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The Trial (#110 of 6)

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

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

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.

Cannes Film Festival 2012: The Hunt

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Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>The Hunt</em>
Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>The Hunt</em>

Anchored by an impressively modulated, admirably restrained performance from Mads Mikkelsen (best known for his work with Nicolas Winding Refn), The Hunt is otherwise an indecisive, weak-kneed film. The story of a man (Mikkelsen) ostracized and persecuted by his small-town Danish community owing to allegations of child abuse never clicks into place, mostly because director Thomas Vinterberg can’t draw a bead on how to approach his hot-button material. (Truth be told, this kind of thing has been done so often, the material’s really more lukewarm.) Half the time, in scenes where suspicion spreads like a contagion and folks begin to act in increasingly inexplicable ways, Vinterberg seems to think he’s filming Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Other times, The Hunt feels grounded in a specifically Scandinavian mode of realism derived from Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Failing to reconcile these tonally disparate modes, Vinterberg’s film flounders.

From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”

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From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”
From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”

This month’s “From the Short Stack” collection is Durgnat on Film by Raymond Durgnat (1939-2002), the Swiss-born English critic who also wrote Luis Buñuel (1967), Jean Renoir (1975), and Films and Feelings (1967). I first read Durgnat on Film as an undergraduate and still revisit that dog-eared copy. I liked him right off because he was as stimulating as any other theorist on the reading list but much more fun. He described the interplay of form and content with pizzazz. His eye was so sharp and his prose so lucid whatever the subject, he could be counted on to deliver the last word.

Analyzing Orson Welles’s The Trial he wrote, “Using in some sequences an incessantly roaming camera, in others a flurry of quick cuts, Welles makes all space fidget.” Fritz Lang’s American films “...have an American appearance, but are just as ’visual’ as his German. He is a master of so arranging his characters in space that a kind of nameless, fatalistic suspense palpitates between them.” In the work of Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer, “...we feel not that the actor dominates the image, but that the actor is a part of a visual composition—that he has practically been hammered and planed into shape.” Durgnat was also a master of the comic 180. He backloaded academic sentences with quotable one-liners, a neat trick that made the reader more likely to remember the fact preceding the joke. (“Neorealism died, briefly, around 1953, killed partly by audiences’ dislike of its drabness, partly by government dislike for its picture of an Italy where people were poor and it rained all the time.”)