Thanks to some oddly unbidden aggregate restoration-licensing phenomenon, we are suddenly awash with the cinema of noveau roman pioneer–slash–BDSM obsessive Alain Robbe-Grillet. Famous here only for self-autopsying novels like Les Gommes, The Voyeur, In the Labyrinth, and Project for a Revolution in New York, and for the radically unsignifying screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet was also a late-coming adjunct to the French New Wave, doubling down on his avant-garde literary fame and making a series of psychosexually nutty meta-movies that eat their own tails so lustily they make Godard’s contemporaneous work look orthodox.
Almost. Robbe-Grillet, whose first six films are now readily available on disc from Kino and streaming at Fandor, takes the metatext liberations of Godard to a Duck Amuck extreme, all the while indulging in his ardor for everything softcore and kinky. It’s no small matter that Robbe-Grillet is famously on record as a devoted aficionado of all things sadistic, masochistic, and pedophilic; his wife, Catherine, who appears in several of his films, remains France’s best-known dominatrix, and was publishing s/m erotica in the ’50s. Together they had one of their nation’s most notorious pas de deux, complete with sex slaves, partner-swapping, dungeons, torture, and homicidal fantasies, all of it fueled by the pair’s apparent lack of physical compatibility. Robbe-Grillet, it seems, was impotent most of the time; after a short 1970 affair with model-actress Catherine Jourdan, he resigned from active sexuality altogether, while his wife continued to recreate with sundry partners in black leather.
Summarizing the Robbe-Grillets’ outrageous life in a London Review of Books essay this year on the writer’s final controversial novel, Adam Shatz described Catherine as “receiving clients” in her renowned chamber of hurt-so-good, to which the widow herself, aged 84, responded, writing to the editors that it was all fabulously true except for the bit about “clients” — “never for money!” she proclaimed.
Robbe-Grillet’s movies are, comparatively, tasteful affairs, gorgeously shot and structured, like his fiction, around narrative ellipses and absences, mysteries that can never be solved, enigmas that defy time and reason. They’re also jam-packed with nude actresses and erotic posturing, which when coupled with the post-Godardian self-reflexivities and fracturing narrative patterns, makes the corpus rather delightfully difficult to take very seriously. Robbe-Grillet, not to mention his casts (master underplayer Jean-Louis Trintignant is his most frequent collaborator), seems rather unserious, too, veering sometimes close to pretension but maintaining a gamester irreverence throughout, as if even the films’ gestures toward drama or violence, spiked always with contradictions and come-ons and objectified flesh, are merely gags in the ridiculous sport of storytelling. His debut, L’Immortelle (1963), has fellow New Waver (and Cahiers du Cinéma co-founder) Jacques Doniol-Valcroze snooping around Istanbul and trailing after mystery-vamp Françoise Brion, who may or may not be the key to an underground prostitution ring, and who may or may not be a missing person, and who may or may not die in a car crash, and who in any case looks smashing in black lace panties and garters.
Trans-Europ-Express (1967) is an even more transparent Brechtian goof. As they ride the train to Antwerp (Catherine is the script girl), Robbe-Grillet and his production team try to figure out a thriller plot, involving Trintignant as a fetishistic smuggler betrayed by Marie-France Pisier — at least at first. The filmmakers keep changing the storyline, as they literally cross paths with the actors/characters, until any semblance of classical thriller plotting is lost in the fog of faux-espionage. Trintignant’s lizardy Buster Keaton gaze comes close to outright comedy.
Generally, there’s lots of tying women to headboards, and in Slovakia-shot The Man Who Lies (1968), Trintignant dallies with three victims, the sexually involved and available wife, sister, and maid of a fabled Resistance hero (Zuzana Kocúriková, Sylvie Turbová, and Sylvie Bréal), as he makes up so many stories about his relationship to the great man — all of them, again, little movies the film tries on and then discards — that his identity begins to slip altogether, and the possibility of truth is forgotten. Like Resnais’s films, Robbe-Grillet’s postmodernist concoctions are primarily concerned with the hunger for narrative and the quantum impossibility of ever nailing down “what happened” with certainty. That, plus t&a.
As he moved into the ’70s, Robbe-Grillet got hippie-ish — Eden and After (1970), which was re-edited later to substantial benefit as N. Took the Dice (1972), focuses on a gaggle of hipper-than-hip students led by “the Dutchman” (Pierre Zimmer) to get high on a mystery drug and act out an arch series of sexual and death-obsessive fantasies; the blood is always pink paint. The luminous Jourdan seems to be the self-discovering focal point, but here is where Robbe-Grillet seems to be evading narrative entirely, all the better to focus on more salacious things. Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) returns to a did-it-happen? murder scenario, with perfect-breasted gamine Anicée Alvina imprisoned in a convent for the murder of her roommate. She naturally drives everyone to sexual distraction, including Trintignant, doing a Bogart spoof, as well as the whip-ready nuns, but — as always in Robbe-Grillet’s world — the object is not copulation, but the daydreamy contemplation of touching the forbidden and playing at turning sex into a matter of life and death. Movies, like fiction and even perhaps sexuality, were for this self-indulgent avant-gardist merely a playground, busy with fake events and shiftable identities, none of it “meaning” any more than a bare ass, a stray erection, or a pair of wrists tied with silk.