Monday, 30 June 2014

Blu-ray Review: Alain Robbe-Grillet Six Films 1963-1974. BFI Blu-ray

"Art exists to trouble". Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Alain Robbe-Grillet first became famous in the field of literature, becoming the leading novelist in the nouveau roman movement of the 1950s. Robbe-Grillet also penned the screenplay for Alain Resnais' 'Last Year In Marienbad', and started directing his own films just shy of his 40th year. The British Film Institute are about to release a collection of his films, presenting consumers with the choice of a 3-disc Blu-ray set or a 5-disc DVD collection. This important release begins with his directorial debut which won the Louis Delluc award.

L'Immortelle (The Immortal One) 1963

Jacques Doniol Valcroze takes the part of Andre Varais; a stranger in a strange land which is identified as Istanbul. Varais is a teacher and is looking for a lift when he encounters a woman who goes by different names, though I'll settle for Lale (Francois Brion). Andre is instantly attracted to this enticing beauty, but the prospect of a steady relationship is hindered by characters and events that live outside the traditional structured storyline. Lale mentions early in the film that the city played host to slavery when young women were brought in on boats to be claimed by the rich and powerful. Although it's never clear whether or not Lale was a victim of this reprehensible trade, various scenes in the film suggest it's likely she was or still is.
'L'Immortelle' is akin to a constantly changing jigsaw puzzle where pieces are taken away and re-assembled, only to reveal parts of a completely different picture. An old fisherman, a mysterious man with two dogs and a a watcher outside a mosque all haunt Andre's path, together with a group of onlookers who appear to be spying on his movements. Is the man with the dogs Lale's husband, her father or her 'owner'? Are they all witnesses, accomplices or fragments from a fevered dream? Here, this land of secret gardens and mosques comes over as a city that isn't real: a city that sleeps only in the minds of those who succumb to its spell, and which awakes to confound any temporary sense of normaility and to block any attempt to find the truth. 'L'Immortelle' constantly slips out of reach, yet far from being a frustrating exercise, it's an entirely rewarding conundrum that will repay multiple viewings with fresh delights discovered, and heighten the feeling that this film is whatever you want it to be.

The moncochrome picture is a fitting showcase for Maurice Berry's lighting, with mosque interiors looking splendid and an abundance of fine detail in interior and exterior scenes. Viewers will do well to listen to Tim Lucas' splendid commentary track which takes a scene-by-scene approach to identify exactly what we should be looking for, and also finds time to provide information on cast, crew, production history and so much more. Tim also identifies some Hitchcockian touches; talks about Robbe-Grillet's career as a writer and his original casting choices. He also throws in a very apt and wonderfully descriptive line from his very own 'Throat Sprockets' novel. You should read it. Tim is also the editor of the essential 'Video Watchdog' magazine and, together with wife Donna, wrote the best book on film you're likely to read: 'Mario Bava: All The Colors Of The Dark'.

The commentary track is followed by a 32 minute Alain Robbe-Grillet interview conducted by Frederic Taddei. Here, the director talks about his thoughts on life and film; mentions Antonioni, Bunuel and Godard as directors who inspired him and the challenges posed by creating an imaginary city from a real one. He also goes into his experiences with the crew who were not slow to point out when he was asking the impossible, and how he took advantage of a police funeral to shoot a particularly striking scene.

