Futures & Pasts: Trans-Europ-Express
Film criticism online, like any sort of cultural discourse online, now marches to the beat of a perpetual present. The dominant business model demands that controversies—the more individual takes the better—must always be brewing, that young filmmakers must always be emerging, and that world cinema hotspots must be bubbling up like the Ring of Fire. And so perhaps they are! But here in this shady grotto, away from the hullabaloo, we will be dealing exclusively in events that have already happened.
Once a week, I will use this space to address a new DVD release or arrival at a streaming site, or a single film from a forthcoming or underway repertory series. (The last are likely to stay New York City-area exclusive, but who knows—I may get ambitious.) Like all previous such weekly columns that I’ve undertaken, the name of this one—because I am almost completely barren of imagination—is cribbed from the songbook of The Fall. I chose it because it sounds cool. I hope that it also says something about the subject matter at hand: Namely, that the future of “film”—already well on its way to becoming a quaint, convenient metonym like “record” or “Hollywood”—is inextricably linked to its past.
I won’t be celebrating arbitrary release date anniversaries here—5th or 10th or 25th and so on ad infinitum—because that strikes me as a rather obvious ploy to scrape up coal to keep the content fires burning. I will try also to save Forgotten Masterpiece hyperbole for deserving occasions, if at all. The fact is that most old movies aren’t Forgotten Masterpieces, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t have pleasures to give, that we can’t learn from their flaws and accomplishments, or that they don’t deserve to be talked about and written about.
And so, in the interest of hopelessly muddling things right from the get-go, we will begin with the work of a writer-cum-filmmaker who insisted on a present unencumbered with precedent, Alain Robbe-Grillet.
“Movies go along like trains in the night” says the director character in François Truffaut’s movie-about-moviemaking Day for Night, played, of course, by Truffaut himself. “Like the best cinema, S & M is about mise-en-scène,” wrote the late critic Elliott Stein, who knew quite a bit about both. Perhaps then Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express, dealing expressly as it does with both trains and S & M, has a shot at being the most movie-movie of all time.
Robbe-Grillet, who died in 2008, is best known among movie-movie cinephiles for having written the screenplay to Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet had already achieved literary fame in France at the time of this collaboration, scoring his first great success with 1955’s Le Voyeur. Thereafter he was recognized as one of the premier theorists and practitioners of the nouveau roman (New Novel), along with the likes of Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, and Marguerite Duras, later a formidable filmmaker in her own right, who wrote the screenplay for Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima mon amour.
The New Novelists saw themselves as inheritors of the modernist tradition in literature, and were concerned with making the basic materials of the novel the subjects of the novel, in much the same way that the Abstract Expressionists, say, were concerned with making paint and canvas the subject of painting. Chief among the tenets of Robbe-Grillet’s literary theory was an abandonment of humanizing language as applied to objects, leveling the surface of prose to provide an equal and indifferent assignation of weight or relevance between subjects and objects, all towards effacing the presence of the author as completely as possible.
Robbe-Grillet’s vision of the New Novel’s mission was nothing less than the creation of a new man, and so it was no great surprise that his ambitions would lead him to a more prominent staging ground for his theories, the cinema. He directed ten feature films beginning with 1963’s L’immortelle, the last in 2006. The nearest thing to a popular success among them was 1967’s Trans-Europ-Express, which was released on DVD last Tuesday by Kino Lorber and Redemption, alongside Robbe-Grillet’s 1974 Successive Slidings of Pleasure. (Kino/ Redemption have also announced plans to release four more Robbe-Grillet films later this year: L’immortelle, 1968’s The Man Who Lies, 1970’s Eden and After, and Eden’s “alternate cut,” 1971’s N. Throws the Dice. All six films have never been released in the United States.)
Trans-Europ-Express opens with a dark, tousled, mustachioed man walking through Paris’s Gare du Nord train station. Coming to a newsstand, the man flips through a pin-up girlie magazine called Europ, then hastens to board a train. (Here I recalled Godard’s dismissive description of Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which he called “a nice, vulgar read for a train journey.”) Once aboard, the mustachioed man joins two others in a compartment, a balding middle-aged man and a small, sharp-featured woman flipping through an issue of ELLE. “We should set a film on a train like this,” says the bald man, “We could call it Trans-Europ-Express.”
