Alain Robbe Grillet Forever for Adult
Let 2014 be known as the year the late Alain Robbe-Grillet slipped into American consciousness. The French writer, painter, and filmmaker falls in and out of fashion among critics and courses of study, but has never fully established his reputation stateside. This isn’t surprising, if you consider the complexity and deviant nature of his books and movies—and the fact he’s a solipsistic ball buster of an artist with a wickedly perverse sense of humor. “One of the factors that I really appreciate in viewers is their open-mindedness—viewers who will not be bothered by the fact that the actor dies four times in the same film,” he once said, with a perfectly straight face. “I address open-minded viewers who know that we do not kill the actor, so there is no reason he should not reappear.” Of course, the open-minded viewer (a cosmophage) and the knowing viewer (a cinephile, which is usually to say a snob) are rarely the same viewer. Any idea of Robbe-Grillet’s has a doubting twin. All of a sudden, both have arrived.
In January, the name of Robbe-Grillet was whispered anew with a Vanity Fair profile of not the man, but the Madame: Catherine Robbe-Grillet, actress, writer, and dominatrix. Penned under the name Jeanne de Berg, Catherine’s sado-maschistic tales—and her corresponding, real-life tastes—are legend in France. The marriage contract she didn’t sign, and yet fulfilled, included two-hour sessions during which her postures were “nearly always humiliating.” Once, for dinner with her husband and Vladimir Nabokov, she dressed as Lolita. If “great writers are either husbands or lovers,” as Sontag once wrote, Alain Robbe-Grillet is the husband who is also, well, Daddy.
Among the Robbe-Grillet works released this summer is a recent English translation by D.E. Brooks of A Sentimental Novel, which tells the story of Gigi and her domineering father. In The London Review of Books, Adam Shatz wrote, “Literature had been [Robbe-Grillet’s] freedom from truth and certainty, and a playpen for his criminal passions and victimless crimes.” In September, Fandor acquired six of Robbe-Grillet’s late-New Wave fimls, for ill-acquainted Americans to stream; five of these were released this year by Redemption Films. The British Film Institute, for its part, released the Blu Ray Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1964-1974, on the cover of which is a scene from Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974). In a nod to Yves Klein’s blue Anthropometries, a woman dripping red with liquid lies in the corner, her body pressed on two walls. Robbe-Grillet made 10 such arresting, scatological films in total, and most have been widely unavailable ’til now—but censorship isn’t wholly to blame. The auteur, as finicky and strict in his work as in his sexual activities, was upset at the notion that his films would be reproduced and watched in anything but the original 35mm.
Robbe-Grillet’s detractors find his work to be that of a deeply flawed misogynist. On the opposing side, his portrayals of women are viewed more generously, as ciphers to prod sexual rebellion in subordination of male-dominated codes or erotic stereotypes. I stand with the latter, taking nothing he says at face value. Even when he’s brilliant, he’s called out for being stupid or plain silly, and wins by refusing to heed (in various ways and works, Robbe-Grillet practices the old American maxim: never complain, never explain). His work is made to be reread and re-watched, each time begging a new interpretation. He loathes metaphor, but loves objects—or rather, props. There’s a devilish, self-aware bent to all his work. He is always playing. And he wants to play with you.
In 1980, France Culture commissioned an essay by Robbe-Grillet called “I Like, I Don't Like,” which he would go on to claim was written as a post factum homage to his old friend, Roland Barthes. The following rebel anthem lines appear within the strangely formatted piece:
“I like the knowing the rules. I don’t like respecting them.”
What a punk!, albeit one responsible for the paternity of the nouveau roman. What is so enraging and endearing about Robbe-Grillet is that his maddening works propose truths and insightful arguments. “Art exists to trouble,” he has said, and at this, his images and words are successful. He also doesn’t care if you like him. He doesn’t care if you get his jokes. He’s not even sure he meant them to begin with.
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Among American culturati, Robbe-Grillet is best known as Alain Resnais’ collaborator on Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Marguerite Duras had worked with Resnais on the iconic film Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), and Resnais originally requested a female screenwriter, namely Simone de Beauvoir or Francoise Sagan. But Robbe-Grillet proved to be as good as a woman, producing an award-winning script with a puzzling, non-linear structure. At the same time, he battled with the collaborative difficulties of filmmaking, including the particular riddle of making a nonlinear movie while employing a supervisor of continuity. Much of Robbe-Grillet’s cinema could not be made today, as he would be kept out of the editing room, his express efforts negated by other hired professionals. At various screenings of his films audiences have perceived there to be a malfunction with the reel or projection, when, in fact, the inconsistency was part of Robbe-Grillet’s vision. Or so he says. Last Year at Marienbad is arguably the most successful of his projects, but it was once considered too bizarre for distribution, until it won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. What happened next was what Robbe-Grillet has referred to as “success snob appeal.” People went to see it, just to prove that they could.
