L’éden et après
“The curtain falls and the audience applauds a bit, a smattering of polite applause. Then the host of the festival appears, the curtain opens, and he introduces Catherine Jourdan. Thundering applause! I think, ‘Good. It’s going well.’ I walk onstage all dressed up in my tux… Howls of disapproval! I wait for them to quiet down and say, ‘Please note, I’m the director of this film. This young woman has been in many films, but you never noticed her before. If you liked her in this film, perhaps I had something to do with that.'”–Alain Robbe-Grillet, recalling the debut of Eden and After at the Berlin Film Festival
FEATURING: Catherine Jourdan, Pierre Zimmer
PLOT: A group of college students take drugs and play games of chance (like Russian roulette) at a cafe called “Eden.” One day, a stranger appears and offers the students a taste of his “fear powder,” which Violette accepts. The man winds up dead, and a valuable cubist painting is missing from Violette’s room; the convoluted trail leads to Tunisia, and to sexual slavery.
- This was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first color film. In an interview he explains that he was offered the opportunity to do 1968’s The Man Who Lies in color but turned it down, partially because it was set in a forest and he did not believe Eastman Color film stock conveyed the color green very well. When he visited Tunisia and found locations with almost no green anywhere in the landscape, he decided that this would be where he would shoot his first color film.
- Catherine Jourdan was a last minute replacement for another actress who had to drop out when her hair fell out after a botched dye job.
- In making Eden and After Robbe-Grillet was inspired by the twelve-tone serial music of his friend Pierre Boulez. Instead of a regular plot, he listed twelve recurring “themes” for the movie, which would play off each other in a non-linear way: the story would be “a-narrative” or “a-diagetic” in the same way serial music was “a-tonal.”
- Robbe-Grillet recut Eden and After, shuffling scenes in a different order, incorporating some unused footage, and adding new narration to make an entirely different (though equally surreal) movie titled N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les dés…—an anagram of L’éden et après). Dice was based on principles of aleatory (randomized) music, and was only shown on French television.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Originally a novelist by trade, Robbe-Grillet was known more for narrative playfulness than for visual imagination. Eden and After‘s sensual beauty and sadomasochistic tableaux marked his progression as a visual artist. This is arguably the director’s most sensuous film, filled with startling images. Nude, leggy French actresses, often victimized, constitute one of the film’s key recurring motifs. The picture of mini-skirted Violette, fetishistically shod in black leather boots, encountering her double in the blank Tunisian desert is a titillating but printable candidate. Perhaps the most unforgettable composition, however, is a shocking view of three dead, bound women posed against Inquisition-style torture equipment, one impaled on a bed of spikes, with blood spattering the white walls. That bloody fantasy is indelible, but perhaps a bit too strong, so officially, we will pick the similar but tamer scene that Redemption Video selected for its Blu-ray cover (with the nudity cropped out). Three women lie in cages in a white void. Two wear white nightgowns, one is nude; two cages sit on the ground and one is suspended in the air; two wear blindfolds, one covers her eyes with her arm. A lamp, two halves of a wrought iron gate, and a white patio chair furnish the scene. What it signifies is anyone’s guess.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fairly summarized as “Alice in Wonderland” meets “Justine” meets The Trip, Eden and After is what happens when a dyed-in-the-wool Surrealist (and unrepentant bondage fetishist) makes an acid movie for the collegiate set, composing the experimental script on principles analogous to the serial music of Pierre Boulez. Weird? A tad.
Clip from Eden and After
COMMENTS: You could construct a coherent story from Eden and After, about bored college kids who steal a valuable painting from one of their own at the prompting of a mysterious stranger, but that would involve going against the wishes of the screenwriter, which seems ungenerous. Robbe-Grillet stated that with Eden and After he wanted to create a film “where no story was possible.” What he means by this is that no linearly plotted, cause-and-effect story was possible; instead, by analogy with serial music, he would build a script around twelve themes (or motifs) that would recur in various sequences. The rules of serial music require that the composer play each of the twelve tones once per pass, in order; so, if he follows the rules of his game precisely, Robbe-Grillet hits each of his themes in turn, in order (furthermore, there are certain arithmetical rules which describe the possible orders of notes or themes, which we won’t examine).
Analyzing how Robbe-Grillet actually executes this formal technique in detail would be beyond the scope of this review, and would be of interest only to narrative theorists or desperate insomniacs. Instead, since the author never explicitly tell us what his twelve themes are, we will see if we can list them here. A few are obvious even to the casual viewer: the theme of blood, or the theme of doubles. We can cheat by glancing at the pages of his personal notebooks, which are glimpsed in the Eden and After Blu-ray interview supplement. And we can glean a number of the themes from the spoken opening credits, which mix in seemingly random (and sometimes nonsense) words with the name and title of the cast and crew. Poring through these sources, I propose the following list of twelve themes, along with examples of how they manifest themselves in the film (and how they sometime overlap).
Imagination – This is the top word glimpsed scrawled in Robbe-Grillet’s notebook. Obviously, imagination is crucial to film in general, and especially to a surrealist fantasist like Robbe-Grillet. This word is spoken in the credits several times (as the infinitive “to imagine”; as the noun “imagination”). Perhaps some of the scenes in the movie are “imaginary,” although what that could mean in a film as willfully disconnected from reality as Eden and After is unclear. Imagination is the “prime” theme of the movie, encompassing all of the others.
Prison – When Violette ingests the fear powder, she sees visions of women in cages. Later, she is actually imprisoned in Tunisia.
Sexual violence/rape – The very first scene depicts a student fleeing through the Cafe Eden (which is also a mazelike labyrinth), It all turns out to be game. Violette sees a woman tied up and whipped in the factory. She later sees visions of women who have apparently been tortured to death (in a room with the walls spattered with blood). The Dutchman and Violette slap each other during their sex scene.
