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Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Cast: Françoise Brion, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Guido Celano, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-France Pisier, Nadine Verdier, Ivan Mistrík, Zuzana Kocúriková, Catherine Jourdan, Lorraine Rainer, Sylvain Corthay, Anicée Alvina, Olga Georges-Picot, and Michael Lonsdale
Year: 1963, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1974
Length: 105, 94, 98, 95, 79, and 106 mins
Release Date: June 30, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.67:1, 1.33:1
Type: Black and White, Color
Audio: French: LPCM 2.0
- Newly Filmed Introductions by Catherine Robbe-Grillet
- Frederic Taddei interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Audio Commentaries by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog
- Illustrated booklet featuring an essay by David Taylor, full film credits, archival photographs, and a document by Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Original Theatrical Trailers
While it is certainly a cliché to open with a quote, it seems appropriate here as perhaps no one better captures the experience of an Alain Robbe-Grillet film better than he himself: “When one stands before a painting in a museum…the first subjective reaction is to say ‘I like that painting,’ and it is only later that one asks whether or not one understands it. The question of understanding is, in the final analysis, less important than a more direct of sensual participation.” Understanding is probably the key word when dealing with the films of Robbe-Grillet, which are a whirlwind of provocative imagery, tantalizing storylines, and unconventional and nonlinear structures. But if we are to accept his statement, can we say that we are in sensual participation with his work? While, of course, no single filmmaker will appeal to all audiences, Robbe-Grillet is surprisingly far stretching. His utilization of entertainment and academia allow for numerous readings, finding countless avenues for appreciation. His films have, however, also been historically subjected to numerous criticisms, including claims of pornography and pretension. They also struggle to find a home, and—at the risk of using another cliché—are often too grindhouse for the arthouse and vice-versa. Finally, over 50 years after his directorial debut, the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet is readily available to be seen. While in America the folks at Kino Lorber and Redemption have done a great job presenting his first few films as individual releases, those in the UK—or those who have access to region free players—are now, thanks to BFI, able to own the first six films of Alain Robbe-Grillet in a single box set.
We have already reviewed all of the included films (which can be read here: L’Immortelle, Trans-Europ Express, L’Homme qui ment, L’Eden et après/N. a pris les dé, and Glissements progressifs du plasir aka Successive Sliding of Pleasure), so we will, rather than address the films individually, focus on the works as a cohesive whole. What the BFI box set does allow for, that the Kino series may not, is a simple way to view all of Robbe-Grillet’s work in successive order. When viewing his work in chronological order—especially when viewed over a short period of time—many things become increasingly apparent. First, thematically Robbe-Grillet’s work features a few common tropes. Most prominently clear is the use of unreliable narrations and narrators. This is key for L’homme qui ment, in which the title even comments upon the nature of the film: the man who lies. Lying narrators, or narrators who embellish the truth—whether actual characters or Robbe-Grillet’s authorial voice—are featured in every single feature in this collection. At its core, no Robbe-Grillet piece can be taken passively. The films require an active viewer decoding the messages; essentially, Robbe-Grillet forces his viewers to become detectives and the mysteries are the film’s themselves.The second most common thematic element would be women in bondage. There is a succinct element of sadomasochism that is strung through every film, which grows in intensity with each addition to the series, culminating in one of Robbe-Grillet’s most evocative pieces, Glissements progressifs du plasir. While Glissements, released in 1974, is seething with all of the usual Robbe-Grillet motifs, it is marked by a distinctly different tone from his prior films. While L’Eden et après does show some of the transitional elements from Trans-Europ-Express to Glissements, his fifth—or sixth if you consider N. a pris les dé to be a separate feature, as BFI does—feature is a far cry from his earlier works that fit more seamlessly into the French avant-garde cinema. Glissements has as much in common with the films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin as it does with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—the latter being filmmakers he never felt aligned with, despite incessant attempts by critics to make sense of his work through associating him with the French New Wave movement. While the image of women in bondage and the excessive amount of female nudity that begins in L’Eden and explodes in Glissements, can be read as provocation for provocation’s sake, the images are at least two-fold. It is clear through Robbe-Grillet’s writing that he was sexually aroused by sadomasochism, but the inclusion of the sadomasochist imagery seems far from a simple pleasure seeking experience. While, on one hand, the lack of male nudity and excess of female nudity can be read as inherently sexist—in fact Catherine Robbe-Grillet remembers feminist criticizing about Glissements in her introduction to the film—the images can also be read under a feminist lens. While certainty Robbe-Grillet makes no effort to de-sexualize the imagery, the association with the nude female form and bondage—alongside another familiar trope of Robbe-Grillet, the labyrinth—comments highly on women’s place in society and the increased oppression of women and female sexuality.
