Two films by novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet make their American home video debut this week. Best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years and Trans-Europ-Express (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD), a lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1966, was his most popular success and most audience-friendly production.
Three filmmakers (one of them played by Robbe-Grillet himself) board a train and begin working out the story for a film about drug trafficking. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (as illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised on the run can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as his Breathless, a pulp story refracted with his own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity. It’s a film that plays out in parallel, an illustration of the story being spun on the train, and Robbe-Grillet plays with the gimmick as scenes are constantly revised and rewritten by the trio, which sends the spy movie rewinding and twisting back on itself. But the director doesn’t make the equation so literal; multiple versions seem to spin out of the revisions and the fiction crosses over into the “real” world of the filmmakers. Call it quantum storytelling. Trintignant is at once Jean-Louis the private citizen (a man with a furtive fascination with pornography), Elias the character (who likes a little bondage in his prostitutes), and Trintignant the actor playing the character Elias, and the story is both a fictional construct and a “real” event, perhaps brought to life by the storytelling itself. Dead characters come back to life and the entire seems poised to begin again once the filmmakers disembark. Just like heading back into the pleasures of cinema stories and their mix of contrived twists and visual spectacle.
The 1974 erotic thriller Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD) stirs murder and sadomasochism in a kinky mix of sexploitation and art cinema. Equal parts Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Rollin, it’s ostensibly a murder mystery with an exhibitionist / conceptual artist suspect (Anicée Alvina, mostly unclothed), a surrealist of a detective playing private eye (Jean-Louis Trintignant, making little more than a cameo), a convent with a sex dungeon, a mother superior who personally metes out corporeal punishment on the naked skin of her female prisoners, and a judge (Michael Lonsdale) lost in his own words.
As a murder mystery, it’s as abstract as the austere, blinding-white sets of her apartment and convent prison cell. I’m reminded of Godard’s comment about the amount of blood in Pierrot le fou. “It’s not blood, it’s red.” There are slashes and pools and rivulets and stains of red splashed all over the white walls and pale naked skin displayed in the film and Robbe-Grillet uses the same crimson mixture, the same intense, unreal hue and smooth texture, whether it’s supposed to be blood or paint in the scene. It’s simply “red,” a signifier that becomes more meta with every scene (and really, why do the Sisters of No Mercy give their prisoner a gallon of red paint to play with in her spotless cell?) in a film that plays less like a narrative than a kinky dream or a piece of performance art performed for an audience that it periodically addresses. The free-association design of the film detours into what could just be the sexual fantasies of our heroine (and possible sex maniac killer) spinning her already perverse situation into wild sexploitation set pieces. And as in Trans-Europ-Express, it all cycles back on itself in paired scenes, doppelganger characters (Olga Georges-Picot is Alvina’s both victim and defense attorney) and repeated actions. If Trans-Europ-Express plays with genre conventions as variations to be played with on the fly, Successive Slidings of Pleasure discards all presumptions of narrative logic to play with abstract imagery loosely connected by the impulses of its director. It’s post-modern erotica, which makes the whole enterprise just a little discomforting. The pleasures are cerebral and conceptual … with a lot of sex in it.
Both are newly mastered from 35mm elements and feature video interviews with Robbe-Grille conducted a few years ago, with the old man reflecting back on films he made decades before.