Unlike Duras, Robbe-Grillet saw his novels as wholly separate from his films, having never considered adapting them for the screen. He even refused to work with his friend Michelangelo Antonioni because Antonioni wanted to create the images based on Robbe-Grillet’s words, whereas Robbe-Grillet wanted to conceive his own: images of sadomasochism, drugs, and, in his words, “Club Med” (signifying a rich, domestic fantasy life). In the 1960s, these imaginings were often met with intellectual dismissal, but also with praise from the likes of his friend Roland Barthes.
Today, his visual acumen can be appreciated on the level of the reblog even with no context, or understanding, of of his self-satirizing, prodding nuances. It is no surprise that only a very specific public would have embraced Trans Europ Express when first shown in American, in 1968, at the Plaza Theater in New York. Renata Adler, then a film critic at The New York Times, wrote: “The film is a little parody of the old New Wave crime eroticism movies, and the process, in general, by which films are thought out. Or not thought out.” Perhaps this filmmaker thought too much about not thinking at all.
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Instinct often outsmarts intellectualism, and Robbe-Grillet’s contribution to cinema wasn’t just some meta comment on the Hollywood machine, but a skillful redeployment thereof: 30 years before television became the new auteur’s medium in America, the Frenchman’s Frenchman recognized its financing potential.
Eden and After (1970) was Robbe-Grillet’s first color film, financed by businessmen in France, Czechoslavakia, and Tunisia and shot on location in the latter two countries. Mostly unscripted, the project was based on 12 themes—a riff on Schoenberg’s 12-tone method—and the subsequent adventure of filming. Catherine Jourdan was the breakout star of the ensemble, her role as the student, Violette, inspired in part by her own commanding presence. Eventually, she would become Robbe Grillet’s lover—a union sanctioned by the other Catherine. The production was made possible by Robbe Grillet’s own foresight, and though it’s unclear whether filming was originally financed with the caveat of also creating television programming, or if it was a simultaneous agreement, the result was that much of the footage, plus outtakes and alternates scenes, wound up in N. Took the Dice (1971). Shown twice on French television, N. Took the Dice was a serial in which the order of scenes was supposedly chosen by a pair of dice, thrown severally—another of Robbe-Grillet’s wicked games. N. Took the Dice was not screened again until the 1989 Anthology Film Archive Robbe-Grillet retrospective in New York and is now included on the Redemption Films disc, as well as in the BFI set.
True to form, despite cashing in himself, Robbe-Grillet derided the small-screen projects and other money-making endeavors of his peers. He slammed Ingmar Bergman’s “psychological films he makes for television”—for example, the much-lauded Scenes from a Marriage (1973)—as “totally absurd and weak,” and called out Truffaut for being a filmmaker that “leaves the impression he is simply a failed writer” and making “the most commercial cinema imaginable.” It follows that Hitchcock too is a joke (it is a copy of Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, Marnie, which was adapted by Hitch in ’64, that the character Elias finds his gun hidden within in Trans Europ Express), and that Francis Ford Coppola went Hollywood when he could have gone on to become a new Fellini or Godard. Once, while considering a deal to have one of his films released stateside, Robbe-Grillet expressed shock that a negotiation was required; French law is prohibitive of changes being made to the auteur’s original vision. “You do not need a lawyer to make a film,” he said. “You need an electrician!”
In another example of no love lost in translation, Playing with Fire (1975) was sold to an American distributor for the sole reason that Sylvia Kristel appeared in a small role (the actress had earned pop appeal as the lead in a softcore adaptation of Emmannuelle). But the film was never released, as Robbe-Grillet refused to re-edit so that scenes of Kristel would show up in an early montage. He felt that sub-par commercial cinema and the stateside intellectual’s disdain for “going to the movies” were two halves of a vicious circle, and he was fond of using Rambo as an example of big studios catering to a film-going public they saw as singularly perceptive. The mistake was in not acknowledging there are multiple publics, each ferrying their specific cultural understanding of narrative to the theater. “American film is made to reassure because there, at least, meaning is certain,” Robbe-Grillet said. “Everything takes place as if the commercial cinema were a drug designed to insulate the viewer from the enigma of life.”
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The 21st century has established television, in the minds of some audiences and critics alike, as the better delivery system for such narcotics. We are prescribed regular doses of a show by cable television, or can pace themselves by spacing out episodes on Netflix or Amazon; we can also binge-watch via box set or online. As television becomes more cinematic, it’s also clear that the novel was television before screens: episodic and necessarily pleasurable, yet evolved from its original connotations with softness, trashiness, and romance. It’s easy to forget that novels were categorically lowbrow entertainment in the 17th century, but Robbe-Grillet remembered, and the title of that recent release—A Sentimental Novel, for a thoroughly unsentimental story that is nonetheless romantic in its wishfulness—is proof of his commitment to form and to joke.
In a time of mainlined, mainstreaming television that breaks as many taboos as do independent movies (think: male nudity, desexualized female nudity, trans characters in major and minor roles...), we don’t know whether Robbe-Grillet would see TV’s New Wave as another American assault on the cinema or as proof of his ’70s prescience. Still, it’s impossible not to see trailers for a certain rather monochrome paperback adaptation and imagine instead a prime-time experimental soap opera based on the works and life of this singular master of sex.