Litanies of Death and Desire: The Works of Alain Robbe-Grillet

Last Year at Marienbad (L'homme qui ment) (1961)

Often exploring the haunted depths of dissolute sexuality, author and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet reframes the ideas of longing and desire through his usual exercises in repetitious narratives.

An eerie meditation on memory and falsified love, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad captured the world’s imagination and brought the late Alain Robbe-Grillet’s name to prominence, assuring him a place in the literary canons of new fiction. In the film, a mysterious suitor follows an alluring and equally peculiar woman around an extravagantly designed hotel, insisting on the memory of a past rendezvous the two supposedly had the year before. In the laborious exchange of memories and confessed desires, a passionate motion toward the inexplicable longings for connection is certified in Robbe-Grillet’s at once capricious and studied dialogue: “You've always been afraid. But I loved your fear that evening. I watched you, letting you struggle a little... I loved you.” Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the film’s Oscar-nominated script (directed by French New Wave affiliate Alain Resnais), would go on to create a series of unsettling and challenging works in both film and literature.

In Robbe-Grillet’s stifled world of mystery, sex and dilemma, language and imagery overlap in ways which reform very particular ideas of personal communication, ones which deal especially with physical human contact. Repetition is Robbe-Grillet’s preferred method of provocation and for many it's an ingenious trick of alarming the senses through a sort of invasive hypnosis. For others it's simply an insufferable device. But this persistence in re-evaluating an emotion or a scene has distinguished the writer and filmmaker as an artist whose ability to threaten the sense of emotional security appeals to the highest order of sensation; feeling and thought are laid bare like sacrificial lambs to be slaughtered upon submission. There are laughs to be had in Robbe-Grillet’s narrative world, but they often come from the deep, guttural reaches of human depravity.

Known as the father of the Nouveau Roman (or “new novel”), Robbe-Grillet would help to uproot the classical traditions of the novel with his wildly infuriating experiments in style. Often exploring the haunted depths of dissolute sexuality, the author reframes the ideas of longing and desire through his usual exercises in repetitious narratives. In his novel Jealousy (1957), a man spying on his wife whom he suspects of cheating is presented in a refracted narrative observed by a mysterious non-entity. In a succession of scenes which either depict a recollection of memories or an imagined reality, Robbe-Grillet offers a thesis on love and obsession, pulling and stretching the narrative in so many ways as to expose the boiling sensuality underneath.

Robbe-Grillet employs a similar stratagem when exploring a murder which may or may not have taken place and committed by a man who may or may not be dead in his 1955 novel The Voyeur, a murder-mystery gutted by a narrative knotted with an endless string of abstruse questions. The sexual currencies that infuse the story with a certain psychic energy present a text that suggests death as a phenomena manifested solely by thought. Once again, the tension and frustration created in the literary device of repetition offers the novel its firmament of heightened senses, a world in which action and people are conjured by ideas alone.

Gradiva (C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle) (2006)

You can look to any Robbe-Grillet film for an illustration on the relationship between exploratory narratives and the inverted emotions of sexual exchange. In the dangerous interplay of Gradiva (2006), his final film, sex and death find a middling ground in which the narratives of myth take root. Gradiva is the erotic nightmare of a British professor studying the works of Delacroix.

Taking residence in a villa in Marrakech, Professor John Locke (James Wilby) begins an investigation of a few drawings believed to be by Delacroix and becomes increasingly plagued by a series of disturbing dreams. These horrific sexual fantasies bleed into Locke’s waking life, where he is both smitten and tormented by a woman dressed in white, the alluring young Leila, who has an alter ego named Gradiva.

Caught in the flux of suicidal terrors and sadomasochistic desires, Gradiva generates a rhythmic friction of memory which continuously overlaps on the backdrop of narrative suggestion. In fact, most of the story plays out on mere conjecture, allowing both the viewer and the respective characters admission to the more inviolable depths of depravity; we’re never certain as to how much of Locke’s fascination with his artistic studies has to do with his potentially dangerous relationship to Leila, but Robbe-Grillet presents a succession of circumstances in which a number of theories can be explored. Sexual proclivities are uncomfortably examined in the scenes of bared flesh; between the seemingly misogynist displays of naked bodies and the overt satire on Orientalist conquest, there rises the clouding airs of ambiguity. In the replayed instances of memory, we relive a character’s deeply selfish pleasures at the expense of our comfort, again and again.

