[15 July 2014]
One doesn’t watch a movie by Alain Robbe-Grillet to follow a story, but to follow a false story. Cobbled from various impulses and ideas, they form pseudo-narratives that either encourage or defy viewers to make sense of their patterns.
In the interview included as a bonus to his 1968 feature The Man Who Lies, Robbe-Grillet explains that he was invited to make a film in Slovakia with lots of resources, that he wanted to create a showcase for actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (presumably for his means his physicality, his capacity for mercurial shifts, his gift for enigma), that a nearby castle (which they could use) had a woman waiting for her brother who disappeared in the World War II Resistance, and that Communist monuments to dead heroes were fabricated to include all kinds of villains as well. From these ideas, and from his fondness for Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, Robbe-Grillet constructed the web of references that form this movie.
It opens with a man (Trintignant) in modern clothing being hunted in a forest by WWII German soldiers, reminiscent of a brilliant contemporary Czech film, The Fifth Horseman Is Fear. In his narration, he claims to be Jean Robin, here to tell us his tale. After he’s shot dead (bloodlessly and theatrically), he rises the next morning, brushes himself off, and goes into the village where he hears that Robin is a missing Resistance hero whose widow, sister, and maid are left behind, playing Blind Man’s Bluff in their castle. Our hero now claims to be Robin’s chum Boris Varassa (a name he gets from a grave), and his story constantly changes in flashbacks as he improvises or play-acts his identities as he goes along.
In this way the film also echoes Tadeus Konwicki’s Polish film Salto (1965), in which a man reinvents himself in a skeptical village (and therefore reminiscent of Konwicki’s influence by Polish playwrights Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz, who explore revived corpses and fluid identity). Robbe-Grillet’s work here also somewhat parallels Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s Teorema (1968), in which a mysterious stranger seduces a household, and even of the story of Martin Guerre, a well-known French legend that would be filmed as The Return of Martin Guerre.
Igor Luther’s black and white photography is beautiful, though not as eye-popping as his seductive movements and color work in Robbe-Grillet’s next film, Eden and After, a film even more about shifting narrative games. Eden is an amazing labyrinth, designed in mirrors and Mondriaan squares, where a gaggle of French college students play charades of sex and death. These are “happenings” or performance art. Another mysterious lying stranger (Pierre Zimmer) arrives and tells them, “You juggle ideas but you won’t get involved with living matter, as if you weren’t born yet. You smile. You are sheltered. Outside, there are rain, snow and sun, and the night. Here, everything is air-conditioned. It’s never cold nor warm.”
He gives the heroine (Catherine Jourdan) some hallucinatory or precognitive “fear powder” and stages a scary encounter in a photogenic factory, and then they all transfer to a village in Tunisia for more dreamlike narrative gestures with moments of nudity and violence. In an alternative film made from out-takes and new footage, N. Took the Dice (included as a bonus), Robbe-Grillet followed musical “aleatory” rather than “serial” practice by shuffling the different segments into a version from which the narrator tries to project or extract a logic of cause and effect, like a child making up a story from random drawings, or like a film viewer creating meaning out of editing (as in Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiment).
If you resist the urge to make up a story where the films don’t bother, and if you have the patience to sit through the resulting longeurs, there are many vivid, striking images, which often have to do with women feeling trapped in a world of male violence. Despite his references and influences, Robbe-Grillet is his own artist.