Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure, the two films by Alain Robbe-Grillet that were released on Blu-ray last week by Kino Lorber's Redemption Films, and about Trans-Europ-Express in particular, was "I should really probably give Breathless another shot."
Now hold on there! I've spoken before about my, let's call it "ambivalence," towards Jean-Luc Godard, but lately if you say something even the slightest bit cockeyed about him then you should probably gear up for a rain of shit, virtually speaking, so come on, don't do that to me. Regarding Breathless, Godard's seminal New Wave crime film from 1960, to those who've wondered why I, crime fiction and film fan that I am, didn't love at least that one, I've always said that my interests in that genre don't generally include "crime fiction, once removed," this being how I've always thought of the post-modern nature of that particular film.
"Well, fair enough," you're almost certainly not saying, "but where does that leave Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express, which I'm told you rather liked?" Well, indeed. Robbe-Grillet's film is from 1967, and it is, if anything, more playfully aware of itself than Breathless. In the film, Robbe-Grillet plays a filmmaker who, while on a trip with members of his production team on the titular locomotive, starts to hash out a film plot about a drug smuggler moving cocaine to Antwerp. The first little run-through they do on this story is dramatized -- by Robbe-Grillet the actual filmmaker who made Trans-Europ-Express -- by a short slapstick scene of cops and gangsters wearing the most ridiculous fake beards imaginable. As the director, the character in Trans-Europ-Express, backtracks over certain ideas, as he will do throughout the film, the drug smuggling protagonist is given a name, Elias, and is even cast. Jean-Louis Trintignant turns up on the train, and the director goes, more or less, "Hey, it's Jean-Louis Trintignant, he'd be great." Of course they don't approach him, but as the crime plot is further tweaked and re-worked, it is now Trintignant in the role (and it was probably him in the beard anyway).
And, kind of, so on. It's that sort of movie, a film not just about making movies but, possibly more than anything, a film about telling stories, or, perhaps even more than that, a film about plotting, stories. I found this interesting, partly because I detected no disdain on Robbe-Grillet's part towards this most sneered-at of narrative technical problems, and in fact I got the sense this was something Robbe-Grillet rather enjoyed doing, and enjoyed in the movie's of others. At the same time, the art of plotting comes off in Trans-Europ-Express as an almost entirely arbitrary one. Robbe-Grillet's character answers every question about the plot posed by his creative team with "I don't know," or some version of it. It's the big joke of the film, and if it's not really fair, or anyway certainly can't be applied generally, not even within the crime genre, that doesn't mean it's not funny.
There's rather a bit more, however, though before getting there it might behoove me to first bring 1974's Successive Slidings of Pleasure into the mix. Also soaked in Robbe-Grillet's favored genres -- crime again, to a degree, as well as horror an various kinds of exploitation -- this one stars the maddeningly gorgeous Anicee Alvina as a young woman who, after a frenzied opening credits sequence that, among other things, shows us images that will appear in context later in the film, we learn has been imprisoned in a convent on suspicion of murdering her roommate and lover Nora (Olga Georges-Picot). From there, and even before, Successive Slidings of Pleasure becomes a disturbing, bewildering, bloodily manic piece of genre abstraction, constantly eerie and gorgeous to look at that may never make complete sense, often flat-out lies to us -- a section late in the film showing a series of lesbian encounters between the nuns and female prisoners is the product of the young woman telling a disturbed priest "what he wanted to hear." So is any of it true? If not, you might well ask, what is the purpose of putting so much of it in the movie? "Because Robbe-Grillet wanted to" seems like a great answer to me.
