27 August, 2009

Alain Robbe-Grillet's GRADIVA: Mondo Macabro DVD

The late Alain Robbe-Grillet's final masterwork is now available on DVD...

GRADIVA (C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle) 2006 France/Belgium-119m.-1.85:1 anamorphic;
In French with English subtitles
Written and Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Gradiva is Latin for "she who walks" and the walker in Alain Robbe-Grillet's final film (he made ten in a directorial career which began in 1963 with L'IMMORTELLE)transforms walking into an erotic art form. At least when the walker is a beautiful blonde ghost [?] of a woman perhaps dead a century. Or is it a figure in a painting of an executed woman which has come to life to tease art researcher John Locke (James Wilby in a subtle performance with no apologies to the 17th Century empiricist philosopher) into altered states of consciousness. Locke is in Morocco to study the North African period drawings of Eugene Delacroix. The film opens as he proceeds through a series of transparencies of Delacroix's mystery woman, horses, an arched foot. He is startled by the sound of a horse in the courtyard, glancing out his window he glimpses the iconic woman whom he will pursue for the remainder of the film. Sex, mythology, a murder mystery [VERTIGO by way of Euripides], fetishism intertwine immediately, leading to obsession and...death. But not a death which you will see coming.

Loosely based on Wilhelm Jensen's 1903 novella [the subject of Freud's essay Der Wahn und die Träume in W. Jensens Gradiva]the film is a sort of grand summation of Robbe-Grillet's filmography and something of a slap in the face to those who maintain his films are a minor facet of his legacy. One can understand why Jensen's story fascinated Freud and the Surrealists of that generation.

Surely one of the key writers of the second half of the 20th century ARG may also have been one of the most innovative and courageous filmmakers. He never settled down as a director, always pushing the envelope of representation, boundaries of accepted "good taste" and good film making. As he says in the essential 30m interview on the MONDO MACABRO disc, his films defy and deny conventional realism/don't give the audience the comfort of the illusion of realism. That's a pretty gutsy methodology and he paid the price. GRADIVA... had a rough time with French critics and audiences in 2006 and some critics have had a tendency to classify his films as soft core porn with arty airs.

GRADIVA...C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle is a serene contemplation of the aesthetics of picture making, sex and death. That might sound unbearably pretentious... but it's not. At least not here. Robbe-Grillet intercuts images from his 1970 EDEN ET APRES (a film which I had the good luck to view theatrically with the writer-director in attendance), another erotic adventure set in North Africa [Tunis]. It's a startling effect which non-ARG scholars may not get. I found the film entrancing, unpredictable, original and moving. GRADIVA is unlike other ARG films in that it has fairly recognizable human characters who seem three dimensional compared to the rather abstract figures in his earlier films. Wilby and Dany Verissimo, as Locke's ambiguous concubine, have a "reality" that other characters in his films do not. The director makes a point of differentiating "realism" from reality in the interview, which also covers his cinema influences (Antonioni, Bunuel, Godard, Cocteau), Sade, censorship and Feminist criticisms of his continuing obsession with S&M images of bound and tortured females. These figures are often used in both part of an overall design and as reflections of the dynamics of pleasure and pain. But even toward the end of his long life the writer-director does not make excuses for his work. He's still excited and engaged in the challenge of stimulating thought/discussion, which is all one can ask of an artist.

The kinky tableaux depicting the S&M orgies of an international crime cartel may or may not be "real" but they do present an alternate "reality" which takes one out of this world and into a world of intoxicating legend. You may not want to go there. But once you do, it's mind expanding and addictive... in a good way. This is still the same man who wrote the original screenplay for LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD,* the 1961 Alain Resnais film which remains one of the most influential in all "art" cinema. Filmmakers as Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Schrader and, yes, Jess Franco, among many others, have returned to MARIENBAD again and again in their own films.

The MONDO MACABRO DVD couldn't be a better presentation. The 1.85:1 framed print is in excellent shape both in terms of video and audio, with delirious, intense hues which tell so much more than dialogue. Extensive text notes will be of value to those wishing to explore the background and making of the film. The original theatrical trailer is also included.

GRADIVA... may or may not be a masterwork but it is the work of a master image-maker... delirious, haunting, disturbing, transgressive and transforming images.

*MARIENBAD's influence is also apparent in Dario Argento's INFERNO (1980), not only in the plot and characters but in Argento's casting of MARIENBAD's Sacha Pitoeff as the antique dealer. The plot, main characters and ambiance of L'IMMORTELLE are virtually recreated in Franco's PAROXISMUS/VENUS IN FURS.

(C) Robert Monell, 2009


Keith said...

I'll definitely have to check that out. Great post. Have a good weekend.

dfordoom said...

When are we going to see Robbe-Grillet's earlier films on DVD? The only ones I've seen are Trans-Europ Express (in an almost unwatchable print which is a tragedy because it's a superb movie) and La Belle Captive (which is actually available on DVD and it's also a fantastic movie). But most of his best-known movies are completely unobtainable.

Robert Monell said...

When are we going to see Robbe-Grillet's earlier films on DVD?

TEE and EDEN ET APRES came out on Italiann DVD in good editions last year. I think someone uploaded them, also. It would be great to have L'IMMORTELLE and THE MAN WHO LIES, two the ones I find most interesting, on DVD.

dfordoom said...

Do the Italian DVDs have English sub-titles?

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