One of the most interesting things regarding both the literary and cinematic careers of Alain Robbe-Grillet is the timeline of said careers. Prior to becoming the face of the nouvelle roman or “new novel” movement, Robbe-Grillet already had a number of prior occupations behind him, perhaps most fascinatingly working as an agronomist specializing in the diseases of tropical fruit trees of all things. Its important to note that Robbe-Grillet’s first novel The Erasers wasn’t published until Robbe-Grillet was 31 and he was 41 by the time he directed his first film L’Immortelle (1963). From 1963 to 2006, Robbe-Grillet directed only 9 features and for the most part his time behind the camera could be labeled sporadic given the extended gaps in-between films, with his most productive time as a director being the 60’s to the early 70’s. Following Eden and After (1970), Robbe-Grillet took a four year absence from film before returning with Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and the next year with Playing With Fire (1975) before taking another lengthy sabbatical. After the publication of 4 novels over the span of 8 years, Robbe-Grillet retuned to film with La belle captive (1983) before taking his longest cinematic vacation yet, returning to the screen 12 years later in 1995 with The Blue Villa, one of his most elusive films and one that perfectly captures Robbe-Grillet transporting his nouvelle vague writing style to film.
A mysterious sailor known only as Frank (Fred Ward) drops anchor on a small Mediterranean island. According to local legend, Frank is the spirit of a murderer who was killed as sea during a storm while fleeing the island after killing his fiancée and has returned to the scene of his crime on its anniversary. Frank’s supposed victim was Santa, the step-daughter of Edouard Nordmann, a resident of the island who was known to hate his step-daughter. When the island’s chief police inspector learns of Frank’s “return”, he re-opens the case and informs Nordmann, although unbeknownst to Nordmann, Santa is very much alive, held up in a local brothel known as The Blue Villa. With talk and sightings of Frank everywhere, Nordmann becomes increasingly paranoid as he finds himself relentlessly perused by vengeful phantoms, phantoms that may or may not be of his own creation.
Although refereeing to a Robbe-Grillet film as open to interpretation is beyond redundant, The Blue Villa is nonetheless an intricate puzzle, one who’s pieces don’t quite fit where they should and whose resolution manages to be even more mystifying then the unraveling of clues throughout the film. Despite the films cryptically beautiful final image making little sense from a logical standpoint, it matters very little as the film is a classic case of journey rather than destination and ultimately makes perfect sense to those who view the film with the same mindset Robbe-Grillet and co-director Dimitri de Clercq crafted the film with. This is a film made up of questions that lead to more questions. Chief among them being the issue of whether or not Frank is actually a ghost. The same could be asked of Santa, who despite appearing to be alive and well in the titular bordello could also be seen as a sort of specter once Nordmann’s paranoia begins increasing. This leads to yet more questions, like was there ever a murder in the first place and just what does the mysterious Madame of the Blue Villa have to do with anything? In typical Robbe-Grillet fashion, the questions are posed in a playful manner and the film could be compared to Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and Playing With Fire in that its suggested that everything is being made up on the spot, with several characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera, each adding their own little details to the story.
Along with its plotline, one of the most mysterious aspects regarding The Blue Villa is its release history with the film essentially disappearing after its showing at the Berlin International Film Festival and a broadcast on European television which was thankfully recorded and seems to be the source of most available copies of the film. The film was missing from the BFI’s six film Robbe-Grillet box set featuring L’Immortelle, Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After along with its alternate edit N. Takes the Dice and Successive Slidings of Pleasure as well as Kino/Redemption’s line of Robbe-Grillet remasters featuring the same films. Along with Playing With Fire, The Blue Villa is the only other Robbe-Grillet film that’s yet to see an official, English friendly release. Following The Blue Villa, Robbe-Grillet would take his longest sabbatical from film yet, returning 11 years later with what would become his final film Gradiva (2006). In-between The Blue Villa and Gradiva however, Robbe-Grillet made another comeback of sorts in 2001 with the publication of Repetition, his fist novel since 1981’s Djinn. 2001 also saw the publication of Le voyageur, essais et entretiens, a collection of essays. Although The Blue Villa may prove somewhat tricky for some to track down, Robbe-Grillet enthusiasts who’ve yet to see will find plenty to love as the film’s multifaceted, hall of mirrors narrative is quintessential Robbe-Grillet in construction and execution.