The bald man, who suggests that they write “Something exciting, with fights, violence, rape, you know,” is Paul Louyet, a figure with a few producer credits to his name. The mustachioed man—identified as “Jean”—is none other than Robbe-Grillet, and the script girl, who produces a tape recorder to capture their improvised narrative, is the author’s real wife, Catherine. The nice, vulgar story which the three cook up concerns a drug trafficker whom they eventually name Elias, and as Elias’s inventors describe his story, we see it played out. (A confounding variation on this formula appears in Duras’s 1977 Le camion, in which scenes of Duras reciting the plot of a proposed film about a truck driver to her lead actor, played by Gerard Depardieu, are intercut with scenes of a truck lugubriously moving along a country highway, teasing at but never delivering the promised segue into the narrative being described.)
Elias is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, in the first of an eventual four performances for Robbe-Grillet. He enters the Gare du Nord, visits the same newsstand that Jean had, and flips through the same girlie magazine, looking at the same models—though Elias has a fondness for the rough stuff, and so the girls he sees are restrained with chains. Meeting a pinch-faced man whom Jean had passed earlier, Elias drops the password “Father Petitjean,” picks up his contraband, and boards an Antwerp-bound train.
The title says Express, but the film makes local stops. While we’re principally with Elias from here, regular interruptions return us to the three in their train compartment. (Elias even walks in on them briefly. “It’s Trintignant,” the script-girl says after he leaves. “What about using him for your film?” says the bald man.) They float ideas for what should happen next, and we see Trintignant/Elias act those ideas out. Sometimes they’re discarded, sometimes accepted and built on. The script girl is the only one of the group who takes care to maintain the narrative’s structural integrity, and her voiced questions, aided by indisputable playback, force the others to hastily backpedal, plugging up holes in the plot, which is reiterated more than once. In an early “recap,” we briefly cut to Jean/Robbe-Grillet filming back in the Gare du Nord, seen walking alongside the tracking camera. Later, laying low in the flat of a young friend, Elias himself takes on the role of storyteller, narrating the events thus far in third person.
What is Robbe-Grillet up to? Let’s turn to Gore Vidal, who critically quotes Robbe-Grillet’s comments on Last Year at Marienbad in his1967 essay French Letters: Theories of the New Novel: “‘The only important ‘character’ is the spectator. In his mind unfolds the whole story which is precisely imagined by him.’ The verb ‘imagine’ is of course incorrect, while the adverb means nothing. The spectator is not imagining the film; he is watching a creation which was made in a precise historic past by a writer, a director, actors, cameramen, etc. Yet to have the spectator or reader involve himself directly in the act of creation continues to be Robbe-Grillet’s goal.”
This is certainly the goal of Trans-Europ-Express, which plays the creative process as farce, emphasizing the inattentive, arbitrary process by which its scenario is midwifed into existence. Everything is pulp fiction: Even the film’s expressly invented characters, with their talk of the nonexistent “Father Petitjean,” have invented their own fiction to enact. In Antwerp to get his first trafficking assignment, Elias finds himself conducting endless variations of that first clandestine meeting at the Gare du Nord: More furtive contacts with strangers, more whispered “Petitjeans,” more cryptic instructions, all amounting to an elaborate game that sends him scrambling all over the city. Elias, being tested for his reliability as a drug mule, is made to perform a number of dry-run errands which begin to try his patience. Subjected to a mock ambush in a scrapyard for discarded boxcars, Elias finally lashes out at his employer. The subtitle reads “Why all these games?”, while the actual line is “Pourquoi tout cette mise-en-scene?”
Robbe-Grillet filmed on location in Paris and, mostly, Antwerp—his producer, Samy Halfon, who’d made his reputation with Hiroshima mon amour, had arranged for a co-production with Du ministère belge de l’Education nationale et de la culture. (This arrangement came to be a matter of some controversy given the nature of the movie that Robbe-Grillet produced.) The film was shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Willy Kurant, whose contemporary works included Godard’s Masculin Féminin, Varda’s Les creatures and, shortly afterwards, the expatriate American Hubert Cornfield’s underseen, glumly atmospheric The Night of the Following Day. Kurant captured an underpopulated, grayly mizzling Antwerp in which postcard splendors exist cheek-and-jowl with industrial drabness, cathedrals and public statuary alongside barrooms, railyards, drawbridges, docks, and rain-lashed quays. These images are fitted to a soundtrack that veers, often quite abruptly, between Verdi’s La Traviata (sung in Russian!) and the musique concrete of ambient construction sounds.
