Tag Archives: Alain Robbe-Grillet

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PLAYING WITH FIRE (1975)

Le jeu avec le feu

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DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet

FEATURING: Anicée Alvina, ,

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.

Still from Playing with Fire (1975)

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 lian commentary. Considering the source, this is unsurprising. Robbe-Grillet’s greatest contribution to cinema was providing the screenplay for ‘ 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)

304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

L’Année Dernière à Marienbad

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“Who knows what true loneliness is, not the conventional word—but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory, or some illusion.”–Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff

PLOT: In the confines of the corridors, salons, and gardens of an outlandishly extravagant spa hotel, one man attempts to persuade a female guest that they met a year prior and had planned to run off together. At first she resists his suggestions, but as he repeats his reminiscences, her denial becomes more and more strained. As they flit about the hotel, other guests fade in and out of focus, and the young woman’s male companion looms ever more ominously.

Still from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • Last Year at Marienbad was born of a collaboration between , who had achieved fame for his revolutionary non-narrative novels (dubbed nouveau roman), and Alain Resnais, who had recently completed Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the opening credits, Robbe-Grillet is billed before Resnais. Afterwards, Robbe-Grillet was inspired to become a (defiantly strange) director himself, eventually notching two Certified Weird films (L’Immortelle and Eden and After) under his own leadership.
  • Cannes had refused to accept the movie as an entry, officially citing the fact that the lead actor was not French, but according to rumor because of Resnais’ public stance against the Algerian War.
  • Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 forced the distributors to rethink their strategy of a very limited release.
  • In hopes of recreating a “silent movie” feel for Marienbad, Resnais requested some old-fashioned film stock from Eastman Kodak. Unfortunately, they were unable to provide it.
  • (The Tin Drum) apprenticed on this film as second assistant director.
  • Included in both Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) and Steven Shneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The movie divided contemporary critics and audiences, as well.
  • The alternately somber and jarring score (performed mostly on solo organ) was written by Francis Seyrig, the lead actress’ brother.
  • Robbe-Grillet was nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar (losing to Divorce Italian Style).
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Talk about being spoiled for a choice! Any given scene in Marienbad is a showcase of divinely arranged formalist beauty. What sets the tone (and stands out the most), however, is the alternately freezing and unfreezing of the actors immediately following the play performance that begins the film’s “action” (so to speak). The camera gracefully slinks around the the hotel’s inhabitants as the characters’ action and chatter stop dead, only to start anew a few moments after being silenced.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Living freeze-frames; “I always win”; shadowless trees

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Narratively speaking, Marienbad is about as bare-boned as a film can be without slipping into the realm of incomprehensible. A man and a woman met, or possibly didn’t meet, a year ago, and now the man wants the woman to run away with him. Alain Resnais brings Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dreamy script to geometric life with time fluxes, repetitions, and stylized acting by stylized hotel patrons. The black and white cinematography and challenging edits heighten the sense of shattered narrative that, much like the vicissitudes of human memory, can’t fully coalesce.


Original Trailer for Last Year at Marienbad

COMMENTS: As an art form, film exceeds its competition in manipulation: manipulation of emotions, of perceptions, and of ambiguity. Continue reading 304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

LIST CANDIDATE: LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1983)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Mesguich, Gabrielle Lazure, Cyrielle Clair, François Chaumette,

PLOT: A man who works for a mysterious organization meets an alluring woman who may be a vampire, or a ghost, or a dream.

Still from La Belle Captive (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: La Belle Captive is about as weird as they come. We already have two Alain Robbe-Grillet movies on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies ever made, however; Eden and After (which is, believe it or not, even weirder than this one) and L’Immortelle (not as weird, but hypnotically unforgettable), and more are under consideration. Robbe-Grillet is a great, and greatly under-appreciated, Surrealist filmmaker, but we do wonder whether we want to push other movies out of the way to make room for yet another from a director who is already well-represented.

COMMENTS: La Belle Captive is titled after a painting by Belgian Surrealist Rene Margritte. Although there are strange figures on the canvas, a stone and a French horn on fire, the key part of the image is an easel that’s set up in front of a beach landscape. From viewing the painting you cannot be sure if it’s an expertly painted scene that matches the background perfectly, or if it’s an empty frame that acts like a window. The key is that the painting points out its own artifice, a frame inside a frame, with reality clearly lying elsewhere. (Variations on Margritte’s canvas recur throughout the film, including an actual painting which is titled “La Belle Captive, apres Rene Margritte”). Robbe-Grillet frames his story as a dream, but is it really a dream within a dream, or are we merely expected to appreciate what he has captured, and not bother with sorting the reality from the beauty of its expression? Surely the latter is the intent, though no doubt many will find pleasure in “making sense” of the contorted storyline.

