In the DVD extras to the new BFI Alain Robbe-Grillet box set, the interviewer Frédéric Taddeï asks the novelist and filmmaker what it felt like filming his fantasies as Robbe-Grillet shows in Trans-Europ-Express (1966) with a bondage scene of actress Marie-France Pisier tied up in seductive lingerie. It is an impertinent question with a purposeful edge: where it is one thing to fantasise on the page with only the words being pushed around, in film there are cameramen to film your obsessions, and actors expected to conform to them. Again and again in the interviews accompanying the films, Robbe-Grillet acknowledges the difference between the written word and the filmed image. Initially he thought he could ignore it, and make films as preconceived and controlled as his earlier novels (The Erasers, Jealousy, Into the Labyrinth, etc.), only to find that the medium as much as his collaborators would defy him. The cameraman on L’immortelle (The Immortal One, 1963), Maurice Barry, might have been sceptical about Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic abilities (1), and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze may have been under-directed in the leading role, but finally these were the problems of the medium as much as an issue with cast and crew. Much of Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic work has been concerned with what you can get away with in cinema in various manifestations: how one can bend it to one’s personal will, and how it resists such attempts.
Perhaps some of those Robbe-Grillet worked with on the earlier films knew more about cinema than Robbe-Grillet did, but there are advantages and disadvantages to this. In the DVD extras Robbe-Grillet explains that the continuity girl on L’immortelle insisted that it wouldn’t be possible for the actor to exit the frame in one direction and be sitting down in the next shot: it would appear as if the actor had gone to meet himself. This was the sort or productive error Robbe-Grillet enjoyed whilst others would be wondering about their professional future. In a variation of Robbe-Grillet’s ‘error’ we see Doniol-Valcroze walk from one end of the room to the other as the camera briefly pans in his absence; we then see him sitting there as if waiting for him to turn up. Robbe-Grillet doesn’t even require a cut to counter continuity here: it is part of what would be an ongoing fascination in art film with the double and the dissolution of self. Indeed there are shots almost identical to it, for example, in the Robbe-Grillet scripted Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad (L’année derniére á Marienbad, 1961) that of course precedes L’immortelle, and much later in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). What other more conventional cineastes knew was that cinema is a medium with its own coherence quite different from that of literature, and what Robbe-Grillet knew was that if in literature there was a clear gap between the signifier and what it signified, cinema ‘lacked’ this breach. In other words, while literature had the word cat on the page as signifier and cat in the mind of the reader as signified, film simply had the cat as sign: a feline image taken not from a symbol on the page and implanted into the reader’s mind with no cat evident at all, but a direct imprint of the cat itself. Numerous filmmakers wanted film to take advantage of cinema’s capacity to imitate the real. Robbe-Grillet and a handful of other great filmmakers wanted to find new ways to generate indeterminacy that would remove film from that too firm relationship with reality. After all, in film, a cat is a cat. In print it is a series of letters and a resultant thought. This is why in language it can seem that the signifier is arbitrary: there is no existential relationship between the word cat and the consequent image the word brings to mind. In French it is chat, in German katze, and so forth.
