18 February, 2008


The film he could never live down, or up to, in some critic's eyes; Alain Robbe-Grillet was still angry with director Alain Resnais in recent interviews. The critically praised LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD was one of the iconic films of the 1960s; it confounded mainstream critics and audiences at the time, and still does. This famous image will create a sense of deja vu even if you've never seen the film.

He was also a painter and worked images of other painters into both his novels and films; the novel and film LA BELLE CAPTIVE were generated by a series of Rene Magritte canvases...

At work on his most recent film, the much criticized GRADIVA. In a recent interview he struck out at French audiences, critics and his old colleague Alain Resnais..

Rather than write a smug, reductive obit I'll present some impressions upon learning of the death today in France of Alain Robbe-Grillet (from cardiac failure according to reports), who may have been the most important writer of the second half of the 20th century and one of its most radical, innovative filmmakers. Still producing new films and literature into his mid 80's he was restless, angry, intellectually stimulating, artistically courageous and uncompromising.

"In the dimness of the cafe', the manager is arranging the table and chairs, the ashtrays, the siphons of soda water; it is six in the morning."
In the first sentence of his first novel LES GOMMES (1953) the former agronomist calmly, obsessively presents his revolution. Present tense, unadorned description of seemingly banal actions which will define the modern world as a quoditian myth cycle without clear meanings or direction.

"I must return to that delicate girl who is still languishing in her cage, for M, The Vampire, and Doctor Morgan are now returning to the little white room in order to continue the interrogation, after having gone out for a sandwich to the drugstore in the nearby station."
When was the last time you read Sade, or saw a Jean Rollin vampire film? Just two names which come to mind when reading this (writing professors would say run-on) sentence from his 1972 novel PROJECT FOR A REVOLUTION IN NEW YORK.

Given his novels, filmscripts, stories, films, paintings, acting appearances, lectures, essays (his most important text may prove to be the 1964 POUR UN NOUVEAU ROMAN) he was omnipresent in academia and film culture of the 1960s and continued on with ever more difficult novels, films, collaborations with visual artists and several volumes of autobiography.*

One of his films (GLISSEMENTS PROGRESSIFS DU PLAISIR) was once ordered burned in public. One of the books which most influenced him was Michelet's "La Sorciere" and the many images of sadomasochism found in his novels and films caused him to be compared to another French rebel, Sade. His films influenced many other filmmakers including Sam Peckinpah, Jess Franco, Monte Hellman, Dario Argento and Paul Schrader. Novelist-screenwriter Richard Matheson (I AM LEGEND) once said he wrote the script for DE SADE (1969) deliberately in the nonlinear style of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.

His first film L'IMMORTELLE (1963) was filmed at the same time Alain Resnais was shooting Robbe-Grillet's script for MARIENBAD. It was shot under protest by its cinematographer who disagreed with all of Robbe-Grillet's aesthetic choices. I'll be reviewing L'IMMORTELLE and other ARG titles in coming blogs and I'm considering pushing all other planned blog events of the next week or so back to cover his film legacy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today that Robbe-Grillet was the most "rebellious" members of the presitgious and highly exclusive Academie Francaise. That he was.

LA BELLE CAPTIVE was finally released on a welcome, if basic, US DVD presentation last year. Let's hope that his other films follow in the Criterion style editions they deserve.

I feel grateful to have been able to meet him at a 1976 showing of EDEN AND AFTER and SLOW SLIDINGS INTO PLEASURE in New York City. He was a disarmingly humble, gentle and witty individual. A unique figure who will be impossible to replace.

To read my other posts on the works and career of Alain Robbe-Grillet just type his name into the search engine at the top of the blog.

I recommend the excellent chapter on the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet in Pete Tombs' and Cahtal Tohill's essential "Immoral Tales."

Thanks to Kimberly Lindbergs.

*Recommended books and films by Alain Robbe-Grillet:
L'HOMME QUI MENT/THE MAN WHO LIES (1968): this 1968 war film was his last b&w feature and discerning critics consider it one of his best.
TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (1966): a director (Alain Robbe-Grillet) constructs the life and death of a drug smuggler (Jean Louis Trintignant) during a train-ride between Antwerp and Paris.
REFLECTIONS OF THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE: An intricate fantasy about an international crime cartel. One of his most accessible and entertaining novels.
L'IMMORTELLE: a cine-novel.
[You'll have to go gray-market for the films]

(C) Robert Monell, 2008


Jeremy Richey said...

