Home Video Hovel: Two by Alain Robbe-Grillet, by Scott Nye
Alain Robbe-Grillet is not a filmmaker who greatly benefits from normally-prized traits like “subtlety” or “insinuations,” a distinction very much evident in the two latest films of his to be released on Blu-ray by Kino’s Redemption line (sold separately). It’s not that The Man Who Lies, Grillet’s 1968 feature about a fugitive who impersonates a resistance hero circa World War II, is bad at all. It’s quite an intriguing, vaguely-intellectual pulp thriller, with a very fine performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant at the center. But one need only glance at his next film, 1970’s Eden and After, to sense a bit of hesitation in his earlier work, which stop somewhat short of their confrontationally sexual themes. As with Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Eden and After is willing to embarrass and shame itself, in the process exploring something far more compelling.
For example, Boris (Trintignant), in the course of fabricating his identity, takes it upon himself to seduce a fellow resistance fighter’s wife, sister, and maid. Perhaps it was a simpler time. But these are not romantic endeavors; they are base, lustful, and perverse. Dodging the explicit nature of the encounters lends them feeling, when the central character has none. It’s not exactly dishonest, but, tonally, it’s disarming. It’s a somewhat difficult proposition to keep Boris at the center, as Trintignant does nothing to ally the audience with him. His character is dishonest, deceitful, manipulative, and ultimately unknowable. What he does do well is intrigue, compel us to keep watching him for little glimmers of humanity, or at least humanness. His world is warped, fractured by the playful editing structure, which too keeps us forever distanced, yet eager to investigate.
The stark black-and-white, full frame photography ingratiates it with familiar war footage, especially in the early scenes of Boris escaping Nazi soldiers, running through the forest as handheld cameras attempt to track his movement. The village in which he rests becomes a sort of purgatory, wherein he can reinvent himself in order to redeem his humanity; he does not, and is consequently damned. A journey is also at the center of Eden and After, about a student (Catherine Jourdan) who goes on a quest to find out who’s responsible for a murder only she believes to have happened. Sort of. It’s also, you know, about women in cages and on crosses (always naked, natch), hallucinogenic drugs, sado-masochism, the nature of identity, bourgeois student life, the value of art (the “plot” is motivated by a possibly-stolen painting), and patriarchal oppression of women. Which, you know, Robbe-Grillet could be said to be engaging in, what with all the nudity and women in chains and stuff.
This is perhaps less justified and self-reflexive than Successive Slidings of Pleasure, which directly takes to task the very practice of asking women to do the things Robbe-Grillet asks them to do, but the results are equally compelling, and not exclusively for more prurient reasons. Jourdan is a beautiful woman, but more importantly, she’s a tremendous screen performer, fearless not only in the cheap sense of willingness to disrobe, but, vitally, in abandoning any sense of self-consciousness to dig into the film’s emotional current of paranoia and curiosity. In some ways, the film is a coming-of-age story, about that moment in college when people break out of normal routine to chase something, indulge it, then emerge the other side none the wiser. Only, you know, with cages and poison and stuff. But it’s been often-observed that women tend to make better subjects for movies than men, as they can more easily express the nuances of emotion (Antonioni said, “Reality can be filtered better through women’s psychologies. They are more instinctive, more sincere”), and Robbe-Grillet seems to have discovered that here.
Both films look aces on Blu-ray, very sharp and clean and contrasted well and all that. Black-and-white seems to fare the best all around, so it’s little wonder than The Man Who Lies gets an extra boost, but the bold color palette of Eden and After is damned attractive stuff. Both discs have half-hour interviews with Robbe-Grillet, addressing the films in question, and Eden and After even has a whole other cut of the film, called N. Took the Dice, which is something of a mix of making-of documentary, side-quel, self-critical essay, diary, and rough cut of the final film. Though it should ostensibly stand alone, it’s essential to watch Eden and After first to contextualize any of it, but it is well worth viewing afterwards, offering a totally different take on the material (becoming even more daring, sexually, with the acknowledgment of homosexuality). It was originally produced for French television (though it never aired there), and makes specific reference to the prevalence of that appliance in our lives and culture.