Latest Review – Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974 (Blu-ray) (BFI)

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974 (Blu-ray) (3-Disc Set)

UK Distributor: BFI

Region Code: Region B [Locked]

Certificate: 18

Impossible to see for decades, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s enigmatic, sexually-charged films are collected together for the first time, beautifully remastered in High Definition and released by the BFI.

A celebrated novelist and essayist turned screenwriter and director, Alain Robbe-Grillet has to be amongst the most under appreciated European filmmakers of the mid Twentieth Century. A bold statement perhaps, but one I am sure a great many will agree with upon discovering or (perhaps) re-visiting his films newly restored. Now, whether this general neglect or undervaluing is down primarily to the fact that the widespread controversy and subsequent censorship surrounding the films has rendered them so rare and difficult to come across over the years, I am not quite sure. However, hopefully this incredible new release from the BFI will go some way towards increasing his renown in the film world and lead audiences to appreciate the man for the unique voice he truly is.

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Disc One:

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The Immortal One (L’Immortelle)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1963

Country: France | Turkey

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 101 minutes (1:41:07)

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: B & W

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature] | English Dolby Digital 2.0 [ Commentary Track]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

The collection opens with the cryptic curio that is ‘L’Immortelle’, an arcane tale of a lonely, unnamed male protagonist lost in the unfamiliar backdrop of Istanbul and slowly consumed in an underlying mystery of possible kidnapping and prostitution.

Perhaps best known in the film world for having penned the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for Alain Resnais’ oneiric mystery drama ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961), it is fair to say that Robbe-Grillet is pretty well versed in enigmatic narrative structure territory, however though the director’s debut feature may perhaps be the most similar in tone to Resnais’ masterpiece, Robbe-Grillet’s 1963 feature is far more than a mere reworking of his earlier screenplay and goes a long way towards introducing the filmmaker’s unique, auteurist voice in its own right.

It is a perfect beginning to a directorial career which would continue to build and develop on some of the audacious, sexually-charged themes first introduced in its cryptic web of guarded mystery.

French dialogue is translated and subtitled, however to allow the audience to relate to its central figure, the Turkish dialogue remains a mystery and proves effectively in-keeping with the isolated tone of the film.

It is a debut feature filled with inventive little filmic devices such as this, intuitively fusing mind games and surreal, dreamlike fantasy sequences with extensive flashbacks to depict its ambiguous tale.

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Trans-Europ-Express (1967)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1967

Country: France | Belgium

Genre: Thriller | Mystery

Running Time: 95 minutes (1:34:53)

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: B & W

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature] | English Dolby Digital 2.0 [ Commentary Track]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Released four years after his debut directorial feature, the 1967 mystery-thriller that completes the first disc in this collection, Trans-Europ-Express is perhaps the director’s most celebrated and arguably finest achievement.

A film structured around a constantly changing narrative, this finely constructed mise-en-abîme opens with film director Jean (Alain Robbe-Grillet playing a fictional version of himself), his producer Marc (Paul Louyet), and his assistant Lucette (Catherine Robbe-Grillet – wife of Alain), boarding the Trans-Europ-Express in Paris on a trip bound for Antwerp. Once inside their compartment however, the various dramas occurring on board the train soon bring to mind the idea for a film, so with tape recorder at the ready they begin to construct a film script about dope smuggling, centred around the novice drug courier, Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom they have seen walking around the train) and the consequent tests and cryptic trails set by his mysterious employers.

Robbe-Grillet utilises the fluctuating narrative to superb effect to continually question and reassess the filmmaking process; character’s actions are queried, authenticity is considered and scenes are analysed, reworked and even scrapped if later actions render them invalid.

With its clear self-reflexive style, its cerebral and analytical undertones, the way Robbe-Grillet incorporates humour throughout the film and the extent to which he manipulates and develops the central device, Trans-Europ-Express is without doubt one of the most overlooked gems of the 1960’s, and there are strong parallels to be drawn with the technical proficiency demonstrated in the early Nouvelle Vague works of Jean-Luc Godard, and by master filmmakers such as Julien Duvivier and François Truffaut.

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Disc Two:

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The Man Who Lies (L’Homme qui ment) (1968)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1968

Country: France | Czechoslovakia

Genre: Drama | War

Running Time: 97 minutes (1:37:17)

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: B & W

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature] | English Dolby Digital 2.0 [ Commentary Track]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Robbe-Grillet’s cryptic and bemusing narrative style is perhaps best demonstrated in the unusual war drama come mystery thriller, ‘The Man Who Lied’, the director’s second collaboration with leading man, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and again a work which further develops and explores the possibilities of narrative structure and audience perception previously built up in the preceding features.

The complex plot centres on resistance fighter, Boris Varissa, (or is it Jean Robin?), a man who may or may not have betrayed a fellow fighter alleged of being an informant in his hometown during World War II.

To say that the film remains true to its name would be something of a understatement as almost every line our narrator utters is shrouded in the possibility of deceit. Even when we are given little confessions and hints of truth we are never quite sure whether we can actually believe what we have just heard.

It is of course clear what Robbe-Grillet is trying to achieve with the piece, and there are the trademark signs of the director’s unique skill and vision, however as admirable as the film itself undeniably proves, I can’t help but feel that the slight overuse of duplicity and altering narrative becomes almost a little too distant and dissociative for its own good, proving a challenge to both remain absorbed in the piece and maintain a comprehensive understanding of the equivocal tale it ultimately weaves.