There is some sightseeing worth doing here at least, for available beauties display themselves in seemingly every one of the city’s vitrines. Elias is picked up on the street by a woman named Eva (Celine and Julie Go Boating’s Marie-France Pisier), and they strike up an affair, based on his particular peccadillos—he is interested, he tells her, in “Rape. Only rape,” and when she proves pliable, he brings chains and ropes on his next visit.
Robbe-Grillet has a way of bringing objects like those chains to the fore of scenes, giving them an importance not less than that of the actors. These “co-stars” include: Elias’s pea-shooter pistol, a beacon-like white handkerchief, tightly-packed paper bundles, a poster of Sean Connery in From Russia with Love, and a book by Sacha Guitry, a polymath of a previous era, which is prominently displayed at the Gare du Nord newsstand. The last is listed among the “evocative, improbable objects… that one neither wants nor expects to lead anywhere” in the film, catalogued by Renata Adler in her May 1968 review for The New York Times. The most alluring artifact of all, though, is the hollowed-out book in which Elias finds that little pistol hidden. Its jacket depicts the classic potboiler image of a scantily-clad woman tied to the tracks of a train. The text within is actually that of Winston Graham’s Marnie, though the cover gives the title as Transes and identifies the author as one “R. Jonestone”—one of the names given to the protagonist of Robbe-Grillet’s 1965 novel La Maison de rendez-vous. According to Robbe-Grillet, Hitchcock’s picture from Graham’s novel was “a particularly bad film, encumbered with pop psychology”—traditional psychological analysis was one of the New Novelists’ big no-nos, while whatever traditional elements of narrative that couldn’t be discarded might at least be undermined. “I believe that stereotypes are a raw material that one cannot avoid,” Robbe-Grillet told Anthony Fragola in the same interview, “only one must manipulate them in such a way as not to be a victim of them.”
A sort of liberation through subservience, then. The appeal of this is obvious, for Elias’s sadistic predilections mirror those of his creator—Robbe-Grillet, that is, if not Jean, a distinction that the author takes some pains to make. (The February, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair contains a profile of Catherine, Robbe-Grillet’s now-83-year-old widow describing her as “France’s most famous dominatrix.”) Elias continues to meet with Eva for their bondage sessions until, discovering that she has double-crossed him with the police, he ties her up with the purpose of dispatching her, as on the cover of Transes. Shamelessly theatrical throughout the film, Trintignant follows the murder with one of his most elaborate gestures, splaying his fingers over his broad mouth, then using his raincoat to dab the sweat from his temple.
Elias will finally be ensnared by his fondness for chains, lured to an S & M-themed nightclub floorshow that’s actually a police dragnet. A stereotype to the last, Elias is led to his death outside the theater, just like Dillinger, throwing up one arm and arching his back to strike a Tragic Gangster pirouette as the bullet hits. Robbe-Grillet is “manipulating” the crime film formula here by, among other things, reducing it to a cartoon, as when he earlier shows us Elias with an egregiously fake “spy” beard wielding a bomb with a lit fuse, or when a frame from the film reappears as a panel in a comic book that Elias reads. This belaboring of crime movie stereotypes presumably echoes the use of exotic tropes in what of Roy Armes, in his The Films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, calls the “cliché Orient of L’Immortelle.”
Spread across several Tables of the sort that one might expect to find in a math textbook, Armes’s book contains a detailed analysis of Trans-Europ-Express’s “Structure and Symmetry,” illustrating the perfect counterbalancing of the film’s scenes. Symmetry was a quality that Robbe-Grillet strove for in his cinematic structure as in his literature—once the authorial personality has been eliminated, the impersonal formula steps in as a substitute. Such schematic rigor hasn’t become any more commonplace today, though self-parodic and self-aware treatment of genre materials—which of course neither began nor ended with the author/ theorist/ filmmaker—is almost de rigeur. Re-viewing Trans-Europ-Express, though, I saw little reason to alter my initial judgment that, of this generation’s French novelists-cum-filmmakers, Duras had etched herself onto film far more sharply than Robbe-Grillet—but the opportunity to flesh out the comparison is still a boon.
Trans-Europ-Express is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Redemption/Kino Classics.