It returns us to our opening remarks about how Robbe-Grillet felt filming his fantasies: there, Pisier is in bondage and wispy underwear, with a crew dutifully bound to film it. The signifier and the signified of literature becomes the blunt statement of the film sign. On the one hand Robbe-Grillet appeared very much to absorb this bluntness on a sexual level, and on the other to undermine it on an epistemological one. It is entirely understandable that Robbe-Grillet is seen within the context of erotic cinema of the mid-sixties to the early eighties, seen alongside Walerian Borowczyk and José Bénazéraf, Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, as a filmmaker of erotic images that pandered to the pervert in a darkened room. But this wasn’t pornography but closer to the graphically oneiric: he wanted to make explicit the erotic content of dreams, not film the often laborious friction of the hardcore. Robbe-Grillet’s images were direct representations of the nude or semi-clad bodies of the actress, and much of the films’ commercial appeal came from beautiful women in states of undress: Catherine Jourdan in Eden and After (L’eden et après, 1971), Olga Georges-Picot in Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir, 1974), Sylvia Kristel in Playing with Fire (Le jeu avec le feu, 1975), Gabrielle Lazure in La belle captive (1983). While it is easy to see in this a director with an eye for the market, perhaps it is more useful to see Robbe-Grillet’s work coinciding with the times in interesting ways. The erotic image had become a filmic possibility because cinema had entered a less censorious age without quite giving itself over to a pornographic one. Sure, Deep Throat (1972) and Behind the Green Door (1972) came out in the early seventies, and French President Giscard-d’Estaing changed the law in 1975 which led to the proliferation of explicit films in France. But this seemed to be a moment where the interest in sexuality could quite literally be framed. If before it existed chiefly in the margins and stag movies, and would soon enough be filmed without much consideration, for the most part, for the subtly representative, Robbe-Grillet, Borowczyk and Bénazéraf wanted to frame sexuality more than film it. It is blunt next to its literary representation, but oblique next to the pornographic explicitness that led Linda Williams to talk very usefully of the “frenzy of the visible”. This is the explicit sexual evidence offered in porno films as she explores in Hard Core. (2)
If Robbe-Grillet was both explicit and implicit in relation to the sexual imagery in his work, he found a way of offering the subtle and the stated epistemologically as well. One reason why film has in some quarters never been taken as seriously as literature is because it would seem to lack the gap between the words on the page and the images they create in our mind. The freedom one has reading a book where we have cat as a word in print and cat in the mind’s eye allows for a fundamental imaginative liberty missing from cinema. We cannot imagine the world that we witness on film: we see it. If readers often wonder exactly what their favourite characters in fiction look like, nobody has that opportunity in cinema: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid look like Paul Newman and Robert Redford; Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro; Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford. Our examples aren’t arbitrary: they are all original screenplays (none are adapted from books), and all could have had a different actor in a leading role. Butch could have been played by Marlon Brando instead of Paul Newman, Jeff Bridges rather than De Niro, Tom Sellick instead of Harrison Ford. We can muse over other actors in the role, but this isn’t the literary imagination at work; merely idle speculation as we wonder what difference another actor would have made. Seeing is believing in cinema; imagining is believing in literature. In a novel we can imagine as we are reading it a friend we know as Darcy, or an actor we like as Pip, an actor we don’t like as Sikes. Now, of course, there have been numerous adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and on occasion a very strong interpretation might make it difficult to read the book without thinking of, say, Oliver Reed as Sikes, Colin Firth as Darcy. But if thinking of Bridges as Bickle is an idle thought, having Firth in our head as we read Pride and Prejudice might seem like an imposition. It is intruding on our imaginative faculties. Cinema, then, can seem in a number of ways a lazy medium next to literature, so how does one make it hard work, how to generate the imagination that even bad literature would seem to offer ontologically, and that cinema in its default state cannot?
Robbe-Grillet would be inclined to reply that one needs to change its default condition. Instead of film allowing us to trust what we see with our own eyes, why not generate an aesthetic of distrust? When the continuity girl insisted that Robbe-Grillet couldn’t cut from Donoil-Valcroze’s N. moving across the frame to him sitting down in the next shot, Robbe-Grillet knew that to do so would be playing havoc with the grammar of film all the better to generate a sceptical relationship with what we see. If the camera is supposed never to lie, in Robbe-Grillet’s films we notice it insistently does so. When at the beginning of L’immortelle we see a series of shots with Francoise Brion’s character, L., she has in all of them long hair, except for one shot where she seems to have shorter hair in a bob. We say seems since she has her back to the camera, and though later we do see her with exactly this hair style, there is also another character seen in the same location with the same bob cut. Can we say for sure this was Brion’s L. or was it this other woman? In The Man Who Lies, the voiceover informs us that the central character is entering an empty bar, yet the camera shows us that the bar is full. Are we to assume that the lie takes place in the audio or in the visual, or are we to accept that since they contradict each other we can trust neither sound nor image? If the novel leads us to use our imagination, film often asks us to trust what we see with our eyes. Now, of course, numerous films have asked us to think again the images that we have read naively –from Fight Club (1999) to Nine Queens (Nueve reinas, 200o), from Stage Fright (1950) to Psycho (1960)–, but the certitude of our initial assumptions are categorically countered so that by the end of the film we have a correct reading after our earlier one has been proved false. Yet Robbe-Grillet wants something more. While our imaginative faculties are set to work in literature, our speculative faculties can be set to work in film. Obviously literature has this capacity for speculation also, and has long been practising unreliable narration, but perhaps it appears especially uncanny in the arena of film where the image lends itself so well to certitude. Thus in The Man Who Lies (L’homme qui ment, 1968) we cannot easily decide what happens to be true and what happens to be false. Right from the beginning we might wonder why this figure who fugitively arrives in a village during WWII happens to be wearing sixties clothing. If we can’t trust what comes out of his mouth, then we can’t even trust the image making that incorporates him.
