Women in Chains: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure

Robbe-Grillet’s films are as intricate and enigmatic as you might expect from the man who scripted Last Year at Marienbad.

Photo: Kino Lorber

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s films are as intricate and enigmatic as you might expect from the man who scripted the seminal French New Wave puzzle-picture Last Year at Marienbad. They’re also slyly humorous, intellectually playful, and intensely and perversely erotic. This last element was present in the Alain Resnais film in a more diffuse fashion: discernible in the fetishistic attention lavished on Delphine Seyrig’s flamboyant costumes and the chateau’s rococo décor, and, more to the point, in an act of (at least hypothetical) rape and murder whose lack of depiction within the film itself formed the structural absence at the center of Robbe-Grillet’s labyrinthine narrative. In the films he both wrote and directed, this unruly and often sadistic eroticism takes center stage, even if it’s never entirely uncomplicated by the filmmaker’s love of ontological ambiguity and narrative uncertainty.

Trans-Europ-Express opens with a film director (Robbe-Grillet), his producer (Paul Louyet), and script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) boarding the titular high-speed train headed for Antwerp. While on board, they brainstorm the director’s latest opus, which they immediately decide to set on board a train. Taking their cue from a magazine news headline, they concoct a “trench-coat tale” (not unlike the Lemmy Caution stories Godard pilfered for Alphaville) about a drug mule, Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), en route to Belgium on a trial run for his new employers. As their scenario unspools like the portable reel-to-reel tape it’s being recorded on, we will return to this compartment for a series of narrative tweaks and emendations. Lest all this seem too straightforward, Trintignant also plays a fictionalized version of himself (possibly), even though the director claims not to recognize him when attempts to share their compartment.

Uncertainties of this sort are endemic to Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling; a hollowed-out book used to hide a gun might best serve as the film’s representative symbol. Further confounding the twin registers of the story and its tellers is Elias’s perverse fantasy life, obsessively focused on some light BDSM with ropes and chains, and acted out with the cooperation of a gorgeous woman named Eva (Marie-France Pisier), who’s either an exceptionally agreeable streetwalker, or just maybe a double agent working both sides of the law. Like most of Robbe-Grillet’s works, both novel and film, Trans-Europ-Express proceeds by way of frequent repetitions, uncanny doppelgangers, and a kind of punning word association. To wit: The police finally corner Elias at a joint called the Cabaret Eve where he’s enjoying a striptease routine advertised as the “Slave Girl,” which features a nude woman being enwrapped in chains.

True to form, the film concludes with a double ending, two successive jolts whose ostensible purpose is to reinforce in the minds of viewers that what they’ve just been watching was never anything more than a fiction. “Characters” who have been killed off show up again unscathed to greet each other at journey’s end. And Robbe-Grillet gets to deliver the taunting punchline: “The trouble with true stories is that they’re so boring.” Such, however, cannot be said of Trans-Europ-Express, which is arguably one of Robbe-Grillet’s most enjoyable (not to mention accessible) endeavors.

Successive Slidings of Pleasure is a bird of a different feather: texturally dense, at times elliptical to the point of inscrutability, yet ravishing in its painterly use of color and framing, and utterly subversive not only in its deployment of female nudity and sadomasochistic content, but in the way it embodies this radicalism in the person of its nameless protagonist (Anicée Alvina). (Typically credited as “The Prisoner,” she’s given the allusively intriguing name of Alice in the published script.) Robbe-Grillet’s narratives have always participated to some degree in generic tropes and iconography. Just as Trans-Europ-Express tinkers with the roman policier and film noir, Successive Slidings invokes pulp novels and various horror subgenres including vampire films and nunsploitation. Other factors link these films: both center around the commission of a sexual murder and incorporate rope and chain bondage. Trintignant turns up here, sporting a jaunty little mustache, as the police inspector investigating the death of the prisoner’s housemate, Nora (Olga Georges-Picot).

Broadly speaking, we can say that Successive Slidings is “about” a woman who uses whatever means are at her disposal (whether her body or her way with words) to confound the forces of patriarchal authority in the person of the policeman who arrests her, the judge (Michael Lonsdale) who tries her case, and the priest (Jean Martin) who runs the strange “religious prison” where she’s subsequently incarcerated. The way it goes about what it’s about, however, is far from straightforward. Shuttling between past and present, fact and fantasy, this is a far more elusive and allusive film than Trans-Europ-Express.

Apart from evoking imagery from his own works, Robbe-Grillet throws in references to the art of Yves Klein, the writings of Jules Michelet (whose history book Satanism and Witchcraft supplied many of the film’s underlying themes), and Georges Bataille (thanks to whom you may never feel the same about cracking open an egg), and gives the nod to the films of other auteur filmmakers. At times, Successive Slidings recalls a Jean Rollin erotic horror, and at others it suggests a vignette from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty. But Robbe-Grillet saves his best intertextual gag for a key scene: In a tableau meant to parody a similar scene in Orson Welles’s The Trial, the judge sits on a big brass bed surrounded by law books and dictionaries, repeating the Prisoner’s testimony word for word, stopping to look each one up and try it out in various intonations, as though a change in emphasis might rectify and realign the “proper” meaning of her evidence.

Like many Robbe-Grillet stories, the structure of Successive Slidings describes a circle. Just after the prisoner “reenacts” and thus recommits a crime of passion with her lawyer (also played by Georges-Picot), the police inspector arrives on the scene to proclaim her innocent of the initial crime. Noticing the corpse, he matter-of-factly declares, “Now we have to start all over again.” Certainly, Robbe-Grillet’s films invite multiple viewings. You can even say they require them. But even if their meaning remains slippery, always threatening to slide the rug out from under viewers, the pleasure to be derived from renegotiating their kaleidoscopic structures and confrontational imagery seems beyond dispute.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure are now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins's writing has appeared in Film Journal International and Video Watchdog. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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