La belle captive (1983)

In Robbe-Grillet’s 1983 film La Belle Captive (based upon his 1975 novel of the same name), death and desire are explored through yet another mystery narrative. The writer/filmmaker’s fetish with sadomasochistic dangers finds a far more subdued articulation of artistic endeavour. Much like his other works of Nouveau Roman and in film, La Belle Captive is a hijacking of the detective story, employing the basic mechanisms of the whodunit plot while subverting the drama with the ideologies of sexual behaviour.

While driving home from a bar one evening, Walter, an agent working for a covert bureau, sees a young injured woman handcuffed and barely conscious on the road. Helping her into his car, he realizes she is a woman he met at the bar earlier that night. In search of medical help, Walter pulls up to a secluded manor where he requests the services of a doctor. But Walter has seemingly walked in on an occult ritual where he meets a circle of suited young men who offer the injured woman a drink. The wine in the glass appears to be blood and soon Walter and his companion are taken to the bedroom where they are locked in for the night.

The occultish leanings of the story seem to associate sexual perversions with auras of mystic nature; the film is interspersed with the imagery of the works by surrealist painter René Magritte. The more intricately linked the ideas of sex and metaphysics become in the story, the further displaced viewers are from the narrative itself; eventually, narrative is obliterated in the union of these two disparate ideologies.

Sex and metaphysics are given a deeper reading in Robbe-Grillet’s 1986 novel Recollections of the Golden Triangle (which revisits portions of La Belle Captive). Amidst the pretentions of a preternatural thriller (vampirism, waking dreams), there's the unshakeable experiment in narrative discourse wherein the author demonstrates his troubling designs on the human fascination with sexual depravity. Borrowing the occult motifs of La Belle Captive, Robbe-Grillet further investigates the lurid activities of human beings, this time with the wide-eyed fervour of a magpie packing his nest-home with every found stray relic. Narrative ellipses signal an almost violent obsession with the destruction of literary logic, the passages of the novel melting into one another with the fluidity of liquid.

Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir) (1974)

Two of Robbe-Grillet’s most mysterious films, Successive Slidings of Pleasure and The Man Who Lies (of which he both wrote and directed), rest on either side of his exploratory approach. In Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974), a woman suspected of murdering her roommate ends up locked in a convent (which may in fact be a room in a mental ward) and retells her story of the murder to a detective, a nun, a priest and a judge. The story is never told the same way twice. Flashes of blood, plastic limbs (with a mannequin often standing in for a corpse), the seaside, and ritualistic movements string the narrative along precariously. The mystery is never solved and the characters remain stationed in an insoluble space of uncertainty.

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

The Man Who Lies (1968) features less sex but even more hyperactive edits, the narrative now so unreliable that the characters exist solely for the purpose of suffering the practices of the actors who portray them. On the run from Nazi soldiers during WWII, a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) finds himself lost in a town of which there is seemingly no way out. Learning that the family of a fellow missing friend resides in this mysterious town, he wanders (sometimes with purpose, sometimes undecidedly) through doorway after doorway into corridors, rooms and deserted buildings. Along the way, an erotic entanglement will deny this young man any opportunity to escape with his life.

Robbe-Grillet doesn’t seem to make much concession here in the way of emotional access. It would appear that the film’s single ruse is to confuse us, hold us hostage to a story demanding a reconfiguring of logic, some instance of a lapse in reason. Open-ended, the film hovers in the limbo of enigma, never fulfilling the all-pervasive question of “Why?” What the filmmaker means to say about our relationship to the surrounding attitudes of sex and violence is left to supposition. But resolution in any form has never been Robbe-Grillet’s objective; in his realms of delusive sequence, all languages of sex and violence are expired before the very moments of revelation.

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