Now often what we call a lie is actually something else first and foremost: it is inconsistency. When someone offers an alibi, it isn’t necessarily true; more that it offers a consistent account that can work in a court of law. Cinema has its own version of this which accepts while a film is a fiction it nevertheless possesses an internal consistency that needn’t trouble us. It is the very internal consistencies that the script girl (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) in Trans-Europ-Express frequently insists upon when the scriptwriter (Alain Robbe-Grillet) works on ideas for a film during a train journey, all the while the film intersperses these moments with the film that he is generating. Films might usually be lies (fictions) but they are coherent ones. However it is as though in The Man Who Lies, which he made after the success of Trans-Europ-Express, Robbe-Grillet wanted to push further into the problem of fiction being so fictional that it needn’t even be consistent. If the voiceover tells us the bar is empty and it is full, if the central character Boris (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is in mid-to-late sixties attire in this film about a man turning up in a small Czech village who offers various contrary stories about how he got there, it is as though his manifold lying dissolves the very filmic event.
Another experience comes out of this collapse, though, one that Robbe-Grillet has talked about in various manifestations concerning both film and literature. In For a New Novel, a series of essays he wrote in the fifties and early sixties, he suggests that surely changes in the world demand changes in our aesthetic experiences. “On the one hand, it is no longer objectively the same, on many points, as a hundred years ago, for example; material life, intellectual life, political life, have been considerably modified, as has the physical aspect of our cities, our houses, our villages, our roads, etc.” He adds, “on the other hand, our knowledge of what is within us and what surrounds us (scientific knowledge, whether involving the science of matter or the sciences of man) has undergone, in parallel fashion, extraordinary upheavals.” (3) Thus even if the novel wanted only to reproduce reality, then it wouldn’t be very natural for it to do so in conjunction with these transformations. “Reality” gives way to form, not so much as form for form’s sake, but form for our sake. It is part of our subjective freedom to escape from ready reality, not reproduce it. Why should the artist be constrained by the same laws of truth as the person expected to come up with an alibi? As Robbe-Grillet says in an interview in Paris Review: “I am not against contradiction. I am all for it.” (4) He is more interested in a new kind of narrator rather than one beholden to consistency. The modern narrator is “no longer a man who describes the things he sees, but at the same time a man who invents the things around him and who sees the things he invents. Once these hero-narrators begin ever so little to resemble “characters”, they are liars, schizophrenics or victims of hallucinations…” (5) Robbe-Grillet is interested in an ‘illegal’ art, taking into account contradiction and the alibi, just as he was no less interested in ‘perverted’ art if we think especially of his films of the seventies and early eighties.
