Monday, August 25, 2014

La belle captive (1983)

As one of the innovators and leaders (if not THE leader) of the “new novel” or nouveau roman movement, Alain Robbe-Grillet along with a handful of other radical literary thinkers completely changed the perception of the novel and what could be accomplished within the medium in terms of style, narrative (or lack thereof as it perhaps appeared to many) and characterization. Its no surprise then that when Robbe-Grillet began to work in film his attitude towards screenwriting and directing was essentially the same as his approach to literature which resulted in his Oscar nominated script for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a work which still manages to perplexe to this day. Just like his novels Robbe-Grillet’s films defy any sort of genre categorization. His films are often labeled “erotic”, certainly not inaccurate as his films do feature plentiful amounts of eroticism, more often than not sadomasochistic in nature, however its impossible to classify his films as straightforward “erotica”. The same goes for the “fantasy” label, or “horror” tag when films such as Eden and After (1970) or Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) are in question, or “thriller” when speaking of a film like witty self aware Trans-Europ-Express (1967), a “film within a film” unlike any other of the sort. Then there’s 1983’s La belle captive, a bewildering blend of surrealist mystery, fantasy and horror that’s as masterful as it is mystifying.  

Walter Raim, an agent working for a secret police origination of sorts encounters a mysterious, nameless blonde woman in a nightclub and is soon dancing with the beautiful stranger before being called away by his boss, the enigmatic Sara Zeitgeist. After receiving his job instructions from Sara, Walter discovers the prone body of the woman he was dancing with earlier bound in the road and drives to the nearest house to look for help, only to encounter a group of ominous men. One claims to be a doctor and escorts the two to a room which they soon find themselves locked in. The next morning, Walter wakes up to find the house empty and in ruins and the blonde woman missing. Utterly confounded, Walter sets out on the odd and potentially dangerous task of uncovering the identity of the blonde woman and figuring out just what happened on that night.

Almost impossible to mistake for the work of any other filmmaker, La belle captive (The Beautiful Prisoner) is a quintessential Robbe-Grillet dreamscape inspired in part by the works of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. Immediately after the opening credits Robbe-Grillet establishes a mood that gives off the sense that what is happening is happening outside of time in another dimension and the further Walter gets in his investigation of the mystery woman the more pronounced that mood becomes. Robbe-Grillet’s languid pacing and Walter’s noirish voice-overs heard throughout the film also add to the films already ethereal abstractions as well and give parts of the film a kind of 1940’s detective story feel. As bizarre as the film is, its must be emphasized that the film is far from being weird for weirdness sake, the central mystery is legitimately intriguing and the stranger it gets it only becomes more so with all the left curves Robbe-Grillet throws in from the added subplot of a murder investigation, the detective always on Walter’s trail, the idea that the blonde woman may or may not be the dead daughter of a man who see’s spirits and the suggestion that she may be a vampire. Of course Walter’s occupation and boss Sara Zeitgeist also come into play which give way to one of the films reoccurring visual motifs, postcards featuring a seaside landscape, just one of many Magritte inspired pieces Robbe-Grillet features prominently throughout the film which in turn also lead to several archetypal Robbe-Grillet beach set pieces.

Robbe-Grillet's novel
Despite the title, La belle captive the film is not an adaptation of Robbe-Grillet’s 1975 novel of the same name. Adding to this confusion is the Magritte influence as the book is illustrated by Magritte’s paintings strategically placed thorough the book. Of course exactly how they relate to the story Robbe-Grillet leaves open to interpretation. As for the film, it was hardly the first time nor would it be the last Robbe-Grillet turned to painting as in influence. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the iconic moment in Successive Slidings of Pleasure where Anicée Alvina channels Yves Klein by recreating one of Klein’s  Anthropométries on the walls of her convent prison cell, albeit in red naturally which was appropriate considering the film whereas Klein preferred blue. There are several references to painting in Eden and After as well with Robbe-Grillet even staging a real life recreation of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2” and Robbe-Grillet found a muse in Eugene Delacroix for his final film Gradiva (2006). Robbe-Grillet also found an interesting inspiration for the character of Sara Zeitgeist’s name which was taken from the titular character Phoebe Zeit-Geist from the comic book The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Certainly an interesting combination of influences, Magritte and comic books yet its perfect for a visionary film like La belle captive, a film that like Robbe-Grillet himself, belongs to its own genre.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gradiva (2006)

