Home Video Hovel: Trans-Europ-Express, by Scott Nye
Because of the nature of their making, movies are somewhat more unwieldy than music or painting in capturing the actual act of creation. However, the ability the have the course of the pursuit changed on a dime, to completely upend established mood, rhythm, tone, and aesthetic, does make cinema a perfect medium to reflect upon this act, especially when you have someone at the helm who has almost certainly hit the walls inherent to it many times. Alain Robbe-Grillet, best known for upending the structure of both the novel (with works such as Jealousy) and the film (with Last Year at Marienbad), uses Trans-Europ-Express to both parody the movements that allowed him to flourish, and to question the value of the works resulting from such madness, all the while celebrating the very act of doing so.
Robbe-Grillet, in his first of only four performances, stars as a film director making a trip by rail with his assistant and what I took to be some sort of producer. Someone with an interest stemming more from business than art, at least. They begin concocting a story revolving around the train, and drugs (or some sort of illicit material – they can only agree that the specifics are relatively unimportant), and a prostitute (there has to be some sex, you know), and Jean-Louis Trintignant, because he happened to show up on the train. Or did he? And was he already in character? He didn’t seem to recognize the small gang, though they took immediate notice of him. Perhaps it’s a question of fame; he has it, they don’t. But they do have the ideas; or they don’t.
Jean-Luc Godard often made movies like this, even then – get a basic idea for a plot, perhaps even fully develop a story, only to start shoving pages under the doors of his actors’ rooms with totally different material for the next day. The films were as much a reflection of the shoot as they were of his worldview, which causes one to ask if there’s any damn difference between the two at all. I don’t think the same applies for Robbe-Grillet. He is, at heart, a storyteller, who unearths something about humanity, but doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether it applies to himself. An odd thing to say about a film he directed in which he plays the director of a film, perhaps. But it all feels outside himself, in a way that Successive Slidings of Pleasure could occasionally, only to offer very pointed suggestions about his complicity in the evil he was theoretically depicting.
Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this. Trans-Europ simply appears to be the more substantial work, but ends up playing it far more safe. It’s content to divert, to muse, to titillate (while stopping short of exploitation). Its anchor point is shallow and its line too short.
Kino’s Blu-ray presentation is quite lovely; black-and-white looks so good in high-definition. The only real special feature is an interview with Robbe-Grillet, worthwhile for those as intrigued by the man’s mind as I. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the film’s origins were very similar to those depicted in the film.