A new subgenre opened up in the shadowy margins between art cinema and sexploitation in the new cinematic permissiveness of the seventies. In the U.S., it was mostly seen in grindhouse films from directors aspiring for something more meaningful (see Joe Sarno’s Sin in the Suburbs, 1964) or drive-in titillations from hungry young filmmakers with room to slip something personal between the sex scenes (like Roger Corman‘s “Student Nurse” films). The Europeans, however, who were traditionally less coy about sex, worked sexuality into everything from social commentary (I Am Curious Yellow) to sophisticated psychological cinema (The Lickerish Quartet) to a whole subgenre of horror sometimes known as Eurotica. While most were crude, clumsy films that dropped sex and nudity into new takes on familiar stories, the best married the surreal beauty of French fantasy seen in the le cinema fantastique of Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast and the weird poetry of Franju‘s Eyes Without a Face with the lurid style and sexuality of the gothic horrors of Hammer Films. If the tradition of French fantasy is about dreams and nightmares breaking through the fabric of reality, the seventies added desire and sex to the equation and brought elegance and class to exploitation cinema.
Two films by novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet make their American home video debut this week. 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, Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years and Trans-Europ-Express (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD), a lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1966, was his most popular success and most audience-friendly production.
Three filmmakers (one of them played by Robbe-Grillet himself) board a train and begin working out the story for a film about drug trafficking. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (as 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 on the run can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as his Breathless, a pulp story refracted with his own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity. It’s a film that plays out in parallel, an illustration of the story being spun on the train, and Robbe-Grillet plays with the gimmick as scenes are constantly revised and rewritten by the trio, which sends the spy movie rewinding and twisting back on itself. But the director doesn’t make the equation so literal; multiple versions seem to spin out of the revisions and the fiction crosses over into the “real” world of the filmmakers. Call it quantum storytelling. Trintignant is at once Jean-Louis the private citizen (a man with a furtive fascination with pornography), Elias the character (who likes a little bondage in his prostitutes), and Trintignant the actor playing the character Elias, and the story is both a fictional construct and a “real” event, perhaps brought to life by the storytelling itself. Dead characters come back to life and the entire seems poised to begin again once the filmmakers disembark. Just like heading back into the pleasures of cinema stories and their mix of contrived twists and visual spectacle.
The 1974 erotic thriller Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Kino / Redemption, Blu-ray, DVD) stirs murder and sadomasochism in a kinky mix of sexploitation and art cinema.