It was a long time coming, but as of June 2014 the majority of the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the brilliant novelist turned filmmaker are finally available on DVD in English friendly restored versions the exceptions being Playing With Fire (1975) and 1995’s The Blue Villa (Un bruit qui rend fou). As is all to often the frustrating case when it comes to many of the films by the masters of European cult cinema, for the longest time fans had make due with bootleg copies of Robbe-Grillet’s films until Kino/Redemption and BFI (in the form of a box set) released L'Immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1967), The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After (1970), Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and N. Takes the Dice, an alternate cut of Eden and After. Originally it was announced that Mondo Macabro was going to be the company to release those six films until the films eventually went to Redemption. Mondo Macabro however were one of the first in line when in 2009, one year after Robbe-Grillet’s passing they released his final film Gradiva making them the second company to release a Robbe-Grillet film on DVD, the first being Koch Lorber with La belle captive (1983). Robbe-Grillet may have only directed nine films, but those nine films are some of the most unique and thought provoking works in all of cult cinema and Gradiva is certainly no exception.

While studying the works of Eugène Delacroix in Morocco, art historian John Locke receives a package of slides featuring never before seen sketches done by Delacroix all featuring the same woman. Locke is determined to uncover the history behind the sketches and who the woman is and not long after he beings to have visions of the woman in the sketches wandering about the medina. Locke soon becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the woman and her connection to Delacroix, and despite the constant warnings of his servant Belkis, Locke keeps searching which leads him into a mysterious and dangerous fantasy world of sadomasochism, doppelgangers and murder.

Whether or not Robbe-Grillet intended Gradiva (C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle, “It's Gradiva That is Calling You") to be his cinematic swan song it nonetheless made for a very fitting farewell featuring all the trademarks that his previous films employed as well as references to his past films even featuring some spliced in footage from Eden and After and Successive Slidings of Pleasure. Comparisons have been made to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) which are fitting considering the films obsessive theme, although at the same time Gradiva takes places in a singular universe that is quintessentially Robbe-Grillet and if there were any other films to compare it too, the two most apt would be Robbe-Grillet’s own L’Immortelle and La belle captive. To those uninitiated with Robbe-Grillet’s style or those who have a low tolerance for fragmented “narratives” the film has the potential to frustrate in that in pure Robbe-Grillet fashion time and space seem to be alien concepts in this dream world. Fantasy sequences bleed into reality and back again so much so that the two become one and the same featuring characters, oftentimes portrayed by the same actor, with multiple identities. Its a truly bewildering and intoxicating experience, one that becomes even more so when considering the delirious bursts of S&M, exotic Moroccan locations (much like he did with Istanbul in L’Immortelle, Robbe-Grillet essentially makes the medina its own character) and fantastic interior sets, including some extravagantly decorated hotel rooms which serve as the perfect backdrop for some of the films more hallucinatory moments.

Again, Mondo Macabro essentially beat everyone to the punch when it came to Robbe-Grillet with their release of Gradvia. Aside from looking amazing the DVD contained a great interview with Robbe-Grillet who discussed a variety of topics including his cinematic influences, the Marquis de Sade, the different ways he approached literature and film, his distaste for realism in film and perhaps most intriguing, his thoughts on eroticism. This leads to some particularly interesting anecdotes where Robbe-Grillet recounts his observations on how certain members of the audiences in French cinemas reacted to the erotic content of Trans-Europ-Express which also segues  into a hilarious story of how Successive Slidings of Pleasure sold more tickets in one Paris theatre than the theatre had seats. When one person would walk out of the film whoever was manning the box office would sell a ticket for recently vacated seat until eventually there would be two lines of people, one going out the exit and the other going in. Aside from Robbe-Grillet’s entertaining banter, the interview is an invaluable insight into one of the most brilliant minds in both literature and film. It can be somewhat difficult to suggest just where to begin with Robbe-Grillet due to the potentially alienating nature of his films, but for those interested or for fans who’ve yet to get to it, Gradiva is unquestionably essential. One final fever dream from a master transgressor.