Anyway, I'm not entirely sure where this film would be without all the lies, as they account for so much of the marvelous imagery. Michael Lonsdale, great here as the judge, tells her that her stories are "crap," though this doesn't save him, or anyone near her, from succumbing to the young woman's very easy way with seduction. This is more or less Successive Slidings of Pleasure, because pure aesthetics are all the justification you need for several moments that might seem symbolic of something, and might actually be, but work best as just visual constructions, and movement, and color. There's even a bit of whatever it's called when a filmmaker uses time, and the stretching of it, as a kind of hypnosis technique. There's a long and very surreal section that begins with Alvina kneeling over a nude (and living -- is this one of the flashbacks? Am I supposed to believe this ever happened?) Georges-Picot, and before pouring what I think is supposed to be wine but looks like fruit punch over her body, Alvina first cracks a whole bunch of eggs over her, and the yolks fall on her (her breasts, her stomach, her crotch, and etc.) and pretty much all immediately slide off. The "successive slidings of pleasure" of the title, maybe, if that's your thing, or was Nora's thing, if it happened, which, but anyway, so all the eggs slide off except one, which begins to slide but gets held up, it would appear, by Georges-Picot's hipbone. The scene continues for a while, and I kept waiting for that dang yolk to slide on off, and I was watching it, looking for that one fatal shift in body weight, but nope. Not to ruin anything for you. The point being, I was, in a manner of speaking, gripped by suspense.
Like I was saying before, though, that's not all. Alain Robbe-Grillet, as I'm sure many of you know, is better known in the film world as the writer of Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad, and better known in the wider world as a novelist and literary theorist. I've seen Last Year in Marienbad, but outside of that I'm afraid I couldn't tell you a whole lot about the man or what he wrote. Still, he was interviewed by The Paris Review back in 1986, and at one point in this long conversation about French literature, how and why Robbe-Grillet's work is so often misunderstood, and his intentions for the so-called "New Novel," he says this:
Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling a memory is part of the same process. This is very clear in Proust: For him there is no difference between lived experience—his relationship with his mother, and so forth—and his characters. Exactly the same type of truth is involved.
And later, when describing his novel Jealousy:
...[T]here is atmosphere of anxiety. [Jealousy] is the book of mine which has been described as the most dehumanized, where nothing happens; a serene, whitewashed world in which man seems perfectly reconciled with his environment. Yet it is exactly the opposite: it is an experiment with anxiety. The anxiety which Heidegger believes man must experience as the price of spiritual freedom.
And still later, while defending Flaubert from what Robbe-Grillet sees as a critical misreading:
In Flaubert everything lives in the text; it is the text itself which is in the process of living...
All of which goes somewhere towards, if not explaining, then at least pointing towards something I can latch on to so that I might begin to understand how what Robbe-Grillet achieves in these two films could have been achieved. This, by the way, is why I brought up Breathless, because that film never gave me any kind of emotional charge, yet the endings of both Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure both did. The charge of the far more Breathless-esque Trans-Europ-Express is one of horror, but I can't for the life of me understand why I should even care about the things I'm experiencing horror about. I'd rather not give it away, but if you're watching the film and you start to feel some uneasiness about the introduction of bondage in the scenes between Trintignant and a prostitute played by Marie-France Pisier, and all the talk of rape, well, don't worry because you're not crazy. But it's all fake. We know this, we're told this, and it's reinforced. But two climactic scenes, one involving nude dancing (kind of) set to the kind of subterranean musical power surge warp and rumble David Lynch favors, carry a genuine moral and even metaphysical chill. Robbe-Grillet claimed to have been free from guilt and moral considerations, his depiction of violence, and sexual violence in particular, are free of the kind of mad decadence that sort of boasting implies.
And so it goes with Successive Slidings of Pleasure. That one is actually following a narrative thread to a pretty clear destination, for all the rest of the film's madness, and when it gets there the payoff is haunted by the giallo work of Argento, Bava, and so on (giallo is kind of everywhere in this film, to be honest) but not in a winking, referential way. It's horror -- it's real horror. As a matter of fact, the strong presence of giallo aside, I think Successive Slidings of Pleasure bears a greater affinity with the great the horror films of Jean Rollin. With Rollin, Robbe-Grillet shares a bizarre poetry that's all about sex and death, as well as evil. Rollin had a lot more life, in the positive sense, in his films, and Robbe-Grillet, at least here, has more grave absurdity. There's a little bit of disgust in Successive Slidings of Pleasure than you usually get from the sadder Rollin. Either way, with either filmmaker, it's definitely not a joke.