Thursday 23 April 2009

At last - Robbe Grillet on Mondo Macabro

Over the next couple of months we'll be announcing DVD releases from two masters of EuroCult - that are maybe so far apart that they meet in the middle... First up we're extremely proud to present......

Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of France’s most celebrated cultural figures, died in February, 2008. So what? you might ask. Why should I care? Well, one reason is that we are releasing his final film – Gradiva - on DVD in August.

The second reason is that once you break through the barrier of intellectual bullshit that surrounds the man and his work, you’ll find his books and certainly his films have many things in them to enjoy for the adventurous fan of “Eurocult” films or pulp literature and erotica. While I would have been (probably rightly) castigated for saying so at the Academie Francaise, a film like Michel Lemoine’s Seven Women for Satan has more than a few things in common with some of Robbe-Grillet’s 1960’s and 70’s movies. Interestingly, if you examine the credits, you’ll see that both films share the same editor – the maverick Bob Wade. In fact, Wade worked on all of Robbe-Grillet’s films AND all of Lemoine’s… Hmmm. I leave it to braver souls than me to pursue that connection. But let’s not deny that there is one.

As most people know, Robbe-Grillet began his career as a writer. In fact, he says: " I have had three careers. When I was twenty I was an agricultural engineer, when I was thirty I was a writer and then at forty I became a filmmaker." His first contact with the cinema was through working with Alain Resnais on the film Last Year at Marienbad, a quintessential European art movie, as watchable and enigmatic now as when it was first released in 1961. The film's success gave Robbe-Grillet the green light for his first solo project, 1963's The Immortal One. Like Marienbad, this is a complex story of shifting identities, of games with time and narrative. The story, set in Istanbul, tells of a man's search for an elusive woman he has fallen in love with who suddenly seems not to have existed. While the plot has a lot to do with moody film noirs from the 1940s, such as The Phantom Lady, the tone is resolutely 1960s. The closest influence would probably be Robbe-Grillet's much admired mentor Antonioni.

Robbe-Grillet didn't enjoy working on The Immortal One. He tried to plan everything beforehand and worked from a very detailed script that the director of photography, Maurice Barry, disparagingly called "hieroglyphics". For his next film, Robbe-Grillet decided to adopt a much more freewheeling and flexible approach. The result, Trans-Europ-Express (1967), gave him his first taste of notoriety. One of the least remarked features of both Marienbad and The Immortal One was their sexual undercurrents. In Marienbad this was toned down by Resnais, but with The Immortal One Robbe-Grillet had more freedom to explore the territory. The film's star, the gorgeous Francoise Brion, performs a couple of steamy belly dancing sequences and later there's a suggestion of kinky goings on involving chains and bondage, even a hint of murder and necrophilia. In Trans-Europ-Express all of this suggestion is brought centre stage.

The protagonist of the story, Elias, is a drug smuggler who likes to engage in games of sexual violence, persuading his girlfriend to play a whore whom he then ties up and pretends to rape. This sequence caused an outcry when the film was released and led to its being banned in the UK for twenty years. Robbe-Grillet was amazed by the fuss. As far as he was concerned the whole sequence had been an exercise in irony, playing with the forms and subject matter of pulp novels and B thrillers. Perhaps to avoid the trap of too much notoriety, Robbe-Grillet toned down the sex in his next film, The Man Who Lies (1968).

Robbe-Grillet's 1960s films were black and white, playful and toyed with the audience's expectations. The films he made in the 1970s became much more explicit in their use of sexual imagery which led, for a few years, to the perception of Robbe-Grillet as a maker of sex movies. Although this amused him he insists that it's not based on fact. "I am not a maker of erotic films," he stresses. "Sex film makers are too concerned with realism, which doesn't interest me at all." Be that as it may, 1971's Eden and After, Robbe-Grillet's first colour film, is a riot of skin and softcore exposure. Much of it features the delectable Catherine Jourdan. In knee length leather boots and a mini shift that barely covers her assets, she flits through the scenery like every middle-aged man's perfect fantasy of a liberated young swinger.

Eden and After gave a boost to Robbe-Grillet's reputation as an auteur who made tastefully kinky movies for the intellectual set. Soon he was approached by the Boublil Brothers, who ran a successful chain of Paris sex cinemas. They agreed to finance his next film, Slow Slidings of Pleasure. Robbe-Grillet explains that the title comes from the formal pleasures obtained by watching the different realities of the film as they rub up against each other. Maybe. But the title is also an obvious sexual come on and the film is as remarkable for its many scenes of oddball kinkiness as for its intellectual conceits. Much of the running time consists of the kind of glossy erotic imagery for which Robbe-Grillet had become notorious. Eggs are broken over naked bodies, women are chained and strapped to wheels. In a lengthy homage to Yves Klein, the film's star, Anicee Alvina, covers her body in red paint and imprints herself against the white walls and floor of her cell. In the film's most shocking scene, Alvina and her girlfriend torture and dismember a very human looking mannequin, complete with pubic hair.
Glissements was released in 1974, right in the middle of a box office boom for French erotic cinema. The film's success meant that Robbe-Grillet was on a roll, able to go straight into production on his next film, Playing with Fire. In widescreen, glossy colour and with a cast of big names, including internationally known sex star Sylvia Kristel, it looked like his most mainstream project. It had lots of nudity, a dose of humour, plenty of kinky sex, a car chase and even a smoochy theme song (Chico Buarque's Caroline) sung to a lilting samba beat.