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Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir) (1974)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1974

Country: France

Genre: Fantasy | Drama | Horror | Thriller

Running Time: 106 minutes (1:46:28)

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: Colour

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature] | English Dolby Digital 2.0 [ Commentary Track]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Almost the second the film begins, we are instantly whisked away from the stark, monochromatic world of the previous three features and immersed in a new avant-garde world of arresting colours, jump cuts and provocative psycho-erotic imagery for what is arguably the most overtly controversial work in the collection.

Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Robbe-Grillet’s 1974 fantasy-horror come erotic-thriller, delves head-first into the surreal with its study of a demented young woman, incarcerated and interrogated following the suspected murder of her partner Nora, amidst allegations of Satanism and witchcraft.

With its numerous controversial sequences, excessive use of blood, sadism, nudity and violence, familiar use narrative manipulation and its principle focus on bold, modernist visuals, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is a work very much set in the French ‘art-house’ genre of the time, and is without doubt the most challenging work included in the set.

Provocative, defiant and daring it may be, however the film unusually seems a perfect finale for a decade of superb and thoroughly entertaining cinema.

Chronologically it may be the latest work in this collection, however Successive Slidings of Pleasure is featured out of sequence on disc two of this collection. The reason for this being to allow for the highest bit-rate, therefore affording the best possible picture quality. For those wishing to view the films in the order they were originally released, I would advise that you leave the film until last to get a genuine feel of just how his work develops across the decade.

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Disc Three:

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Eden and After (L’Eden et après) (1970)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1970

Country: France | Czechoslovakia

Genre: Drama | Mystery

Running Time: 98 minutes (1:38:00)

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: Colour

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature] | English Dolby Digital 2.0 [ Commentary Track]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Now if you thought Successive Slidings of Pleasure was avant-garde, then Robbe-Grillet’s ‘Eden and After’, made four years prior to the former, takes things to what appears to be a different level entirely, cementing itself firmly in experimental, avant-garde territory (as opposed to the intentionally controversial, boundary-pushing content of Successive Slidings) and makes the latter work seem fairly comprehensible in comparison.

Combining biblical allegory with a surreal and provocative interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s symbolic 1865 fantasy novel, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, Robbe-Grillet conjures up one of the most striking and metaphorical works of the 1970’s, again fully immersing the audience in a now familiar world distilled with his signature blend of mystery, bold imagery, violence and manipulated narrative structure.

The narrative unfolds primarily within the confines of the allegorical, steel and glass cafe of ‘Eden’, a colourful, labyrinthine building inspired by the De Stijl ‘Composition’ works of Piet Mondrian. After first introducing the audience to the eponymous cafe-come-gallery which will prove the primary location for what is about to unfold, is not long before the Biblical allegories and metaphors come thick and fast; some are slightly harder to pick up on, however for the most part they are pretty clearly conveyed. This little cafe to which we have just been introduced will soon be the hanging ground for a group of ‘confrontational art’ students who engage in brutal role play including rape and murder as a means of sexual exploration and rebellion. We have an image of a dice on the Eden logo, alluding to the themes of chance and uncertainty which underline the film. Throw into the mix the enigmatic snake-like ‘Duchemin’, who offers a strange and tempting ‘fear powder’ to the student who draws the short straw, and we have an hallucinogenic ‘forbidden fruit’ which soon leads the unsuspecting Violette on a surreal drug-fuelled trip to the exotic sands of Tunisia, on an adventure involving a stolen painting, a mysterious key, incarceration and of course lots of nudity and violence.

Again many of the familiar Robbe-Grillet traits we have mentioned thus far are present in the film: there are rather humorous references to both Boris and Jean Robin, the director’s fascination with blood and the colour red are prominently featured, broken glass is a recurring theme and there are overlying suspicions of voyeurism, prostitution and potential trafficking.

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N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les dés…) (1971)

Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Year: 1971

Country: France | Czechoslovakia

Genre: Drama | Mystery

Running Time: 79 minutes (1:19:00)

Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 (Original Aspect Ratio)

Video: 1080p High Definition (24fps)

Codec: MPEG-4 | AVC

Image: Colour

Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono [Main Feature]

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Using the throw of a dice to govern the order of its scenes, ‘N. Took the Dice’ is essentially a reworking of Robbe-Grillet’s previous feature ‘Eden and After’ (L’Eden et après), using re-edited footage, alongside alternative takes, to explore traditional film structure, narrative conventions and the thought process behind the earlier feature.

With regards to the experimental, non-linear style of his other films it may of course seem like  ‘N. Took the Dice’ will slot straight into the avant-garde mix, however as strange as it may seem, it is perhaps the director’s most conventional piece of work in terms of its circular narrative structure and coherence.

The decision to free up bit-rate space and feature the two films on the same disc now actually makes a good deal of sense as it allows us to view both films back to back without having to switch discs and lose momentum.

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Special Features:

Disc One:

The Immortal One:

Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Frédéric Taddeï (0:32:34)

Trans-Europ-Express:

Introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (0:06:00)

Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Frédéric Taddeï (0:31:26)

Theatrical Trailer (0:03:22)

Disc Two:

The Man Who Lies:

Introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (0:05:57)

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Frédéric Taddeï (0:33:53)

Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas

Theatrical Trailer (0:03:23)

Successive Slidings of Pleasure:

Introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (0:06:02)

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Frédéric Taddeï (0:32:43)

Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas

Disc Three:

Eden and After:

Introduction by Catherine Robbe-Grillet (0:07:12)

Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet by Frédéric Taddeï (0:30:59)

Audio Commentary with Tim Lucas

Theatrical Trailer (0:02:36)

N. Took the Dice:

None

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Release Date: 30 June, 2014

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