Protagonist Walter works for a mysterious organization, taking his orders from Sara, a cycle-riding leather goddess. At a nightclub Walter sees a fetching blonde; he dances with her, but she will not tell him her name or phone number, and disappears when his back is turned. Later that night Walter receives a commission from Sara to deliver a letter to a senator, but as he is driving to his rendezvous he sees a woman lying crumpled, handcuffed and bloody in the road. Who should it be but, naturally, the enchantress who left him at the nightclub? She is conscious but unable to speak, and he helps her into her car and drives to a nearby chateau seeking help. The gentlemen there are at some kind of party and, to his horror, seem to believe he has come offering the half-comatose girl as a sexual plaything. They give the girl a drink, which appears to be blood in a martini glass. Finally, a man comes downstairs announcing he is a doctor and that he will treat the girl; he takes Walter and the woman to a room and, instead of examining her, locks them both inside. The captive frees herself from her handcuffs and makes love to Walter, ending their coupling by biting him on the neck. In the morning Walter wakes up to an empty house, and spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what has happened to him. Was the woman the ghost of a local suicide who haunts these roads searching for men to corrupt? Was she actually the young fiancee of the man to whom he was supposed to deliver the letter, and is Walter being set up? And what of the bald, weasel-faced detective (the distinctive Daniel Emilfork, whom many will remember as the dream-stealing mad scientist from The City of Lost Children) who keeps running into Walter, slyly insinuating that he is responsible for girl’s disappearance? Rest assured that no firm answers to these mysteries will be forthcoming by the end of the film.

The theme of the mysterious woman who appears in numerous guises but is never obtained or even fully comprehended by her male admirer is one of Robbe-Grillet’s favorites. His male protagonists are often solid, even dangerous men who find themselves humbled, grasping at a slippery feminine that always squirms out of their grasp. The utter unknowability of the beloved engenders obsession in his characters. In La Belle Captive, Robbe-Grillet explicitly aligns himself with the Surrealists (in case there was ever any doubt) by referencing the works of Margritte. Beauty, love and art cannot be possessed; the joy is in the hunt, and the best we can ever do is to freeze captivating moments of our experience, like a frame set in front of the churning sea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A ripe, hallucinogenic field theory…”–Fernando Croce, Cinepassion (DVD)

188. EDEN AND AFTER (1970)

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

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

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.

Still from Eden and After (1970)
BACKGROUND:

  • 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 Continue reading 188. EDEN AND AFTER (1970)

175. L’IMMORTELLE (1963)

Recommended

“-Do you know the poems of Sultan Selim?

‘They are full of flowers and perfumes,

greenery, cool fountains, and slim jets of water.’

-Which Sultan Selim?

-I don’t know. Whichever. They were all named Selim and they all wrote the same poems with the same cliched imagery that recurs like fetishes. Or passwords you utter to pass through the garden gate and enter the palace of your sleepless nights.”- L’Immortelle

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Catherine Robbe-Grillet

PLOT: A professor vacationing in Istanbul comes across a mysterious, vivacious woman who weaves in and out of his life during a fateful summer. The impenetrability of the woman ignites an obsession in the professor, one that leads him into the shadowy, knotted heart of the city and the underbelly of his own desire.

Stil from L'Immortelle (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Already a staple in French New Wave as a successful screenwriter (Last Year in Marienbad), Alain Robbe-Grillet was trying to break into motion pictures as a director, but was unable to find the funding. A Belgian producer agreed to fund his first feature on the condition that he use funds legally tied up in Turkey (due to an inability to convert the Turkish pound, which had left a wool-trading friend of the producer’s unable to use his profit anywhere else in the world). Robbe-Grillet shot the film there and used the location as a central narrative device, in the vein of a cinematic arabesque.
  • Robbe-Grillet’s own wife Catherine plays the oft-mentioned Catherine Sarayon (or Carayon). Robbe-Grillet met her in Turkey, which is similar to the way the protagonist meets the woman he falls for in L’Immortelle. Catherine wrote several novels of sadomasochistic erotica, sometimes under the pseudonym “Jean de Berg.”
  • During filming, Turkey erupted into a violent revolution in which the heads of government were all hanged. Robbe-Grillet, whose production company had made deals with the ousted government, had to get out hastily and wait in France for the volatile situation to die down before returning to complete the film.
  • Although it was reasonably well-regarded at the time of its release, screening at the Berlin Film Festival, L’Immortelle since fell between the cracks and was not released on home video in any form until 2014.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This film is rife with iconic, spellbinding imagery, but chief among them is the mystical and sacred moment in the mosque as the professor, already deeply entranced by the woman of his waking dreams, searches for her in the darkness. He shambles around a corner with desperation in his gait (slowly, though, as if no wait was long enough), and spies the woman kneeling on the ground kneeling in prayer, perfect and impregnable. She rises to meet him like a goddess of torturous pleasure; her grace and beauty combined with his love-struck agony in the shadows is a moment of understated, haunting beauty.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: L’Immortelle operates less like a film and more like a state of mind, using baffling, at times purposely repetitive shots to create something that transcends the world of the nominal. It is a movie based in philosophy, emotion, and spirituality, not plot and structure. It does not want to entertain or make sense, it wants to touch below the surface, and it does through the tried-and-true tactic of not explaining a single thing, compounding each image placed on screen into an enigma that never diminishes as time rolls on.


Original French language trailer for L’Immortelle

COMMENTS: The narrative tradition is a lie. From our earliest fables to the towering epics of our own time, we tell stories in the way that is the most Continue reading 175. L’IMMORTELLE (1963)