Very nice write up...it is interesting how the posts I have read so far from yourself, Kimberly's and Tim Lucas are so personal...mine that I did this morning is the same way.
I think Robbe-Grillet's work is often unfairly labeled as cold by his critics...I think these personal reactions to his passing show that to be far from the truth...very moving post. I really hope we finally start seeing some quality releases of his films soon...and some reissues of his out of print works.

cinebeats said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Alain Robbe-Grillet and his work Robert! I'm looking forward to your future posts about his films since I've only seen a couple of them myself.

He seems to have been a bit bitter and I don't understand his anger directed at Resnais (I haven't read these interviews but I'm curious about them), but he really lived a long and productive life that should be celebrated.

Robert Monell said...

Jeremy, thanks for your comments and I agree that ARG is often misunderstood as a cold reporter of details, maker of lists and impersonal observer. Actually, his work warmly embraces life in all its mystery and multiplicity. I wish I had the chance to ask him more questions but had the sense of a warm, self deprecating person who found the world amusing and looked upon it in wonder.

Robert Monell said...

Cinebeats, here is part of the Sept. 2007 GUARDIAN interview with ARG in which he discusses his critics, audiences, SPIDERMAN 3 [!], Alain Resnais and Antonioni's THE PASSENGER:please myself and a few others. This is the cinema of auteurs, not of spectators. I make films of the same kind as Antonioni and your Peter Greenaway." I mention to Robbe-Grillet that I recently interviewed Alain Resnais, director of the great 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, for which Robbe-Grillet wrote the famously baffling scenario.

I tell him a joke about the film that Resnais told me. An assassin is arrested by the police for a murder. They know he is guilty. "But I have an alibi," he protests. "I was at the movies when the crime took place." The detective asks, "What did you see?" "Last Year in Marienbad." "Tell me the story," says the detective. The killer can't. Naturally, he is condemned. Robbe-Grillet listens to the anecdote grimly. I realise too late that a joke that trades on the incomprehensibility of his script might not tickle Robbe-Grillet's funny bone. He comments: "Yes, Resnais is a great technician. But no auteur, no matter what you may think." Have you seen his latest film, Private Fears in Public Places? "Good grief, no."

Is his film's hero, John Locke, named after the English philosopher? "No, he's named after a character called John Locke in Antonioni's The Passenger. Antonioni was one of the few geniuses of cinema. The story is about a man [played by Jack Nicholson] who steals the identity of a dead man, hoping that will solve all his problems. Actually, it just makes matters worse, and he gets pursued by the dead man's pursuers."

Use the GREENCINE search to get the entire fascinating article.

ecom said...

"I agree that ARG is often misunderstood as a cold reporter of details, maker of lists and impersonal observer. Actually, his work warmly embraces life in all its mystery and multiplicity. I wish I had the chance to ask him more questions but had the sense of a warm, self deprecating person who found the world amusing and looked upon it in wonder."

He sought to write "objectively" and let the meaning be derived by the reader from the actions (hence the repetitions (very evident in JALOUSIE - which has a double meaning in French) and serial arrangements (EDEN AND AFTER). I forget who but one writer on his works says that Robbe-Grillet tried to avoid anthromorphic language (IN THE LABYRINTH).

MAN WHO LIES is my favorite along with TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS.

Robert Monell said...

Good points, ecom. His b&w films are mathematically symettrical and Roy Armes published charts to illustrate that. ARG was a trained statistician and agronomist. The color films deal more with serial arrangements, as you point out, and are more erotically explicit. I tend to return more to the earlier b&w films. Thanks for the comments.

ASingularMan said...

Thanks for your post. He was a great guy. Above all, he had a real sense of humour which will save his books from oblivion. Unfortunately, his movies are not on DVD. Do anyone know how to get some of them ? Forgive my english...

Robert Monell said...

He did indeed have humor. That element is often overlooked in his novels and films. LA BELLE CAPTIVE was released by on US DVD, but the rest have yet to appear. You can try European Trash Cinema. Just Google the name to find the contact information

ecom said...

With his cine-romans, he certainly had a mastery over the cinematic on paper but for the transition to the screen, he had some underappreciated (by us, not Robbe-Grillet) collaborators whose contributions were akin to Gregg Toland and Bernard Hermann for Orson Welles.

The principle ones, I feel, are Michel Fano and Bob Wade. Fano both composed music for Robbe-Grillet as well as shaping sounds effects into a musical soundscape (Fano wrote a couple Cahiers du Cinema articles on this) which was why his credit on some films was "partition sonore" rather than "musique". Although the montage is evident in Robbe-Grillet's writings, I'm sure Wade contributed more than just the physical act of editing the images together.

I'd like to hear more about these two.

Robert Monell said...

That's a key point and what makes his films so radical and radically different. Sound is well over 50% of the experience, sometimes qualifying and commenting on the image rather than providing mood enhancement or environmental background. Just consider the shattered glass in GLISSEMENTS... sound.