27 January, 2008

THE MAN WHO LIES (1968)


Alain Robbe-Grillet filming GRADIVA in 2006.

"...Robbe-Grillet's own list of allusions for his film extends from "Don Giovanni" to Pushkin to Pirandello. Indeed, so long as you can read "The Man Who Lies" in terms of something else, it engages the attention in a speculative way. But it is finally so repetitively dull in its detail, and so closely committed to a dramatic view in which there is no reality but only accounts of reality, that it becomes no more than the terms of its own rhetoric." Roger Greenspun, April 1970, THE NEW YORK TIMES


"Part spy novel, part textual game, Repetition is not for those who dislike feeling disoriented. (...) What slowly emerges from the fog is a Sophoclean oedipal revenge drama, complete with incest, blindness (Walther's war wound), parricide and fratricide. Mirrors, doubles, double agents, repetitions, trompe l'oeil war paintings, dream sequences, sexual torture, a criminal mafia of postwar Nazis and murky memories add to the disquieting, disorienting literary puzzle." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

The above excepts of reviews for Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel LA REPRISE and his film L"HOMME QUI MENT (1968) are quoted for comparison purposes only.

Structured, according to the critic Roy Armes,* with the precise mathematical symettry as his other 1960's b&w features, L'HOMME QUI MENT (1968) is Robbe-Grillet's most difficult and difficult to see film. Despite the rush of negative reviews his most recent film GRADIVA (2006) faced when released in France in early 2007, the important thing is that at 85 years Alain Robbe Grillet is still an active filmmaker and still mad as hell at the film making establishment which has always rejected his work as director, but not as a screenwriter, novelist and literary theorist.

The 1960s was a decade in which war movies from THE LONGEST DAY to THE DIRTY DOZEN to ANZIO to WHERE EAGLES DARE ruled at the box office. I saw all of them at the movie theater and enjoyed each one. L'HOMME QUI MENT (THE MAN WHO LIES) is kind of an anti-war movie war movie, but NOT an anti-war movie. Cyclical rather than linear, reflective rather than dynamic, static rather than active, it breaks all the rules of what an audience would reasonably want from this genre. That's not to say that it's great or that you are going to enjoy it. In fact STOP READING THIS BLOG if you want a clear analysis, recommendation or even a basic description of this film. I can't give you that. What I can do is report some random thoughts and observations on a film which totally undermines conventional procedures of character development, plotting and genre representation.

The fact that L'HOMME QUI MENT was filmed in Czechoslovakia about the same time that the Soviet Union ordered tanks and troops into the streets to crush a local uprising was coincidental, but not without ironic import. It opens with heavily armed Nazi troops pursuing resistance leader Boris Varissa (Jean-Louis Trintignant) through a heavily wooded area. Hand grenades and machine gun fire explode and crackle behind the fugitive as the hand held camera follows him deeper into the forest. As the credit sequence ends Boris is cut down by a burst of machine gun fire and falls dead as Alain Robbe-Grillet's writer-director credit appears.

But... Boris is not dead. He rises and enters the small village where the return of his colleague Jean Robin, a legendary Resistance hero, is the main topic of conversation at the local pub. Nearby is the Castle where Robin's wife and sister also await his return. But he can't return because... . Let's just say that many accounts of the fate of Jean Robin will be offered throughout the rest of the film, all of them equally unreliable and potentially fascinating. This takes us one step farther than Kurosawa's RASHOMON, it's not that there are conflicting depictions of events but that the possibility of any external reality whatsoever is brought into question. There is only, in the end, what the characters say, which is sometimes contradicted by what is staged for the camera. Boris may be a coward, a traitor, a liar, but he is relentlessly pursued by Jean Robin, the "hero", and in the final shots, the camera, which is once again filming the pursuit through the forest, becomes a predatory presence, it may be Jean Robin, or it may be the representation of our own expectations.


World War II is over, it has receded into history, into myth. There is only the haunted perceptions of its participants, traitors and heroes, but as in OEDIPUS REX, the detective is also the criminal. Igor Luther's camera sprints past the naked trees toward the terrified Boris, the musique concrete is disturbing, offering no marches or lyrical interlude. Only the ongoing myth, a cycle repeated in each subsequent era in each various culture, remains.

As in other Robbe-Grillet films shattering glass is used as an audio-video segue within and between scenes and you may feel like smashing something after getting up from watching around 90 minutes of endless equivocation. We've all met liars and we all have lied. We go to the movies, at least I used to (I no longer enjoy the contemporary multiplex experience), to get out of ourselves. But L'HOMME QUI MENT replaces that potential window into another world with a sharply focused mirror.

This is a film which constantly speculates on the nature of cinema representation. The Nazi's who occupy the village are always seen as sleeping on guard duty or just missing the boat. The are incompetent fools. Character is reduced to cliche. Boris is a trickster who enjoys boasting how he drove the hay wagon past the checkpoint. We see that staged for the camera, but wonder if it really happened, only to immediately remember that we are only watching a movie and nothing REALLY happened. All events are presented as qualified by the teller's level of reliability, which is zero. This will drive the literal minded viewer absolutely around the bend. It critiques the seemingly universal expectation that a feature film must be a streamlined construct without visible plot holes, have characters and dialogue familiar from other movies, popular novels or our everyday life and that a character must have psychologically sound motivations and is classifiable as "good" or "evil" or somewhere in between.

Movies always have a point of view, the director's, the producer's, the actor's, the product placement rep's, the DP's, the editor's, the composer's, the exhibitor's, the projectionist's. And we bring ourselves to movies. It is that Self which is ruthlessly interrogated by the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet.



6 comments:

mike said...

I've got a copy of this, but haven't actually gotten around to watching it yet. Your notes once again put me in the mood. Thanks for that!

Robert Monell said...

Is it the EVERGREEN print? I'd like to know where you acquired it from. Thanks for the feedback. Not an easy film at all...

mike said...

It's a vaguely poor bootleg DVDR of the Evergreen print, but it's the only copy I've tracked down with English subs... I got it in a trade, not sure where it originally came from.

ecom said...

My copy is the Evergreen print as well. Evergreen Films was an offshoot of Grove Press that published some of Robbe-Grillet's books in the sixties (the subtitles were translated by Richard Howard who also translated R-G's books into English). I've never heard of another copy with or without subtitles.

Robert Monell said...

Yes, mine credits Richard Howard with the Eng translation. It's a strange print because sometimes the subtitles turn from white to black when the scene becomes overexposed. But you can read all the words. It's just that the image is very rough. It looks like found footage...

Robert Monell said...

And I should note that it has been related to the ARG novel DANS LE LABYRINTHE, which I read years ago. It didn't really hold me as the film does.