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The Labyrinthine Worlds of Alain Robbe-Grillet

Jean-Louis Trintignant in Trans-Europ-Express
UCLA Film & Television Archive

Like all his novels, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s films are inventories of life during dreamtime, carefully crafted catalogs of objects and events in which meaning is replaced by repetition, innuendo, codes and contradictions. The real and imaginary become indistinguishable, narrative conventions are shattered along with linearity and causality, and the only time that exists is the running time of the film. Nowhere is this approach more eloquently manifested than in Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic big bang, his revolutionary 1961 collaboration with director Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad — a pitch-perfect title for a film with no past and no future. Words are spewed into a void by elegant characters without names or back stories (the only important character in a Robbe-Grillet film being the viewer) as the camera glides through baroque spaces where frozen figures engage in endless cycles of elaborately inscrutable games. The ruptures in time, space and logic become even more exaggerated in Robbe-Grillet’s first solo outing as a director, 1963’s L’Immortelle, a flawed but fascinating exercise notable for its meticulously composed images and for the way it reveals a neophyte filmmaker struggling to reformulate myths and rituals as banalities. By the time of Trans-Europ-Express (1966), Robbe-Grillet is in full control of his materials, loosening up and layering his film-within-a-film with a playful but explicit eroticism and an abiding affection for pulp and pop-art flourishes. Its star, Jean-Louis Trintignant, turns up again in The Man Who Lies (1968), a dauntingly complex Borges-ian brainteaser about a man presenting himself as both war hero and traitor while running backward through time. And audience expectations are subverted further still in Eden and After (1971), a mesmerizing color experiment that pushes sexual fetishes and stylized violence to the forefront in a maze of Mondrian rectangles. The good news is that Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic output is as uniquely audacious as his writing; the bad news is that his films have been largely ignored in this country and are almost impossible to see. That qualifies UCLA’s five-film Robbe-Grillet retrospective as a must-see event. Despite the auteur’s deserved reputation for barrier-breaking and industrial-strength intellectualism, you may very well find yourself surprised by how enormously entertaining these films can be. (UCLA Film & Television Archive; through Sun., Nov. 16. www.cinema.ucla.edu)


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