Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the more accurate but, to me, less seductively euphonious title that’s been gaining currency of late) would certainly seem to stand out at the head of that notorious literary genre known as the “unfilmable novel.” It’s already defeated, in whole or part, two fine artists: Volker Schlöndorff, who made Swann’s Way,an admittedly well-acted but tepid and overly respectful chamber film; and Harold Pinter, whose clever but attenuated Proust Screenplay only made me grateful that funding never came through to realize the project.
Time Regained, adapted by Chilean director Raul Ruiz from the final volume of Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrances of Things Past, is about the texture of memory. Set in the first decades of the 20th century, in the salon society of the Paris élite, the film begins with the aging narrator (a not-so-thinly veiled Marcel Proust, played by lookalike actor Marcello Mazzarella but voiced by Patrice Chereau) dictating his final novel from a sickbed: “Then one day, everything changes.”
That phrase describes the film nicely: nothing is fixed, everything is in flux. In this opening scene the camera glides through the bric-a-brac of his bedroom, which themselves take slow flight in a dance with the camera as the room expands and shrinks wildly from shot to shot. Far from mere cinematic acrobatics, this sets the stage for an exploration of the fabric of memory from a director whose films have traditionally reverberated with the tensions between reality, dreams, and perspective.
Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad. But Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years. Until this year, only two of those films had been released on disc in the U.S.: the 1983 La Belle Captive (from the now defunct Koch Lorber label) and his final feature Gradiva (from Mondo Macabro). Now Kino Lorber, in partnership with the British label Redemption, has announced a slate of six Robbe-Grillet films for release on Blu-ray and DVD. Trans-Europ-Express is one of the first releases from this collection.
A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director’s second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk–a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet–you get the idea)–boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as Robbe-Grillet’s Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director’s own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity.
[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
Children are scolded it’s a “solemn occasion” that they’re travelling to: Tacchella cuts to their grandmother the bride chugging beer at her wedding reception and then to the grandchildren seated behind their own rose-colored soft drinks. Bridegroom Gobert’s pants go down at the peak of the celebration, and “Cousin” Ludovie’s wife Kanne’s skirt goes up to reveal motorcycle-riding underwear as the focal couples’ reunion with their spouses signals the festivity’s end. “Cousine” Marthe’s husband Pascal ends a string of affairs in relief against a background of brown purses, then white pharmaceuticals, then an environmentally complementary family-planning clinic where the rhythm of the philanderer’s new-leaf-turning montage is interrupted and altered to comic effect. Such cutting, color, contrasts and expectation thwartings are the subtext upon which Cousin, Cousine’s more obvious charms of character and situation rest.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Céline and Julie Go Boating just may bring Jacques Rivette from the background to the foreground in the continuing history of French New Wave directors. Rivette is another of the Cahiers du cinéma writers who made his way from critic to director but, at least until now, has remained something of an unknown quantity, more mentioned than seen. Commercial and legal difficulties with his first two films (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958-60, and The Nun,1962) meant that his movies were discussed by European observers long before they were shown (and then only briefly) in this country. His films since then have been extraordinarily long (Spectreruns 13 hours; OutOne, a much shorter assemblage from the same footage, still runs four hours) and that may have a lot to do with the apparent lack of circulation accorded L’Amour fou, a four-hour Rivette which has had a U.S. distributor for some time but scant bookings.