In each instance, the honest and normal are called into question, and while Ian Penman in Sight and Sound (6) reckons the director’s work became less interesting after The Man Who Lies, perhaps it is fairer to say, while we are inclined to agree, that also the emphasis shifted. In the first three black and white films (L’immortelle, Trans-Europ- Express, The Man Who Lies) he wanted to question truth in narration; in the later films he wanted to pervert painting. It is a point he makes in the DVD extras when insisting that it wasn’t until he moved into colour with Eden and After that he became interested in painting and film. The cafe in Eden and After resembles Mondrian, whereas numerous shots in La belle captive invoke Magritte and Manet. Where the first three accept that formal emphasis will be absorbed into location specificity – Istanbul, Paris and rural Czechoslovakia – the later films will utilize location (Tunisia in Eden and After for example), but also escape from its pro-filmic force. Where the tension exists between the fictional need to explore a subject on Robbe-Grillet’s own terms and film’s demand that the reality he records can’t easily be ignored is evident in the earlier works, in the later ones the tension isn’t between the form colliding with the location, but the form contained much more by the notion of the frame.
All films possess a frame of course but not all filmmakers seem to think of the frame. Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Robbe-Grillet often appear to frame images rather than film them, and this became in Robbe-Grillet’s work especially evident in the post-sixties films where, as he says in the DVD extras, moving into colour led him to become more exacting about the image. Deciding that he didn’t like the greens in Eastmancolor (7), it was as though this moment forced upon him a painter’s thought rather than a novelist’s or filmmaker’s one. He wondered what colours he could utilise; and thought about Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee’s dislike of the colour green, so played up red, white, yellow and blue in Eden and After. Whether it is the blue and red with dashes of yellow in the cafe, or the blue doors and white walls, with dashes of blood red in a bath or a blindfold, in the later Tunisian section, eradication of green created an aesthetic specificity. This allowed for the use of blocks of colour evident in the cafe with the Mondrian emphasis on rectangles of a particular colour, and in Tunisia where the blocks of white walls against blue doors brought out a geometrical precision to the imagery. Before Eden and After Robbe-Grillet was interested in making location his own. Moments in L’immortelle look like they could have come from Giorgio de Chirico with the emptied out squares and quietened streets. But this isn’t to play up the frame but to play down the location: to find ways in which to make it his Istanbul. It remains chiefly a pro-filmic space, just as Trans-Europ-Express and The Man who Lies emphasise the collision between the formal requirements and the milieu captured. If Penman and others regard these three works as his finest films, it rests partly in the tension between these oppositions generating a tension of its own. If as Penman amusingly notes that Robbe-Grillet’s background in agronomy indicated he was more interested in plots of land than narrative ones, nevertheless he created in his sixties work a pressure between opposing forces. When in L’immortelle L. and N. spend time at the beach, we notice that they have the beach to themselves, which might seem odd in the first place, but even odder could be that L. is wearing two different swimming costumes, indicating in most films that we should take this to be two separate occasions, but in Robbe-Grillet’s that we should instead question the status of the image: is it a dream, a recollection, a fantasy, an indeterminate memory? This isn’t the suspense of working a plot out, but working an image through. The location feels real enough, but what is going on within the image of it? In the former, in working a plot out, the image is taken as given and we merely have to comprehend what is going on, but in working an image through we have to think of all its possible permutations as an image. Take our earlier example of the brief moment at the beginning of the film where we appear to see L. from behind with bobbed hair. Can we say this is really L. or is it actually the other woman who resembles her from behind? Does N. imagine the moment of L. with shorter hair; is he projecting onto the other woman L., or has he conjured up this first meeting with L. retrospectively in his imagination since, chronologically, it would seem to be inconsistent with a scene shortly afterwards? If this is their first meeting, then her hair grows awfully quickly between the first and the second where she turns up at a soiree with her hair now twice the length. Instead of the more or less singular and categorical working out of the plot, we have the manifold working through of the image. The location is vivid but the events are troublingly vague.
This is the illegal image of inconsistency, but what about the perverse image of the painterly? It isn’t that Robbe-Grillet was no longer interested in the indiscernible, more that he appeared even more interested in playing up and playing on perversity within the frame. If in both L’immortelle and Trans-Europ-Express he has images of a kneeling woman we can see that in the former instance it is relatively tame as L. kneels in her lingerie; in the latter film it is getting more risqué with a woman in a bar naked on a turntable wrapped in chains. In Eden and After this becomes still more perverse and entrapping, with naked women in cages, a literal nude descending a staircase out of Duchamp, and, in Successive Slidings of Pleasure, a half naked Olga Georges-Picot tied up and stabbed with a pair of scissors. This is less the illegal nature of contradiction than a transgressive fixation: the image becomes suspect.
