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.