Return of the Avant-Garde
October 7, 2014 5:25 PM   Subscribe

This summer Kino Lorber's Redemption Films released the final of six French avant-garde films in their series The Cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet (link is to a promotional short, possibly NSFW. Potential triggers include scenes of bondage, domination, and an unrepentant Gallic male gaze).

The films have been digitally restored and remastered from 35 mm archival footage, and are available legally in the anglosphere for the first time since their release. They are being marketed individually in the US, in a box set from the British Film Institute in the UK, and are currently streaming on Mubi (membership required).

Robbe-Grillet's first successes came as an author and advocate of the nouveau roman movement. In the 1960's he also turned to screenwriting, traveling to Turkey to film his own work, L'immortelle, and working with Alain Resnais on L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). (previously)
The Immortal One was my first script. In 1960, a producer asked me if I wanted to make a film of my own. I said, “Yes, but I don’t have a large readership as a writer.” He said, “Never mind—you are fashionable.” ... The joke is that no one wanted to buy Marienbad! The producer decided that the film would never be shown, that it insulted and mocked the public, that it meant nothing. I was in a particularly awkward position, since I was “the bad Alain Robbe-Grillet” who had corrupted “the good Alain Resnais.” So for a year the film lay fallow. By chance, the Venice Film Festival saved it, and the absurd, idiotic film became a roaring success overnight. (Robbe-Grillet, The Paris Review).
He went on to direct write and direct ten films. Intensely physical, highly stylized, with ambiguous plots and unambiguous sexuality, Robbe-Grillet's films were considered "too difficult for American audiences"; though his films were often successful on the European film festival circuit, they never secured the same wide releases or critical acclaim in the States as his nouvelle vague contemporaries.

The six remastered films are:

L’immortelle (The Immortal One), 1963 - A Frenchman traveling in Istanbul meets a beautiful, secretive, exotic woman who may or may not be involved in a criminal conspiracy. He is entranced, but she remains, maddeningly, just outside his reach as he pursues her to the underworld. By using the narrative conventions so characteristic of film noir (the femme fatale/dubious “dame who got away”) Robbe-Grillet was able to explore the existentialist questions haunting the human experience, unequivocally tied to time, loss, and the persistence of memory. (Diabolique Magazine)

Trans-Europ-Express, 1967 -On the train from Paris to Antwerp, a director and his team hash out the plot of a crime movie. Their story is enacted by Jean Louis-Trintignant (Amour), who plays Elias, a cocaine smuggler seduced by a mysterious woman. But as the director keeps changing the story, Elias is lost in a labyrinth…. The film is a little parody of the old New Wave crime eroticism movies, and the process, in general, by which films are thought out. Or not thought out. It was greeted in France as a statement about the confusion between appearance and reality, but it seems rather a parody of boring statements of this kind. (New York Times)

L’homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies), 1968. A man calling himself Boris, arrives in a village in Central Europe, claiming to have been a friend of a local lad who disappeared since the war. His conflicting tale gives rise to doubts about his story. L’homme qui ment, like almost all of the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, will not play to all audiences. In fact, the films have largely been relegated to the academics, as they appear to exist less for entertainment than decipherment. (Diabolique). But it is finally so repetitively dull in its detail, and so closely committed to a dramatic view in which there is no reality but only accounts of reality, that it becomes no more than the terms of its own rhetoric (New York Times).

L'éden et après (Eden and After), 1970. A group of disaffected students are shown a way out of their ennui when a mysterious Dutchman offers them a taste of a hallucinogenic potion. After these three films, Robbe-Grillet goes completely into avant-garde territory, using a vague undertone of narrative to spring-board into familiar themes of rebellious, sexually adventurous students and young artists. (Celluloid Wickerman)

N. a pris les dés… (N. Took the Dice), 1971. This film is a reworking of Robbe-Grillet’s previous film L’Eden et après, using alternate takes and re-editing that has the order of scenes to be governed by “a throw of the dice.”

Glissements progressifs du plaisir (Successive Slidings of Pleasure), 1974. A young woman is suspected in the stabbing death of her roommate. Questioned by the police and imprisoned in a convent, the girl’s seductive wiles hypnotize all around her, drawing them into the unknown. A bird of a different feather: texturally dense, at times elliptical to the point of inscrutability, yet ravishing in its painterly use of color and framing, and utterly subversive not only in its deployment of female nudity and sadomasochistic content, but in the way it embodies this radicalism in the person of its nameless protagonist. (Slant Magazine)

(synopses from Mubi)

The critics were never united or universally kind. In their review of his tenth film, Le Nouvel Observateur wrote (as quoted in The Guardian): When the pretty bed slave turns on her belly and shows her buttocks at the camera, the Englishman with toothache lifts his eyes to the sky and looks at the moon. That's what we, for 118 minutes, would have liked to have been able to do.


In The thin end of the whip mefites are introduced to Alain's wife Catherine, "the most famous dominatrix in France."

In Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1922-2008 a small handful of mefites pay their respect.

In Un Roman Sentimental mefites debate the links between sex, violence, misogyny, rape fantasies, and art in Robbe-Grillet's novels. Also, Kattullus spills a glass of Coca Cola on the author.

And in Faking Cultural Interest mefites wonder whether anyone really likes his films and books, or if they're just faking it. Or high.
posted by kanewai (6 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, amazing post. I love Marienbad but have for some reason never sought out more by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Now I know how to start!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 5:58 PM on October 7, 2014

Excellent blog The Kind Of Face You Hate did interesting write-ups on a number of these:
Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure
Eden & After and The Man Who Lies
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:54 PM on October 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

> triggers include scenes of bondage, domination, and an unrepentant Gallic male gaze

So, it's come to this. We have to give warnings when a film includes images of someone who stares.
posted by kcds at 4:36 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

That's right. We have to give warnings. It's the law now. They made us do words. Or they put us in the Culture Jail. If only some freethinkers had stopped it. But the law is the law. Retweet if you're this is not the America you grew up with used to be
posted by Greg Nog at 7:49 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, amazing post. I love Marienbad but have for some reason never sought out more by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Now I know how to start!
posted by Farhanahsan at 3:45 PM on October 8, 2014

Wow, amazing post. I love Marienbad but have for some reason never sought out more by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Now I know how to start!
posted by Farhanahsan at 3:45 PM on October 8 [+] [!]

Wow, amazing post. I love my own comments but have for some reason never sought out more by Smiley Chewtrain. Now I know how to start!
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 6:38 PM on October 8, 2014

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