Included in the booklet accompanying the DVD box set is the ‘Contract of Conjugal Prostitution’, an agreement between Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine. It was a contract she never signed and the cheques she was offered as payment were never cashed, and whatever the contract happens to say about Robbe-Grillet’s marriage, it certainly says something about Robbe-Grillet’s aesthetics, or what Fredric Jameson called his “sado-aesthetics”. “These postures will nearly always be humiliating. They may be accompanied by chains or any manner of restraint whose purpose will be to maintain the body in a specific position, either whilst being fondled, during the infliction of torture, or merely emphasise the condition of slavery which shall be imposed upon a young lady for the duration of these sessions.” In places it looks like a contract that could double up as a legal agreement with his actresses. “Torments inflicted upon her may either be varied or, if it so pleases the husband, repetitious: once more, it is not the place of the young woman to judge their value.” (8) Replace the word director with husband and add a passage from the last part of the contract, “this sum shall be fixed at twenty thousand French francs per session” and this looks like a movie deal between a director and his leading lady.
Of course Catherine was a regular face in Robbe-Grillet’s films. She played one of the habitué’s at the soiree early on in L’immortelle, the script assistant in Trans-Europ- Express, the pharmacist in The Man Who Lies, ‘The Foolish Woman’ in Eden and After. Yet ‘face’ was usually the operative word: others were expected to strip to their underwear or beyond. Unlike Roman Polanski with his wife Emmanuelle Seigner in Bitter Moon (1992) and Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure, 2013), Robbe-Grillet couldn’t quite see the tiny, bird-like Catherine as of appropriate pulchritude for his on-screen fantasies. He wanted others for his suspect images, showing Catherine Jourdan dancing in thigh-high boots and a dress barely covering her bottom in Eden and After, Georges-Picot’s Nora wearing little more than a long leather jacket in Successive Slidings of Pleasure, and full leather bike gear for Cyrielle Clair in La belle captive. They were all vital to Robbe-Grillet’s perversion of the image rather than subversion of the story. It wasn’t that the plot was no longer calling into question the real, just as his earlier films are hardly devoid of erotic content, more that the emphasis has shifted from teasing narration to the sexualized frame. If for Andre Bazin colour was a further dimension towards realism, for Robbe-Grillet it was a move in the direction of fantasy, never more evident than his use of blood. In both Eden and After and Successive Slidings of Pleasure, it isn’t blood, it is red: a dimension of the mise-en-scene, a pigment of the imagination. When he says, “in general, nothing important happens in my films – it is the way certain scenes recur. As I said, there is no significance” (9) this is still surely a question of degrees. When for example there are people wandering around Paris and Antwerp in Tran-Europ-Express, they have a different significance than Georges-Picot lying apparently dead with a pair of scissors through her chest in Successive Slidings of Pleasure. One possesses the echo of the pro-filmic as a time capsule of the city; the other an echo of the painterly that indicates this is more indirect representation than directly capturing a moment of reality.