Blood – A poster in the Eden cafe reads “sang = vie” (“blood = life.”) The Dutchman tells one of the students to pick up broken glass, and her hands become progressively bloodier as she complies. We see a nude woman lying in a blood-red bathtub (more water), dead by her own hand.
Doors/Portals – This theme seems less prominent, unless we speak of metaphorical doors (e.g., perhaps the “fear powder” is a “door” to Violette’s imagination). The word “porte” is seen in Robbe-Grillet’s notebook, however. In the “caged women” composition we see a disengaged door leading to nowhere. The film’s last words are “At the end of the evening when the game reaches its climax, suddenly there’ll be a great silence. Slowly, one after the other, we’ll turn our heads towards the windows. On the other side of the glass we’ll see the stranger, just arrived, looking at us with his pale eyes and already pushing the door” (emphasis mine).
Labyrinths – The cafe Eden is itself a cubist labyrinth with sliding panels (doors?) that allow it to be rearranged. Leered at by men (who may want to rape her), Violette flees through the confusing corridors of a factory (with girders that look like prison bars). The white house in Tunisia is full of corridors and secret rooms.
Doubles – The title itself suggests two parts. The stranger who visits Eden is sometimes called “Duchemin” and sometimes “the Dutchman.” Is it the same character? Many events in Eden (such as the switched poison scene) are reflected in events in Tunisia. Violette discovers her own double in the desert after she escapes from prison.
Water – Violette finds Duchemin’s dead body lying in water at the bottom of a staircase (in a scene that is also doubled in Tunisia). Violette watches a movie (which she also stars in) that takes time out to rhapsodize about water and the ocean. Violette dissolves poison in her water dish. We witness a knife fight in the shallow part of a lake that leaves one combatant dead in the water (just like “Duchemin”/”the Dutchman”).
Death/Murder – A blindfolded woman points a gun at a man standing against a wall (of course, it’s a game). One of the students tries to kill Violette with poison in a glass of wine. There is an elaborate musical funeral for one of the students. By the end of the movie most of Violette’s companions are dead (or are they?)
Dance – Violette spontaneously breaks into the “Frug” in Eden. She performs a long dance in Tunisia by a bonfire (after which she is seized by Berbers and imprisoned).
Paintings – The other students want to steal abstract expressionist painting on Violette’s wall, which we are told is worth a fortune. The Eden is designed to look like a Mondrian painting. A woman recreates Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”
Games – “Games” are mentioned in the opening credits. The students play a complicated game of Russian roulette that involves blindfolds and dice. The Dutchman promises to teach them “new games.” At the end of the movie, Violette is back in Eden as if nothing had happened, talking about the games her and her friends will soon play to stave off boredom. Of course, the entire movie is a game Robbe-Grillet is playing with rules of his own design, so, like “imagination,” in some sense this theme encompasses all those that come before it.
I actually see too many themes in Eden and After to fit in Robbe-Grillet’s proposed twelve-theme matrix. We did not find a direct place to list keys (though they suggest doors), drugs/poisons, pistols, mirrors (which are perhaps included in the theme of doubles), blindfolds, or broken glass (which is often associated with blood). You could make a case for some of those replacing some of the ones I have listed above. One reviewer suggests sperm is a theme, but I suspect he may have been binging on fear powder at the time.
The serial structure of the film is far from obvious, and I’m not sure anyone could reasonably have detected it if Robbe-Grillet had not clued us in. Some of the themes are obvious: blood recurs so much that I initially considered writing an entire essay around the symbol. And sexual violence is so omnipresent in Robbe-Grillet’s movies that I no longer think of it as a deliberately placed theme, but simply as a part of the director’s psyche that spills onto the celluloid. Those imprisoned by the need for literal plot may find themselves bored to death by Eden and After, but understanding that these themes are there waiting to be discovered offers another doorway into understanding this dance of images that may enhance your pleasure (although it may not double it). You could make a game of spotting the appearances of labyrinths, water, or paintings. Use your imagination.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If a psychedelic, sado-masochistic, decomposed narrative of feminist self-actualisation against a macho hegemony, improvised around mid-20th-century atonal music compositional techniques, sounds a little dry to you, then you’d be fully justified in giving Eden and After (L’éden et après) a miss. But you’d be wrong.”–Vadim Kosmos, Electric Sheep (Blu-ray)
“…slavishly follows the Robbe-Grillet template. It’s interpretational, esoteric, and static. The difference here is nightmare imagery, sending Violette on a bizarre journey of self that’s wrapped up in a mystery involving a key and a picture of a Tunisian home.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: Eden and After
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Eden and After | MUBI – Watch a trailer and read MUBI users comments about this divisive film
eden and after | Tumblr – A place to find stills from the film (and the occasional mini-review), posted by Tumblr users
DVD INFO: Eden and After was unavailable in North America until 2014, when Redemption issued a Blu-ray. In 2011 we listed it on our list of Top 10 Weird Movies Not (Yet) Available on DVD in the U.S. Technically, the film could still qualify for the list, since Redemption scrapped plans for a DVD release and went with Blu-ray only for this title. Naturally, the film looks beautiful in its glorious red, white and blue color scheme. The main extra is the “alternate cut” N. Took the Dice, which actually tells a completely different (and even more surreal) story by shuffling the footage from Eden and After in a different order and including some unused shots. Also crucial is a 30-minute interview with Robbe-Grillet that gives us essentially all of the firsthand knowledge about the movie and its construction that is available in English. Without this insight Eden and After would be even more inscrutable (though no less beautiful). Trailers for this movie, Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies, and Redemption’s beautiful promotional trailer The Cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet top off the extras.