Playing with Fire marked the end of a phase in Robbe-Grillet's film making career. It was nine years before he would make another movie. In his previous films he had often toyed with the imagery of the fantastique film. In both Glissements and Eden and After reference is made to vampirism, through images of women with trickles of blood dripping from their lips. In La belle captive (The Beautiful Prisoner), released in 1983, he came as close as he ever did to making a straight horror film. The source material was Goethe's ballad The Bride of Corinth, itself based on one of the oldest horror stories in the world, that of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be dead.

The film makes brilliant use of the raw material of the fantastique film, pulp mystery stories and erotic 1960s comics. Walter's boss, the beautiful Sara Zeitgeist, rides to her meetings dressed in black leather astride a huge motorbike. There is a sinister policeman (played by the unique Daniel Emilfork) and many strange fantasy sequences where Marie Ange dances on the beach framed by a pair of red velvet curtains. The curtains, the beach and even the title of the film are all references the paintings of Magritte, making explicit Robbe-Grillet's debt to the surrealist tradition. Representing the other side of the argument is a painting by arch realist Edouard Manet, showing a firing squad executing a blindfolded man. The film ends with a recreation of the Manet painting, with Walter as the blindfolded victim. The execution is being carried out under the orders of the angel of death - who turns out to be his boss, Sara Zeitgeist.

La Belle Captive has a definite valedictory quality to it, with its themes of death and sacrifice. However, in 1994 Robbe-Grillet returned to the fray with his biggest ever budget. The Blue Villa (Un bruit qui rend fou), was co-directed with first time film maker Dimitri de Clerq and unfortunately is something of a disappointment. The success of movies like Eden and After and Glissements lay largely in the fascination of their central female characters, incarnated by actresses who were able to hold an audience's attention and perhaps prevent Robbe-Grillet from straying too far into his beloved ironic playfulness. The Blue Villa has no such central performance. On the other hand, the complex nature of all Robbe-Grillet's films means that the real value of them only becomes apparent after several viewings. The Blue Villa is certainly worth more than a second look.

Robbe-Grillet was 73 when The Blue Villa was released and it looked likely that it would be his last film. He suffered a heart attack some years later, making a return to the rigours of film production seem even less of an option. Imagine then our surprise at Sitges a couple of years ago to see that a new film by Alain Robbe-Grillet was being screened. More surprise – and much delight – came with discovering that it was a superb return to form. Set in the exotic medina in Marrakech, peopled with the enigmatic but seductive women who figure in so much of his best work and with a great sense of humour, even at the expense of its own pretensions, this is Robbe-Grillet at the top of his game.

In many ways the film prefigures his own passing, a subject which must have been occupying much of his thought at the time. The fact that, in the shadow of death, he managed to turn out a work that deals so profoundly with death itself, and with the hellish lure of immortality, is just another testament to his rigorous artistry.

Robbe-Grillet's films are thought of as difficult and abstract because they don't deal with 'relationships', in the sense of people sitting round and talking about their problems. In fact, they deal with the more essential relationship between our 'selves' and 'reality'. To many people, Robbe-Grillet's films seem like a joke. If so, it's a joke like the one in Clovis Trouille's painting, showing a naked Jesus roaring with laughter inside the grand gothic cathedral of Amiens. In his films Robbe-Grillet is laughing at the attempts we make to construct some smooth, manageable version of reality, while ignoring all the dangerous corners that intrude.

When the films work, as does Gradiva and many sequences from his other movies, they are both an intellectual and an emotional experience.


  1. That's great news! NOW you're speaking my language! (Not that I can LITERALLY speak French mind you) I've always loved everything I've ever seen connected with Robbe-Grillet which hasn't been much due to the scarcity of most of his movies here in the US. So it's great to hear you're releasing this! Keep up the good work!!

  2. That is TERRIFIC news! I had the chance to watch a double bill of EDEN AND AFTER and GLISSEMENTS in beautiful 35mm prints at a showing in NYC in 1975 with Robbe-Grillet in attendance. He graciously answered questions after the screenings. In person he struck me as a generous, witty, self effacing man. Not at all pretentious. It was a great experience. Really look forward to this and thanks for the critical survey of his film career. I agree that his films are greatly misunderstood and crucial to the evolution of film grammar.

  3. Really enjoyed reading this! I'm looking forward to the DVD release.

  4. I've only ever seen two of his movies, Trans-Europ Express and La Belle Captive. Both fabulous movies, so this is very good news.