Did the painterly turn Robbe-Grillet’s work take result in diminishing returns? That the level of artificiality, the ludic lust for games, the lingering over naked ladies and the need to see colour as a question of palette, left the work without much point or purpose beyond home movie gratification on a grand scale? This depends how much judgement we want to throw at Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre. Where Penman reckons reviewing the DVD box set that “the films strike me as much more multi-hued than his texts”, he also admits that “to my mind something disastrously goes wrong with the remaining three works here” (10): namely the seventies ones. If for Penman the novels are too artificial and that Robbe-Grillet benefits from an injection of film to temper the literary oblique, this then in turn gives way to later films that lack the narrative and pro-filmic pull of the sixties work. But are these not also the three stages of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre: the literary, the cinematic and the painterly? While it was clear that Robbe-Grillet was indebted to Godard right down to the pixie dimension of Jourdan out of Jean Seberg in Eden and After, and the Karina look Pisier adopts in Trans-Europ-Express, so Godard’s interest in painting and film, while always burgeoningly evident in the sixties, became much more so in the early eighties with Passion (1982), but Robbe-Grillet probably pushed it even more than Godard, and preceded him. It was as though after the first stage that was so attuned to the zeitgeist and cinema’s past, Godard’s work gave way to the political phase, which in turn gave way to Godard’s need to reinvigorate the image at the beginning of the eighties, and where painting proved central to this reinvigoration. As Alain Bergala says, “thus for Passion, Godard had to search outside cinema for Masters to measure himself against, and for Great Classics to lean on and pervert. First, he chose certain great painters, becoming an almost respectful disciple, and effortfully and humbly, re-created in a studio some of their most famous paintings.” (11)
Yet there are numerous statements in a Robbe-Grillet essay from 1963, ‘Time and Description’, that suggests not only a move towards the cinema (L’Immortelle was released the same year), but that might indicate painting would be the writer/director’s ideal. He writes, “…in the modern narrative time seems to be cut off from its temporality. It no longer passes”. Furthermore, saying: “Now if temporality gratifies expectation, instantaneity disappoints it; just as spatial discontinuity dissolves the trap of the anecdote.” In the same piece he discusses the difference between film and the novel: “The film and the novel present themselves initially in the form of temporal sequences – contrary, for example, to plastic works, paintings or sculptures. The film, like the musical work, is even timed in a definitive fashion (whereas the duration of a reading can vary infinitely, from one page to the next, and from one individual to the next.” (12) The painting has the advantage of freedom from continuity while simultaneously escaping the indexical certitude of cinema. Cinema is an index of reality, an imprint from the real, while painting is an appropriation of reality that passes through the art, craft and imagination of the painter. It is iconic rather than indexical, often offering a likeness but one that can never pass for a direct representation. A painting might generally be taken more seriously aesthetically than a photograph, but the photograph is taken more seriously documentatively. The camera never lies because a button is pressed rather than a craft learned.
Of course for all sorts of reasons this is too hasty a generalization and especially so in a digital age. Yet to understand an aspect of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre it is useful. If much of his work in film and literature tried to escape the temporal demands of the respective art forms, then painting offers this act of escapology in its very nature. When discussing his script for Last Year at Marienbad, he says, “did they love each other last year at Marienbad? Does the young woman remember and is she only pretending not to recognize the handsome stranger?” “Matters must be put clearly”, Robbe-Grillet says, “such questions have no meaning. The universe in which the entire film occurs is, characteristically, that of the perpetual present which makes all recourse to memory impossible.” (13) Though we might question Robbe-Grillet’s absolute resistance to narrative and psychology in the film, nevertheless his remarks do indicate a writer and director perversely proposing another art form within the ones in which he happens to be practising. To say one’s film is in the perpetual present is a provocation; to say that a painting happens to be so is a truism. Yet just as painters like Braque and Picasso wanted to indicate different perspectives on an event within the one work and arrived at Cubism, so Robbe-Grillet moves in the other direction and shows that multiplicity of event can destroy temporal coordinates. While painting struggles to capture narrative because of instantaneity, film struggles to achieve instantaneity because of the temporal. And yet as Anthony N. Fragola and Roch C. Smith believe, perhaps rather too admiringly, “the critic and viewer must look at each of Robbe-Grillet’s shots as though it were a painting.” (14)
If the emphasis on particular paintings is most pronounced in Eden and After and La belle captive, Successive Slidings of Pleasure and Playing with Fire incorporate the painterly as if by rejecting the realistic. When in the former we see the naked Alice (Anicée Alvina) covering herself in red paint and leaning against a wall this is body painting meeting action painting: as though a young woman going ‘native’ and at the same time someone trying to express various torments. The room isn’t a place we take straight, with its white walls and minimal furnishings. It is a frame as much as an environment, and Alice uses the walls appropriately: she presses her painted body against them and creates a still more abstract milieu. At other moments it can seem more like an installation: the scene with Alice and Nora (Olga Georges-Picot) sitting on a bed frame with a life size mannequin; in Playing with Fire Carolina de Saxe (Anicée Alvina) lying semi-naked on the ground, with a priest looking on. It doesn’t feel filmed but artistically staged. It seems like something one would walk around rather than simply look at.