Another aspect that the box set makes clear is Robbe-Grillet’s technical improvements. As he moves from black and white to color, Robbe-Grillet’s vision rapidly expands. L’Eden marks a point of technical perfection, and is, overall, the finest film in the collection. Robbe-Grillet’s work is exponentially improved with the inclusion of color: its symbolic nature adding another element for Robbe-Grillet’s signification. By L’Eden, Robbe-Grillet’s kinks as a young—in skill but not age, as he didn’t direct his first film until he was 40—director are worked out and he is able to manipulate cinematic conventions in a more coherent manner. However, even Robbe-Grillet’s faults are admirable, making every film an enjoyable, albeit difficult, viewing experience.
BFI, as did Kino Lorber/Redemption, utilize REEL Suspects for the 1080p HD master transfers, so there is nothing visually different to these discs than the Kino ones we have already addressed. To summarize, the video quality is stunning. Any faults—most evident are elements of extreme noise in dark scenes—noticed can most likely be attributed to the original master, being no fault of the HD transfer. These were all low-budget films, and often the stock and shooting conditions could result in some less-than-perfect images. That being said, the later films (L’Eden and Glassiments) look impressive in color. The prime colors jump off the screen giving the pictures a radiating effect. All films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios, and little-to-no digital restoration attempts are noticeable. There is an odd vertical artifact that is present in Glissements, but again it’s hard to know whether or not this exists in the original print.
Like the video, the audio is taken from the same masters as the Kino releases, so we will just briefly summarize. The audio is clear and crisp. There is a good mix between the elements, which is important, as Robbe-Grillet was known to experiment with audio montage to evoke meaning in a scene. There doesn’t appear to be any distracting hisses, pops, or cracks in the mix, leaving a faithful and adequate audio track. Again, the films were shot under low-budget constraints yielding less-than-stunning but satisfactory tonality.
Those familiar with the Kino Lorber/Redemption series that are hoping for more features may be disheartened to learn that the BFI set includes only a few more features. In addition to the series of one-on-one Frédéric Taddeï interviews with Robbe-Grillet, which are featured on the subsequent Kino releases, the BFI set includess newly filmed introductions by Robbe-Grillet’s wife and long time collaborator, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, and audio commentary tracks by Video Watchdog publisher Tim Lucas. The commentary tracks are very informative and are great tools for those who enjoy Robbe-Grillet but find his work challenging. Critic Tim Lucas offers a great deal of insight into the films and the inclusion is a greatly appreciated aspect for the box set. Finally, the box set includes a booklet, which features an essay on Robbe-Grillet’s career and one of the most bizarre and titillating Robbe-Grillet documents: a sexual contract. The document in question is a sex contract drafted by Robbe-Grillet for his wife, Catherine. While we won’t spoil it, the document offers an insight into many of the themes that creep up in his novels and films and into the mind of sexual preferences of one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. The set also includes original theatrical trailers.
If you are a Robbe-Grillet fan you really can’t go wrong with BFI’s set. The only complaint that can really be made is that the collection is more of a five-film set than a six-film set. While BFI has decided to consider L’Eden and N. a pris two separate films—and to be fair the claim isn’t completely far-off—it would seem that Kino Lorber’s inclusion of them on the same disc, viewing N. a pris as an alternative cut of L’Eden and not a separate film in its own right, is more proper. Either way, this is largely a semantic claim, and does not take anything away from the release. This is the first, and currently the only way to own all of Robbe-Grillet’s first six (or five) films, aside from purchasing them individually from Kino. We can only hope that the popularity of the set will influence distributors to give attention the remaining four unreleased Robbe-Grillet works.