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Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974

Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974. GB. Blu-ray /DVD. BFI Home Video. 497 minutes + extras. £59.99 (Blu-ray); £49.99 (DVD)

Dr. Michael PigottprofileAbout the reviewer: Dr. Michael Pigott is Assistant Professor of Video Art and Digital Media at the University of Warwick. Dr Pigott’s main research interests are in video and projection arts, experimental film and world cinema. He is co-investigator on The Projection Project, an AHRC funded project on cinematic projection. Particular interests include: the temporality of moving image works, the ontology and aesthetics of digital video,the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, video projection and urban space, transmedial adaptation, and video games. Selected publications include: (with Santiago Oyarzabal) World Film Locations: Buenos Aires (Intellect Books, 2014); Joseph Cornell Vs. Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect Books, 2013). He is also a practising artist by the name of Michael Lightborne. His website is

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film career has long been overshadowed by his association with Alain Resnais. He scripted the latter’s prismatic masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and, though Resnais insisted on his status as co-author, Robbe-Grillet is primarily remembered, at least in film circles, as the literary figure who wrote Last Year. Of course, Robbe-Grillet had another, extremely successful career as a novelist and provocateur of the international literary scene, and it is the fractured, fragmented, and obsessive narratives of his novels that set the precedent for the labyrinthine form of Last Year, and persist into his subsequent film oeuvre, all of which he both scripted and directed.

This handsome box set from the British Film Institute is available in both Blu-ray and DVD versions, and it collects six films from Robbe-Grillet’s initial phase of filmmaking – his high period from the mid 60s into the 70s. He continued to make films sporadically in each of the following decades up until his death in 2008, but the films collected here form a logical set, following his trajectory from bit player in the nouvelle vague through to a more idiosyncratic, bolder and gaudier art cinema in the 1970s. The Blu-ray versions in particular reveal the delicious grain and controlled composition of the first three films, and the achingly beautiful tones and contrasts of the colour films.

The highlight amongst the extras is a series of short introductions by Robbe-Grillet’s wife Catherine, who appears in each of the films, played key behind-the-scenes roles, and was a celebrated author of erotic novels in her own right. She offers invaluable insights, and tantalisingly situates production histories within the overlap of personal and professional lives. The extremely informative commentary by Tim Lucas nimbly unpicks the dense systematic approach to imagery and improvisation that Robbe-Grillet often adopted. It is generously suggestive about ways of interpreting scenes, provides significant detail about the production methods of each film and traces the evolution of various tropes across his work.

All of the films in the box are interesting, impressive, and original, but three stand out as particularly significant achievements. L’Immortelle/The Immortal (1963) continues many of the formal and thematic obsessions of Last Year, following a man, N (played by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, one of the founders of Cahiers du Cinema), as he searches for the true identity of a woman who may or may not have died in a car crash, who may be part of a malign conspiracy against him, who may be a sex slave, who may be in love with him, and who may or may not exist. In N’s erotic memories we see the first traces of the sado-masochistic imagery that will grow and flourish across Robbe-Grillet’s work.

Trans-Europ-Express (1967), his most well-known film, is a playful metafiction, as Alain and  Catherine play themselves, sitting in a carriage on the eponymous train, brainstorming a possible film entitled ‘Trans-Europ-Express’, set on the same train, with a producer. Jean Louis Trintignant, who, along with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Jean-Paul Belmondo, was one of the key male leads of the nouvelle vague, stars as the trainee drug smuggler tormented by the filmmaker’s trial and error narrative, a difficult role necessitating Trintignant’s deadpan sincerity.

Glissements progressifs du Plaisir/Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) is a remarkable, disturbing and beautiful film. It is certainly the most vibrant expression of Robbe-Grillet’s interest in sado-masochism, and it courted controversy for what was seen by some as a set of misogynistic, pornographic fantasies played out on screen. However, as Catherine points out in the film’s introduction, it also presents an early incarnation of a FEMEN-esque radicalism, as the men in the film, representing the institutions of religion, law and the police, are constantly bewildered, driven even to breakdown, by the unnerving, irrepressibly chaotic force of the central character, played by Anicée Alvina.

The majority of these films have been difficult to see for many years, contributing to Robbe-Grillet’s sidelining, yet they clearly deserve to be re-discovered, and this valuable box set would be a welcome addition to any University library or home collection.

Dr. Michael Pigott

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