However, while we want to acknowledge the significance of the later works, are they as interesting as the earlier ones? We can accept that Eden and After and La belle captive precede and coincide in some ways with the mannerist obsessions of early to mid-eighties cinema, with Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Leos Carax, Francis Coppola, Jean-Jacques Beineix and others playing up the artifice over the real, and also as we’ve noted, that they contain most perfectly the erotic possibility in cinema that has since been colonized by the pornographic. Nevertheless we’re inclined to agree with Penman that the most important work happens to be those three black and white features he directed in the sixties. Writing on Beckett, Robbe-Grillet quotes Martin Heidegger’s idea that the human condition is to be there and wonders whether the stage is the most perfect encapsulation of this presencing. (15) In the Paris Review interview he admits to being tempted to write for the theatre, but that he never managed to do so. (16) Yet the more theatrical his work looked, the less ‘there’ the films happened to be. It is as if the productive tensions in the first three become weakened by the frame, as though like a number of other filmmakers who indicate the painterly and theatrical (none more so than Peter Greenaway) Robbe-Grillet misunderstands not so much the nature of cinema, more the necessary tension within it. This needn’t have anything to do with suspense and narrative mechanics, more the awareness of multiple forces at work in the film. Don’t Come Knocking (2005) is probably Wim Wenders’ most painterly work, the one where his love for Edward Hopper is most manifest, but is it a more interesting film than The American Friend(1977) and Paris, Texas (1984), where the Hopper influence is less conspicuous and where the reality of milieu is more pronounced? Of course, Robbe-Grillet has always worked against preconception. If he often insisted that literature shouldn’t be so attached to plot and character, then why should film be so linked to the pro-filmic? Yet perhaps sometimes Robbe-Grillet confused a preconception with an ontological condition. It is one thing to say the novel is too hidebound by character and story, but it is worth acknowledging why it has been.
We might feel that too many films have taken the reality they show a little too much for granted, but again is there a fundamental reason why they have done so? If one admires Robbe-Grillet’s late cinematic work, but feels an attachment to the earlier ones, it resides perhaps in the useful tension that exists between Robbe-Grillet’s formalist preoccupations meeting the presencing, the ‘thereness’ that cinema is no less capable of generating than theatre. Istanbul, Antwerp and the Czech village are there in L’immortelle, Trans-Europ-Express and The Man Who Lies. So is Françoise Brion with her feline assurance, often seen lying back, rolling around or stretching, and Marie-France Pisier, as if aware of Robbe-Grillet’s attempt to turn her into a more sexualized version of Anna Karina, but just as readily showing that she is wise to the ploy and gives a performance more commanding and less winsome than Godard’s muse. In both Trans-Europ-Express and The Man Who Lies Trintignant is as so often a slippery self, hard to pin down and playing up the sensual petulance in those lips, and playing down the menace that occasionally shows up in his smile. These are actors who refuse the mannequin dimension often evident in the director’s later works. Thus while we can acknowledge that there are at least three stages to Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre (the writerly, the cinematic and the painterly) the moment where the most pressing forces are at play resides in the sixties films.