Trans-Europ-Express 1966

Alain Robbe-Grillet's second feature can be accessed on this BFI release with an optional 6 minute introduction by his widow, Catherine. It's well worth taking this route to hear her talk about the production and to declare that her husband was seduced by a train - itself an important character in the film - and explain her own role as providing continuity, acting as a script girl and constantly making suggestions with regard to the screenplay.
'Trans-Europ-Express' sees the husband and wife team board a train going from Paris to Antwerp, and in discussion about shooting a film concerning the transportation of narcotics. When Jean-Louis Trintignant enters their carriage, an instant decision is made to cast him as their lead in what turns out to be a film within a film within a film. If the earlier 'L'Immortelle' saw Robbe-Grillet as a wet-behind-the-ears filmmaker, 'Trans-Europ-Express' brings him back to the chair two years older and wiser, possessing the confidence to lead his audience up blind alleys and dead ends with a multi-layered storyline and enough visual delights to keep you enthralled over any number of viewings. At the time, Trintignant was a hot ticket in cinemas throughout Europe, and his performance here as the drugs mule in a constantly changing storyline signals a declaration of intent in his collaboration with Robbe-Grillet: as we'll see, he turned in some sterling work for the director.
'Trans-Europ-Express' was no box office smash but it did prove to be one of Robbe-Grillet's most acclaimed films, keeping the audience on their toes with a plot that is distorted, deconstructed and rebuilt, only to move back into the same pattern. Secret agents, bombs, hollowed-out suitcases, locker keys that disappear and re-appear, a girl (played by Marie-France Pisier) a gun that Elias/Trintignant is warned not to use and explicit (for the time) scenes of bondage and not much French resistance by Pisier who plays host to her clients rape fantasies. The film plays with an undercurrent of humour which works beautifully as Elias goes through test after test, set by his paymasters to establish he's not working for the cops - witness the scene where he's interrogated and then set free to continue his journey - and some very clever use of mirrors and nods to classic spy capers.

The BFI's Blu-ray presentation exhibits a healthy grain structure, with good detail and is likely an accurate representation of the theatrical release. By now, the supplementary material is settling into a winning pattern, as Tim Lucas provides another informative commentary track. Early on, Tim notes that play-by-play commentaries can often be laborious, but that's not the case here. Indeed, a scene-by-scene deconstruction of this quality increases our understanding and admiration as Tim deciphers the playing of a piano as an analogy to the sounds of overheard sex; points out the prophetic magazine cover of 'The Man Who Died Four Times' (a journal purchased by Elias at the railway station) and both James Bond references (one in a magazine) and provides valuable career info on cast and crew. The finest analytical track I've heard and one that will be referred back to on many occasions.
Once again, the commentary is followed by a Robbe-Grillet interview, conducted by Frederic Taddei which runs for just over 31 minutes. The director declares his film to be the first shot on a real train, and recalls his fight with the distributors who deemed Trintignant to be an actor who emptied cinemas. He goes on to acknowledge the need to work quickly - the film was shot in 14 days - and explains why he likes to depart from reality, and also highlights scenes he now feels could have worked better. 'Trans-Europ-Express' was banned in Britain for 10 years by the BBFC, and its a real pleasure to experience its Home Video debut here in such splendid quality.

L'Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies) 1968

'The Man Who Lies' can be accessed with or without a 6 minute introduction from Catherine Robbe-Grillet who explains why this film was shot in Slovakia, and recalls meeting Albert Marencin who set up the finance, and goes on to chat about the crew, including Slovaks who drunk their pay.
The films begins with Jean-Louis Trintignant being pursued through a wood by German soldiers.'The Man Who Lies' takes place during the second world war, yet Trintignant's character is dressed straight out of 1968 and introduces himself as Jean Robin; a man with a story to tell, and in need of an audience to seduce. Soon, Jean Robin becomes Boris Varessa aka 'The Ukrainian', who encounters three women and uses a web of deceit in an attempt to charm his prey. The women reside in a "house full of ghosts and forebodings": Laura (Zuzana Kocurikova) and wife of the real(?) Jean Robin; his sister Sylvia (Sylvie Turbova) and their maid Maria (Sylvie Breal) who are waiting for Jean to come home.
Boris claims Jean sent him and that he sprung Jean from jail and arranged for a doctor to tend his wounded friend who was hiding out in the forest. The women see Jean as a hero, but Boris paints an entirely different picture, presenting him as a coward and a traitor. But, who exactly is the coward? Who is the real traitor? Boris? Jean? Maybe the local pharmacist (played by Catherine Robbe-Grillet) who uses her store as a meeting place for the local resistance and apparently gives information to the German troops. As this film is full of lies - in sound, words and vision - it's both a challenge and a genuine pleasure to follow the search for a truth which may not even exist. Trintignant is again in marvellous form here, with gestures and facial expressions the counterpoint to words that enrage, hypnotise, seduce and betray those who may or may not be part of his story. This film is another prime example of the director playing games with his audience, leaving questions unanswered, and answers leading to more questions. Why does Boris put on and remove his jacket on four consecutive occasions? One for each of the women and one for Jean? Is the pharmacist really a traitor, as has Jean come back as a ghost, a victim seeking revenge or are all the characters part of a dying man's fever dream? Multiple viewings are most certainly required here, and the by-now customary interview and commentary track again repay dedicated listening.

