DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet
FEATURING: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-France Pisier, Alain Robbe-Grillet
PLOT: A director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself) pitches a complicated story about a cocaine smuggling caper to a producer during a train ride, and the audience watches the results play out, revisions and all.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The second film from novelist-turned-director Alain Robbe-Grillet is a pioneering work of cinematic meta-fiction that prefigures the work of Charlie Kaufman (among others) by putting a fictional author inside of the movie, one who supposedly writes the script in real time as we watch. Sometimes the story backtracks on itself, erasing old plot points or creating alternative scenarios. To make things even stranger, the protagonist of the movie-inside-the-movie is obsessed with bondage, and begins a relationship with an elegant prostitute who may help him fulfill his most excessive fantasies.
COMMENTS: Sitting on the Trans-Europ-Express from Paris to Antwerp, a director tells his producer that they should set a movie on this train; they decide it should be about drug smuggling. A man, who we’ve previously seen buying a suitcase to smuggle cocaine, walks into their compartment. The producer and director are invisible to him; he only sees the script girl. When he leaves almost immediately, the director comments “is he crazy?” “Didn’t you recognize him?,” asks the producer. “It’s Trintignant. What about using him in your film?” They then do proceed to use Trintigant in their film treatment. The story they concoct on the fly sends him to an Antwerp where everyone is an operative working for the local cartel or a detective, and where he is sent on an increasingly Byzantine series of rendezvous to prove his worth and obscure his tracks. Along the way he begins a relationship with the prostitute Eva, with whom he indulges his strangling fetish. After a series of double crosses and betrayals which are nearly impossible to sort out, because the director keeps rewriting the script, it all ends in tragedy at “Eve’s Witchcraft Cabaret,” a bondage-themed club with a naked girl chained to a rotating stage.
Despite the dark themes, Trans-Europ-Express is actually a comedy, though in a high-minded, very French way—more “witty” than “funny.” The movie’s abstract, Cubist twists on gangster scenarios recall Seijun Suzuki‘s crazy yakuza film Branded to Kill, also from 1967. Although it deconstructs the conventions of a genre picture in similar fashion to Jean-Luc Godard‘s 1960 Breathless, the light touch and playfulness keeps Express from feeling as ponderous and self-important as the works of some of Robbe-Grillet’s New Wave contemporaries. At the same time, the movie’s perverse sexuality, related to the subconscious desires of Surrealism, ventures further into the forbidden than his contemporaries dared. Express‘ scenes of sexual strangulation, implied rape and even nudity were considered pretty hot stuff at the time, although they will look tame through jaded modern eyes.
Robbe-Grillet began his career as an experimental novelist, helping to found the avant-garde “nouvelle roman” genre. He turned to cinema after co-writing the script for Last Year at Marienbad with Alain Resnais. Trans-Europ-Express was his second film as director. The Kino sub-label Redemption began releasing Robbe-Grillet’s neglected films, some of which have never been on DVD before, in 2014.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: