Le jeu avec le feu
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DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet
FEATURING: Anicée Alvina, Philipe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant
PLOT: Carolina fails to be kidnapped by a sex-trafficking syndicate, but that does not stop her father from playing along with the crooks as an excuse to send his daughter to a curious health clinic.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This bafflement features a hearty portion of stylistic and narrative eccentricities, but it might be imperfectly described as Jean-Luc Godard helming a Hostel movie while promised of a cash bonus for every tableau featuring a naked chick.
COMMENTS: Alain Robbe-Grillet indulges in a bold combination of erotica, thriller, and shaggy-dog story in Playing With Fire. The first half-hour alone is a cavalcade of coyly directed nonsense: a reminiscence about an erotic picture book; an exploding doll leaving a cats-paw burn mark; a fabricated cry for help on the back of an Arc de Triomphe postcard; a pair of goons with the graceful articulation of marionettes. And so on. There’s more than a touch of Godard in Playing With Fire, and a hearty portion of Buñuellian commentary. Considering the source, this is unsurprising. Robbe-Grillet’s greatest contribution to cinema was providing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘ cryptic and beautiful chef d’œuvre, Last Year at Marienbad, but he had a long directorial career afterwards where he was left to his own mischievous devices.
The mischief begins with a voiceover by Georges Balthazar de Saxe (a stately Jean-Louis Trintignant, positively oozing “monied patriarch”) as the camera points at the household servants nominally acting out domestic tasks. The maid dusts a picture frame as an excuse to linger by the master’s door. The all-too-upright butler randomly passes a polishing cloth over nearby furniture, but is primarily focused on taking snap-shots. He sets the mantel timepiece to 4 o’clock. Why? Who can say. And more to the point, why is it that Carolina de Saxe (Anicée Alvina) failed to be kidnapped despite the considerable coordination efforts of a shadowy group of sex slavers?
I am convinced that Robbe-Grillet is playing with us—he practically admits as much in the title. There is a seeming precision to his efforts, but a tell-tale bit in the first act is heavy enough of a wink to discourage any serious lock-picking. After having been drugged in his garden by agents of the sinister syndicate, Georges de Saxe converses with his butler about the matter. There is an obvious shot of butler cocking his head toward the house, as if there were a sound. Moments later, the gesture is repeated, this time in response to an actual audio cue. This whole film is meta-charade.
The ensuing romp brings Carolina to a mental-clinic-cum-sex-dungeon, where the voyeurism motif established by the camera-clicky butler is cemented. The waif wanders a hallway arrayed with innumerable doorways with a photograph of each occupant. Inside, pukingly rich bourgeoisie enact pseudo-sadistic tableau featuring the young woman advertised on the exterior. Similarly, Playing With Fire is a showcase of our storyteller’s cinematic prowess, and wit. The nonsensical (“All men’s moustaches are fake”) mingles giddily with the sinister (threats of rape and bodily harm are scattered throughout the film like so much confetti). If you ignore the comedy, you’re left with an obtuse art-house Hostel morass. But the comedy and absurdism are real (so to speak), and it’s best to watch Playing With Fire as if not much on-screen actually happens—which is probably the point Alain Robbe-Grillet is trying to make.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A weird madcap tale that benefits from gorgeous scenery and cinematography, experimental arthouse editing, and arousing sexual vignettes.” – Ken Kastenhuber, McBastard’s Mausoleum (Blu-ray box set)