The interview runs for almost 34 minutes, and the director and Frederic Taddei maintain their excellent rapport with the end result a fascinating discussion as Taddei is full of great questions and interesting theories. Robbe-Grillet explains why war memorials were not there to tell the truth; why his film was a flop at the box office, and its connections with Kafka and Pushkin. We also hear about his favourite scene in the film and there's a few words also on his 'The Last Days Of Corinth' autobiography.
Tim Lucas' commentary track once again excels, covering sound design, career resumes for the main actors, the significance of the hair cutting scene and talks about the director's novels. Once again, Tim's commentary mixes play-by-play with telling observations and interpretations - a soldier reading Pravda (Truth) which had not yet been published - and tells us the film was broken into segments. I'll leave you - the viewer - to listen to this explanation and then watch the film again, hungry to see how the director's methods play out. Picture quality on this monochrome feature is excellent, with fine detail that really stands out in HD and a nice grain structure.

It's worth pointing out that the director's future output would be influenced more by paintings than novels, and some striking artwork appears in this film, perhaps pointing the way to what lay in store.

L'Eden et apres (Eden And After) 1970

Once again, viewers can opt to play the film with a seven minute introduction from Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who explains the first half of this film was shot in Bratislava and the second half in Tunisia. We hear how Alain lost two teeth to a knuckleduster, and learn of the only time he was unfaithful to her.
The 'Eden' of the title refers to a student cafe where bright young things congregate to role-play, consume drugs and invent stories to propel them on wild flights of fancy. Sexual violence is just one of the themes on offer in a world of broken glass, mirrors (both of which are recurring themes in the director's films), blood red makeup and blindfolded women who echo Robbe-Grillet's previous film. Violette (the remarkable Catherine Jourdan) is at the centre of this exotic, erotic maze, where a stolen painting and the arrival of a mysterious stranger known as Duchemin (Pierre Zimmer) - possibly based on 'The Flying Dutchman' - propels events to the island of Djerba in Tunisia, triggering or creating for Violette the memory of the same location viewed in a travel film at the cinema.

Yet again, Robbe-Grillet has delivered a thoroughly absorbing and hugely challenging film, full of doubles whether it's Violette and her Tunisian twin; the Cortez brothers who grapple in the blue Tunisian sea; the placing of the director's wife as a lecturer, a guide and a witness or the factory pipes which resemble the straws used to draw lots in an earlier scene. It's mentioned in the excellent booklet accompanying this set (more on that later) that Alain Robbe-Grillet belongs more to the territory mined by Jess Franco and Jean Rollin ttan any French 'New Wave-group and I'd agree. In fact, 'Eden And After' with its scenes of vampire-esque decadence, death, women in chains and exotic locations does, at times, remind me of the late Franco's wonderful world. As before, this film certainly demands multiple viewings to assemble and re-assemble your thoughts. Is the Eden cafe a haunted house, with its attendant spirits doomed to continue their quest for all eternity? Does Violette ever leave the confines of the cafe, with Tunisia the product of a dream or perhaps it's the dying memories of an old woman mixing relaity with cruel fantasy, longing with dread? Whatever your take may be, you'll certainly applaud Ms Jourdan who invests the film with energy and a presence that will haunt you long afterwards. 'Eden And After' is a wholly unsettling affair that's true to the director's manifesto, and very much a box of secrets whose key can never be fully turned. In many ways, it's my current favourite of the films on offer here.

