The output of the late French film director and cultural polymath Alain Robbe-Grillet is nothing if not enigmatic. Often likened to his compatriot and one-time collaborator Alain Resnais, and coveted during his career by a Gallic art house movement drawn to his stylish and unconventional nouvelle vague explorations of complex relationships and non-linear time, Robbe-Grillet’s work is not without its detractors, with certain films of his decried by those who view them as tantamount to cheap, soft-core erotica, punctuated as they are with the same kind of nubile titillation beloved of Robbe-Grillet’s supposed intellectual antitheses: the rabblerousing exploitation filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s. (Interestingly, Robbe-Grillet, an accomplished novelist, saw his final literary work, the highly controversial fantasy Un Roman Sentimental, sold in silver shrink-wrapped packaging and with a warning sticker on its functional, austere cover. Make of that what you will).
However, unlike Pete Walker, the British director who scoffed at the notion that any kind of cinematic smut could be high art, and instead revelled in his reputation as an orchestrator of harmless, art-free sleaze, Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre is controversial, interesting, innovative and complex. Even though mild nudity is seen by some as incompatible with artistic merit, the director’s films—the best of which are presented here in a handsome six-film box set from the British Film Institute—are full of intelligence, subtext and astute commentary on both the human condition and sexual politics. One wouldn’t expect anything less from a key instigator of the Nouveau Roman literary zeitgeist and an elected member of highly prestigious L’Académie Française.
With this collection covering Robbe-Grillet’s directorial career from 1963-74, the first film of the set is 1963’s L’Immortelle, a fascinating portrait of a man obsessed with a beautiful young woman he pursues around the streets of Istanbul. Very unusual in its construction, L’Immortelle plays with linearity, scene repetition and abstract sound, with nothing clear-cut and everything oblique.
Whether Quentin Tarantino is a fan or not is unclear, but there are certain similarities between the narrative styles of the two. Both directors are trendsetters and mavericks, it’s no surprise that Robbe-Grillet produced some bold proto-Tarantino three decades before Hollywood’s enfant terrible put his eyes to the viewfinder.
The second film is 1967’s Trans-Europ-Express, perhaps the director’s most conventional and popular feature, a wonderfully sly experiment that plays with the boundaries of reality, fiction and multiple plots. The story concerns a film director (Robbe-Grillet himself) and his producer and script supervisor travelling on a train between Paris and Antwerp, in order to brainstorm a new project. The film’s ersatz spy narrative is constantly revised as the film unfolds, and the entire exercise proves to be very clever and ingenious, and also stylistically reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), another film that masterfully examines modes of self-reflexivity.
Up next is 1968’s L’Homme Qui Ment (The Man Who Lies), less eroticised than Robbe-Grillet’s previous film and featuring a central performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant that won him a Silver Bear at the 18th Berlin Film Festival. To expand upon the schism between reality and fiction first examined in Trans-Europ-Express, Robbe-Grillet uses the character of Jan Robin/Boris Varissa (Trigtignant), an unreliable narrator with an ever-changing personal history. Whilst the smart narrative is very novel, and the crisp black-and-white cinematography excellent, the film feels more like a sterile theoretical experiment than Trans-Europ-Express, and as a result it lacks the former’s spark.
The fourth offering is 1970’s L’Eden et Après (Eden and After), a surreal film and one that showcases for the first time the kind of overtly eroticised narrative that Robbe-Grillet would become increasingly synonymous with. Featuring a wonderful colour palette that is almost Argento-esque in its primary vibrancy, L’Eden et Après follows the fortunes of a group of young adults that frequent Eden, a local nightclub. When a strange Dutchman arrives and suggests they take some “fear powder”, the group descends into a labyrinthine world of sadomasochism, hallucination and astral projection. In Robbe-Grillet’s sphere, as we’ve come to learn, nothing is as it seems.
The penultimate film is 1971’s N. A Pris les Dés, which is essentially a re-working and a re-edit of the director’s previous film L’Eden et Après, but featuring additional new scenes. The box set then concludes with 1974’s Glissements Progressifs du Plaisir; this title translated into English becomes the rather Kenneth Williams-worthy Successive Slidings of Pleasure, but that’s the extent of the light-heartedness, because the film is in reality a dark, provocative and complex work featuring all Robbe-Grillet’s usual obsessions: non-linearity, surrealism and sadism. The film is notionally reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, another film that uses this as a central conceit, and allows us to experience the surreal workings of a fractured mind.
It’s Robbe-Grillet’s credentials as a superior academician that make his later literary work so controversial, far more so than his film work. This holds true even if his artistic decline heralded accusations of sloppiness, and of being a sex-obsessed old man desperate to enrage the censorious with the obscene.
Whereas it’s easy to dismiss the output of amiable exploitation showmen like the aforementioned Walker precisely because its tame nudity is so of-the-moment, disposable and devoid of thought and depth, Robbe-Grillet’s latter works, on the other hand, just like those of Pier Paolo Pasolini, are the product of an accomplished intellectual mind, and as a result they maintain the power to disturb with their profundity. For that reason, they will no doubt also continue to provoke debate regarding boundaries of taste, morality and artistic responsibility.
The extras for the set are terrific and plentiful, and include introductions to the films by Robbe-Grillet’s widow Catherine, interviews with Robbe-Grillet and critic Frédéric Taddeï, commentaries by critic Tim Lucas, and a comprehensive colour booklet with essays and full production credits. Additionally, all films have been remastered in high definition.