Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad. But Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years. Until this year, only two of those films had been released on disc in the U.S.: the 1983 La Belle Captive (from the now defunct Koch Lorber label) and his final feature Gradiva (from Mondo Macabro). Now Kino Lorber, in partnership with the British label Redemption, has announced a slate of six Robbe-Grillet films for release on Blu-ray and DVD. Trans-Europ-Express is one of the first releases from this collection.
A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director’s second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk–a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet–you get the idea)–boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as Robbe-Grillet’s Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director’s own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity.
Two films by novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet make their American home video debut this week. Best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years and Trans-Europ-Express (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD), a lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1966, was his most popular success and most audience-friendly production.
Three filmmakers (one of them played by Robbe-Grillet himself) board a train and begin working out the story for a film about drug trafficking. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (as illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised on the run can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as his Breathless, a pulp story refracted with his own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity. It’s a film that plays out in parallel, an illustration of the story being spun on the train, and Robbe-Grillet plays with the gimmick as scenes are constantly revised and rewritten by the trio, which sends the spy movie rewinding and twisting back on itself. But the director doesn’t make the equation so literal; multiple versions seem to spin out of the revisions and the fiction crosses over into the “real” world of the filmmakers. Call it quantum storytelling. Trintignant is at once Jean-Louis the private citizen (a man with a furtive fascination with pornography), Elias the character (who likes a little bondage in his prostitutes), and Trintignant the actor playing the character Elias, and the story is both a fictional construct and a “real” event, perhaps brought to life by the storytelling itself. Dead characters come back to life and the entire seems poised to begin again once the filmmakers disembark. Just like heading back into the pleasures of cinema stories and their mix of contrived twists and visual spectacle.
The 1974 erotic thriller Successive Slidings of Pleasure(Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD) stirs murder and sadomasochism in a kinky mix of sexploitation and art cinema.
Without a doubt, Criterion delivers the goods for the best of this week’s DVD releases, with the high art of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece of modernist cinema Jeanne Dielman and the wildly energetic grindhouse art of Nikkatsu Noir Japanese crime cinema, both of which I review in greater detail elsewhere on my blog. But that’s not all the week has to offer. Television has always seemed a little behind the times, which is why the launch of thirtysomething (Shout! Factory) was embraced with such passion in 1987: it reflected the lives of young professionals starting families in their thirties. The credits roll suggests an ensemble show, but it’s really centered on young marrieds and new parents Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris), with friends, family and professional colleagues orbiting around their family (among them Timothy Busfield, Polly Draper, Peter Horton, Melanie Mayron and Patricia Wettig). [NOTE: I was admonished by a friend who insisted that the series was indeed an ensemble show, which I’m sure it did evolve into. I never saw it when it was on TV but based on the episodes I watched on the DVD, the first season pivoted on this couple and they dominate certainly the first half of the season at least.]
Created by director/writer/producer team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, it was drawn in part from their own lives, balancing careers and parenthood, managing expectations with compromise, wondering why it isn’t as simple as it looks on all the rest of the sitcoms and family dramas on TV. Yes, it’s yuppies dealing with the same problems their parents faced, but it also avoided contrived melodrama and clichéd situations to confront the frustrations that real people faced in lives that were never as easy as they looked or as happy as they were supposed to be. It was a success because audiences recognized themselves in it, but it was a hit because they targeted the audiences that advertisers like best.
21 episodes on six discs in a box set of three thinpak cases plus a very nice collection of supplements. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick chart the development of the show’s creation in an animated thirty-minute discussion. The cast and writers join in for the retrospective documentary From thirtysomething to Forever, interview featurettes and commentary tracks on nine episodes. And the ten-minute “Cultural Impact” is no self-congratulatory reflection but a look at the changing face of the TV audience and the show’s place in the social conversation. Also comes with a very nice episode guide packed with stills and short essays. In short, everything the show’s fans could want for a TV reunion. Continue reading “thirtysomething, Adventureland, Duplicity – DVDs for 8/25/09”
My feature piece on Last Year at Marienbad, the film and the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release, is running on the Turner Class Movies website.
As the old joke goes, in the dictionary, next to the phrase “art cinema,” is the poster for Last Year at Marienbad. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as “X” in the credits,” tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. He persists. She resists. Scenes shift through time and space and perhaps reality. Any “objective” perspective is rendered meaningless in the abstractions of the storytelling, the enigma of the characters, the blurring of past and present, memory and fantasy, even space itself.
The second feature film by Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad defies and confounds audience expectations of cinema narrative. The film is a true collaboration between “Nouvelle Vague” director Alain Resnais, who sought to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading author in the “nouvelle romain” movement, which favored elaborate observation and surface description of events without character analysis or psychological perspective. Robbe-Grillet’s script is filled with detailed description and even suggestions for camerawork, but features no indications of emotional or psychological states of the characters. Resnais helped guide and shape the story but did not participate in the actual scripting beyond notes and suggestions, and he was very faithful to the individual scenes and the overall structure while bringing his own distinctive authorial presence in his exacting direction, his acutely stylized scenes and mise-en-scene sculpted out of actors, décor and theatrical lighting.
The effect is a film that defies emotional connection. It holds story and characters at arm’s length, playing out as part mystery, part intellectual exercise, yet the very enigma is spellbinding. The scenes are stiffly formal, with actors positioned in space rather than directed, reciting rather than acting. They are stripped of backstory or psychological inner lives and have no ties to a world outside of this world. (Resnais originally wanted the politics of the day to infiltrate their lives but Robbe-Grillet convinced him otherwise and Resnais, in the end, realized he was right.) X tells A their story in the form of second person narration, always saying “you,” never “I.”