'Eden And After' was Alain Robbe-Grillet's first colour feature, and image quality is a delight here with the blue sea and white Tunisian sands coming alive, while the steel and glass cafe Eden looks cool and polished and fleshtones are robust.
Tim Lucas again takes the microphone for a commentary that is an essential guide to this film. He reveals that 'Eden And After' was broken into segments with twelve generating themes which he identifies and explores. He discusses the significance of the number 8 in this film (which re-occurs in the director's books and films); goes into more detail regarding the director's affair with one of his actresses; talks about the inspiration from paintings that influenced this film and tells the story behind the casting of Violetta's double. We also learn the editing process - rather fittingly - took eight months and appreciate the helpful inclusion of cast info.
Another interview conducted by our old friend Frederic Taddei follows (lasting 31 minutes) which covers the director's discovery of colour (and his hatred of green), the reason why he shot an alternate take of the film, and his experiences at the Berlin Film Festival. It's clear Robbe-Grillet and Taddei enjoyed a great rapport with much mutual respect, and it's another half hour that simply zips by.

N. a pris les des (N. Took The Dice) 1971

This 79 minute gem is an edited version of 'Eden And After' which incorporates new footage and outtakes and is narrated by one of the Cortez brothers ( Richard Leduc) who notes the orderly fashion of television dramas with strict rules, designed to put you to sleep. Three dice are rolled, with the numbers adding up to twelve (the number of generating themes) and Catherine Jourdan's character is referred to as 'Eve' because he can't remember her 'real' name. Eve/Violette meets her Tunisian double early in the film, with a postcard the object of her attentions, depicting the same scene as the painting from 'Eden And After'. There are some beguiling variations to savour here: the factory scene is a case in point where the brightly painted interior plays host to particles of sand descending from the ceiling, echoing the beach in Tunisia, while the character of Duchemin again has an encounter with a truck, but this time with a different outcome.
Robbe-Grillet, together with the skills of Bob Wade (his trusted editor) fashioned an alternate cut that poses even more questions and stands as an absorbing companion piece. In many ways, 'Eden And After' is my current favourite in this boxset, and 'N. Took The Dice' mirrors its power, like a recurring dream with information both added and omitted.It came about as a result of a deal to produce a second film for French television, presenting challenging late-night viewing. Richard Leduc concludes his narration by summing up beautifully the films of his director. Ultimately, the viewer decides the meaning of the film in question, and interprets dialogue, actions, reactions, cause and effect, sound and extraordinary vision. The films are whatever you want to see, whatever you want them to be, constructed of your deepest, darkest desires and things you may not wish to be privy to. I think of 'N. Took The Dice' as a memory of the future: an anticipation of things yet to happen or a primordial longing for excitement, travel and adventure that proves to be the stronger.
With this excellent Blu-ray transfer, we can savour the art design of this film as well as freeze-frame any part we desire. Practically any fame examined comes over as a painting in its own right, thus heightening our appreciation of what was accomplished here. The same can be said for the last film in this collection. Still open to interpretation and analysis after all these years and at last available to new and already existing audiences.

