Call it curiosity.
Throw in some shame and guilt while you’re at it.
Alain Robbe-Grillet helped revolutionize the novel, abandoning plot, narrative, and character, using instead description and repetition to stir emotion and eventually tell something of a story. He helped revolutionize the cinema by providing the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad, still one of the medium’s greatest unsolvable puzzles. Then he wrote and directed a series of sexually-explicit, vaguely cerebral films that shared commonalities with his better-known work, but which, surely, were too insane and perverted to really count for much. Right?
Sexually-provocative premises drove many of his novels (I’ve only read Jealousy, but one can surmise that something like The Voyeur is not wanting for such material, either), as well as Last Year at Marienbad, but we’re in a whole other world with 1974’s Successive Slidings of Pleasure, which starts with an unnamed teenage girl (played by then-20-year-old Anicée Alvina) standing over the dead, nude body of her older lesbian lover, Nora (Olga Georges-Picot, of whom we see more in flashbacks, and gives a remarkably layered, fascinating performance). The Prisoner, as the young woman is credited, is then carted off to jail and coaxed into confession and repentance, first by a series of law officials, and soon by a team of nuns and their sexy torture chamber.
I’m not going to bother trying to make the case that the film somehow isn’t more than a little pervy. It truly, truly is. Hardly a woman comes onscreen who will not end up at least topless. Robbe-Grillet handles it all in an interesting way, however, questioning why we, or even he, are so eager to see such things. In one scene, a priest lasciviously begs The Prisoner for the details of what goes on in the dungeon (a request she obliges), and on the one hand, it’s easy to say, “well, isn’t that just like an intellectual artist, mocking the Church and all,” until you realize that Robbe-Grillet is essentially asking the same thing of his actresses and thus equating himself with his pathetic subject, and, well, who’s the one making shallow assumptions now, huh?
Kino brings this film to Blu-ray via their Redemption line, and a film could hardly be more suited to it. Robbe-Grillet traverses the edge between pure exploitation and cerebral intrigue so well, appealing at once to the most base senses and to some higher considerations of duality, recursiveness, voyeurism, and desire that they start to be inseparable in some fascinating ways. The transfer looks spectacular, left alone just enough to still feel like film but cleaned up enough so that you don’t totally feel your HDTV has gone to waste. Colors are bold without overstepping the bounds of 1970s color film stock, and it’s sharp without, wait for it, feel untrue to its source. It’s just damn fine work all around.
The only substantive special feature is a half-hour interview with the man himself, which is certainly of interest to those who appreciate his work, but is also extremely unhelpful in trying to make the case that his cinematic interests weren’t entirely prurient. He discusses a great many details of the production and collaborations, but somehow always brings it back to how good the women in his films looked while naked. While one can’t exactly disagree with him, nor deny that the intellectual side of Successive Slidings would not work without the more vulgar component, it does make for a sometimes shallow interview.