Here, not only the actors are given greater freedom, the editing by Robbe-Grillet regular Bob Wade is at its most rhythmically persuasive and at its most infuriatingly suggestive. In L’immortelle the film cuts from a frontal view of L. and N. with someone staring at them in the background out of an upstairs window, the film then cuts to the reverse angle on that first shot, and then the next shows N. as if he is the one looking out of the window, before he turns round in the same shot and sees L. sitting there. She starts to strip, and the film cuts back again to N. and then again back to L. now dressed in her underwear. Frequently the film offers this cinematic enjambment, where one separate scene slips into the next and so that we can’t strictly say to which scene a particular shot belongs. It also adds to the mystery of what is going on as N. desperately wants to find out more about L, but where what he knows and doesn’t know is often mysterious to us as he moves between pursuit and reflection. With The Man Who Lies, the film is as dishonest as its hero, just as with L’immortelle the film is as obsessive as its protagonist, and where again Wade’s editing is vital. In one sequence where Boris explains how he would hide in caves and in the forest away from prying eyes we see him in the tavern, and he then adds that his friend was keen to follow him as the film shows us various women from the house looking on in counter-shot as the two men leave the inn, though the house is another location altogether. As he pushes his friend in front of him in the forest, Boris’s voiceover tells us that the friend followed without hesitation: however, we see the friend pushed forward and showing a high degree of trepidation. Here the cuts mismatch beautifully as we try to work out what is going on at the same time the editing refuses to allow us a sense of certitude. All the while in both films the locations insist on the real as aspects of the soundtrack, body language and editing counter that reality. This is cinema not falling into expectation, but not quite assuming its ontology lies elsewhere either.
Returning to the awkward question posed by Taddei about filming his own fantasies, we might be inclined to reply that the problem isn’t an embarrassment in the face of the real, a certain type of embarrassment of riches, but that the problem resides in the works where we sense that the film is no longer resisting the sensibility of its director. It is as though while Robbe-Grillet was interested in atemporality, in narration that wouldn’t develop, cinema has the astonishing capacity not only to capture time in its passing as the film runs through the projector, but also in presenting moments that quickly become past ones. As we watch these sixties works they contain far more time in the image, a greater sense of time caught than life frozen. There are the contrary forces of insistent form and captured time, of an Istanbul for example that might have been emptied out for Robbe-Grillet’s purposes, but cannot but be full of history too. When L. insists the mosque they have just exited was built after the war it is a joke on the fact that the building we have just seen is centuries old, and film cannot quite lie about its longevity
This isn’t to undermine or dismiss films like Eden and After and La belle captive, simply to say that for all their aesthetic ingenuity they might just be missing a temporal texture that should never be underestimated in film. “Unfortunately American audiences are conditioned to see events as reality. Since they fail to distinguish between reality and the stylized reality of Eden and After, they view the rape scene as realistic.” (17) One’s reservations towards Robbe-Grillet’s comments here are not those of representation, of suspect sexual politics, of objectifying women and illustrating male fantasies. That would be for another debate. But while American audiences in Robbe-Grillet’s formulation are naive to take film for reality, perhaps the brilliantly sophisticated Robbe-Grlllet was himself ever so slightly naive in underestimating its importance to the film image. We might think again of the indexical sign that is cinema, and the ‘illegal’ images that Robbe-Grillet extracted from it. His is a great body of work, but the soul of it resides as much in absorbing time into the image and hinting at the real as it lies in countering cinema’s basic ontology. “I have never spoken of anything but myself” (18), Robbe-Grillet proposes in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror. Yet in his finest films the images of Istanbul etc. talk back.
1. Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974, DVD Notes, British Film Institute
2. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, London: Pandora, 1990
3. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1989, p. 159
5. For a New Novel, p. 163
6. Ian Penman, ‘Nouveau Riche’, Sight and Sound, v. 24, n.7, July 2014, pp. 94-95
7. Anthony N. Fragola and Roch C. Smith, The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992, p. 54
8. Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974, DVD Notes, British Film Institute.
10. Penman, p. 95
11.Alain Bergala,‘The Other Side of the Bouquet’, in Raymond Bellour & Mary Lea Bandy (eds.), Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992, pp. 57-73
12. For a New Novel, p. 151
13. For a New Novel, p. 152
14. Fragola and Smith, p. 7
15. For a New Novel, p. 111
17. Fragola and Smith, p. 61
18. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror, London: John Calder, 1988, p. 13