Glissements progressifs du Plasil (Successive Slidings Of Pleasure 1974

And so we come to the last film in this collection, shot over a 16 day period for a fixed budget of 50,000 Francs. Catherine Robbe-Grillet provides a six minute introduction, explaining how lead actress Anicee Alvina came to her attention in a Belgian film titled 'The Beguines' and seemed perfect for her husband's film. We also hear about the challenge set to film on a fixed low budget.
Broken glass, a bloodied mannequin, a naked woman splayed across a wheel... just a few of the uncomfortable images that inhabit the opening minutes of this film. Anicee Alvina - just 17 years old at the time of filming - appears as an unnamed woman (known as 'The Prisoner' in the BFI booklet credits)who takes on the established order of police, church and law when her friend Nora (Olga Georges-Picot) is murdered. Was a black-gloved intruder responsible for her death, or did her friend and occasional lover commit a crime of passion? The severe trauma of seeing her teacher fall from a cliff during a school outing (watch out for Isabelle Huppert as one of the pupils) may well have marked her for life, though her body language and expressions suggest she willed her teacher to fall. Her tempestuous relationship with women and the way she disintegrates the established order are but two key themes in a film full of disjointed rhythm, dislocation of time and space and objects which reoccur in Robbe-Grillet's work: a blue shoe which is supposed to act as a talisman against bad luck which resurfaces at one point under a mound of earth; a bottle washed up on a beach - minus any message inside - that will be broken and re-assembled, only to be smashed again during some intensely erotic scenes; the breaking of eggs ala 'Eden And After' and the religious prison that twins Robbe-Grillet with a particularly perverse period in history. There's so much going on in this film that a single viewing is a million miles away from even scratching the surface: a lawyer who is initially identified as Nora by the prisoner and then as the defendant by the priest; arresting images of nude body art inspired by Yves Klein's 'Anthropometries In Red' and a scene reminiscent of an encounter between Regan and the priest in 'The Exorcist'.

Robbe-Grillet is the man who lies yet again, or maybe he's just experimenting with various scenarios and outcomes, manipulating and re-moulding his characters to play with deep-seated fears and desires. Witness the relationship between the prisoner and Nora who she claims is cruel to her and scares her by playing dead, and then consider the shoe may well be on the other foot. That if the state trinity can be broken down by one individual, the nothing, no-one is immune to seduction and distortion. Not even us. Especially not us.
The role of the police is particularly interesting to consider, especially if one views the events as a fantasy of the police inspector (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who takes a case of stalking and break-in as a vehicle to play out fantasies which can be re-enacted with different outcomes.

The Blu-ray transfer of this film again excels, with a nice layer of grain, fine detail and perfect fleshtones. It's a real pleasure to view these films, at last, in high definition and thanks go to all those involved.
The final interview here with Robbe-Grillet and Frederic Taddei runs just shy of 32 minutes. Taddei begins by declaring this was a time when French Cinema went naked, with 'Last Tango In Paris' and 'Emmanuelle' joined by 'Successive Slidings' as forays into erotic cinema. We learn the film was the result of a bet and to be shot on a strict budget with static shots and no depth. Robbe-Grillet talks about Anicee Alvina, her openness and the problems both of them faced with regard to dialogue. We also discover that some scenes were shot in a cell once occupied by the Marquis de Sade, and of the mark of Jean Robin in this place of incarceration. The director again pays tribute to Jean-Louis Trintignant who worked for no fee on this film, and of the inspiration of art on this picture.

For the final time here, Tim Lucas delivers an excellent commentary track, drawing parallels between Robbe-Grillet and Mario Bava, and later mentions Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin: a quartet of great directors sadly no longer with us. Tim covers the Cine Roman's that accompanied some of the films; addresses censorship problems and critical reaction in France and the US; explains that Nora was painted as St Agatha and goes on to tell her story, and indentifies the whistling outside the cell as an accompaniment to workmen building a guillotine. We also get career resumes of the main actors, and an abundance of insightful comments and theories that will increase your appreciation and understanding. Tim ends by asking "Shall we watch it again?" which is exactly what I felt like doing.

One interesting point about this collection of films is there are no chapter stops, prompting the viewer to always view a particular film in one sitting; a wise action to take as these are not films to be dipped into but rather experienced as a whole. The BFI have provided theatrical trailers where possible, and an excellent booklet with credits and an essay by David Taylor which discusses Robbe-Grillet's novels and films. The booklet also contains Claire Johnston's review of 'Trans-Europ-Express' which appeared in the Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1969, and Robbe-Grillet's 'Contract Of Conjungal prostitution': a 5 page document outlining what was expected of his wife during their sadomasochistic sessions. It was a contract Catherine never signed.
With the help of the commentary tracks and interviews, heightened understanding of these films is now possible, and I'd respectfully echo Tim's wish that this collection may help prompt the translation of Robbe-Grillet's remaining books into English.
Probably the most important Home Video release of 2014, as far as the UK is concerned.

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