. But “Trans-Europe-Express”, because of its structure, has a higher degree of awareness than these films, exploring authorship, acting, and cinema from various angles, and comes out in the end as a pastiche of New Wave cliches. But a goofy, self-aware one at that. I liked it, and it was breezy, pretty funny and well-shot. At this point, Robbe-Grillet seems to have been more comfortable in the director’s chair, before maybe getting a little to comfortable with “Eden and After”.

1970’s “Eden and After” is Robbe-Grillet’s fourth film (I haven’t seen his third, “The Man Who Lies”, but I should), and his first in color. If his earlier work could be described as a bit cold, “Eden and After” is just the opposite. The film begins in a cafe called Eden where a group of intellectual university students experiment with sex and drugs. One day a strange man comes into the cafe, offers Violette (played by Catherine Jourdan) a drug called fear powder, which sets her off on a hallucinogenic odyssey which eventually takes her to Tunisia. The cafe, Eden, is a maze of mirrors and artwork, and I saw it as a metaphor for filmmaking (and maybe even the French New Wave specifically), as a space for wild experimentation and the flourishing of new ideas.

It almost seems like an exaggerated version of the salons that Godard and his pals undoubtedly had in the 1950s. And speaking of Godard, this movie is dripping with his influence, especially his late 1960s work on the tail end of the New Wave, like “Pierrot Le Fou” and “Week End”. The film explores imperialism, freedom, fear, death, dopplegängers, the self, power, and a load of other lofty concepts.

It’s an orgy of big ideas, sometimes literally. Robbe-Grillet ratchets up the sadomasochism to another level in this one, and there is even more rape, chains, submissive women, and all the other hallmarks of S&M. On one hand, it is kind of distracting and ideologically troubling that he puts so much of his own personal fetishes on screen, especially because of their implications of violence towards women. On the other, it really is something that is not often depicted in mainstream cinema, at least until “50 Shades of Grey” comes out, so these scenes at least offer something unique.

And speaking of uniqueness, if you’re willing to buy into my Eden cafe as film metaphor, then Violette’s hallucinatory journey to Africa may be Robbe-Grillet metaphorically pushing cinema to new levels. Arguably, he sort of succeeds. The sheer insanity of the film’s second half really does offer an experience different than most other films of the time, even if he is riding Godard’s coattails to some extent. The film was shot without a script, and its unhinged insanity feels like a genuine act of creation, even if the results are not always satisfying. At the very least, I appreciate Robbe-Grillet’s attempts to do something different, and it really does stand out from his other films (which is helped by the eye-popping color imagery).

If I had to choose a favorite work of Robbe-Grillet’s work so far, it would probably be “Trans-Europ Express”, but his work has my interest piqued enough that I will probably check out more of his stuff in the future. I may choose to write some more on him later; unfortunately, I can’t ever really talk about him because his name is so damn hard to pronounce…

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Whitman Wire Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *