A look back at the forward-thinking films of Alain Robbe-Grillet
Commenting on the relationship between his identity as a filmmaker and his identity as a novelist, the late Alain Robbe-Grillet told the New York Times, "We are friends, but never collaborators." Like many of Robbe-Grillet's pronouncements concerning his own work, the statement is pithy and guarded, and cannot be taken entirely at face value.
Robbe-Grillet is primarily known as one of the chief proponents and practitioners of the nouveau roman ("new novel"), which sought to extricate literature from its formal, stylistic, and historical precedents. But he was also a prolific filmmaker, and film frequently creeps into the discussions in his essay collection, For a New Novel (1963), as both a frame of reference and as a kind of practical model. Viewers will get a chance to decide for themselves how in cahoots Robbe-Grillet the filmmaker was with Robbe-Grillet the novelist during "Enigmas and Eternity: The Films of Alain Robbe-Grillet," a series curated by Joel Shepard of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts which includes several films directed by Robbe-Grillet that have long been unavailable in the United States.
Ironically, Robbe-Grillet's first foray into film was his much-lauded collaboration with director Alain Resnais, as the screenwriter for his landmark 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad (which is part of the series). Marienbad received plenty of acclaim upon its release, netting a Golden Lion in Venice and an Oscar nomination for Robbe-Grillet's screenplay. It also generated nearly as much controversy. Claiming to have sat through the entire thing let alone, that one "got it" became a kind of shibboleth for the '60s intelligentsia.
Two years later, Robbe-Grillet would step behind the camera to direct his first film, L'Immortale, in which Marienbad's influence is still fresh. Like Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet's directorial debut is a gorgeous, obtuse math proof that doesn't necessarily prove anything. Its characters are merely new variables being plugged into a familiar equation a man ("N") tries to track down an enigmatic woman ("L") and convince her of their previous meeting against an exotic backdrop that is designed to shuffle them through time and space. The palaces of Nymphenburg and Schleissheim have been swapped out for the souks and mosques of Istanbul. As the femme fatale, Françoise Brion in Nina Ricci replaces Delphine Seyrig in Chanel, doing her best catalog poses as she insists to her pursuer that the ancient capital around them is, "not a real city, but a musical set for a romantic comedy."
L'Immortale is in some ways Robbe-Grillet's screen test. Cribbing a few moves from Resnais while trying out a few new tricks, Robbe-Grillet seems to be playing around with, as he describes in a 1956 essay in For A New Novel, the cinematic image's ability to "suddenly (and unintentionally)" restore the reality of "gestures, objects, movements, and outlines." When watching any film, our field of vision is always bounded by the camera's frame. But Robbe-Grillet exploits this technological feature, forcing us to focus on the objects and people on screen to the extent that what they signify becomes secondary to their presence.
This makes for lots of shots of empty chairs (Robbe-Grillet has a thing for empty chairs), frozen crowds out of Marienbad's manicured gardens, and several "impossible" continuous pans in which the same people keep remarkably reappear in front of the slowly sweeping camera. Despite however many times Brion asserts that "everything is fake," Istanbul is the most obstinately present thing about L'Immortale. The Turkish merchants, maids, souvenir hawkers, and child guides who appear on the sidelines are largely oblivious to the inchoate memories and stifled desires of the film's European ciphers. In a possible proto-swipe at Orientalism, Robbe-Grillet seems to be saying that Istanbul itself that survivor of multiple Crusades, invasions, and reconstructions will continue to endure, outliving the Istanbul of European fantasy.
True to the spirit of Robbe-Grillet, I can only tentatively state to what extent L'Immortale is representative of the rest of his filmography (as of press time, only one other film, 1966's surprisingly funny meta-noir Tran-Europe Express, was screened). No doubt, he'd be self-conscious about the air of canonicity necessarily implied by a retrospective. "The writer must proudly consent to bear his own date," he writes in one essay, "knowing that there are no masterpieces in eternity, but only works in history." Undoubtedly, there are times when Robbe-Grillet's work shows its age Marienbad in particular has become fodder for countless perfume commercials and parodies of pretentious art cinema. Robbe-Grillet also recognized that prescience could be a double-edged sword. As if writing a self-fulfilling prophecy, he observes,"[Novels] survive only to the degree that they have left the past behind them and heralded the future." This idea equally applies to his films.
ENIGMAS AND ETERNITY: THE FILMS OF ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET
Through Dec. 18
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF