Film: Alain Robbe-Grillet Series at YBCA, Dec 4-18
Tonight at 7:30 PM, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts begins its series on the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the postmodern novelist, screenwriter, and director who died in February this year at the age of 85. Tonight’s film is the first one he wrote and directed himself: Trans-Europ Express. In it, an author — played by Robbe-Grillet himself — is passing the time on the Trans-Europ Express by concocting a “sordid melodrama of gangsters, drugs, and bondage,” to quote the YBCA page. Then an actual gangster, who may or may not be be an actual gangster, appears on the train, and the melodrama becomes all mixed up with reality. Fun fact: The film was banned by the British Censors in 1966 because it portrays light bondage! (It turns out that Robbe-Grillet’s wife Catherine, better known as Jeanne de Berg, is something of a BDSM icon.)
Sunday afternoon at 2:00, check out his best-known film: Last Year at Marienbad (trailer), pictured above. When I saw it for the first time, several months ago at the Castro, it pretty much blew my mind, because I didn’t realize it was possible to do something like it, whether in film or any other narrative art form. It takes place at an elite social gathering in a chateau, and begins when a man approaches a woman there and says: “Didn’t we meet last year, at Marienbad? Didn’t you say you would leave your husband, and we would run away together?” She won’t say yes or no, but they continue to talk as though they have made plans; as soon as a second man approaches them — who might be her husband — the conversation breaks up.
That and several other similarly enigmatic conversations are densely repeated and circled back on with changes: they take place in different locations, or different characters speak the same lines, or there are subtle changes to the phrasing, each of which implies a slightly different backstory from what had been implied before. In other words, each sequence selectively undermines the preceding sequences.
No story, as such, ever develops, and you end up remembering the film the way you remember a vivid dream: uncertain about the sequence of events, uncertain about what actually happened, uncertain who the people in it were, or how exactly they related to one another and to you, but entirely certain that the whole thing was imbued with immense significance.
Of course, you might just hate it too. It has that effect on people.
Three more films by Robbe-Grillet — L’immortelle, Eden and After, and The Man Who Lies — are included in the series. Each film is either on a Thursday night at 7:30 or Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM. Advance tickets and further info on the series is available here.