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Alain Robbe-Grillet: 1922-2008?

Alain Robbe-Grillet has passed away. Or  has he? Given the fluid nature of reality in his books and films, the permeability of all times with eternity, the interconnection of every consciousness and fate with one each other and with none in particular, he may just have moved on to another scene or narrative line or another movie. Like the resistance hero played by Jean Louis Trintingnant in his 1968 film “The Man Who Lied,” who gets gunned down by the Nazis  at the beginning of the film but rises from the dead to tell at least two separate and contradictory stories of his life. Or the incubus-like phantom lover of “La Belle Captive (1983),” who comes and goes and might be just a figment of the imagination of the film’s secret agent protagonist. “I'll find you if I need to,” she tells him unhelpfully. “Maybe tonight. Maybe never. Or maybe yesterday. Time doesn't exist for me.”

Assuming, however, that time does exist for the rest of us, and that for Robbe-Grillet, at least, it has run out, what will he be remembered for? Perhaps his revolutionary literary efforts, as announced in his manifesto “For a New Novel" (1963), in which he declared that literature that indulged in the illusion of psycholgical depth and non-literal meaning was obsolete, that instead fiction could only engage with surfaces described and redescribed with obsessive scrupulousness and from every angle. This theory was embodied in novels such as “The Erasers”(1953)  and “Jealousy” (1957) which included pages of descriptions detailing tomato seeds and banana plants (he was, after all, originally an agronomist).

So maybe the New Novel itself is a little passé. How about the New Wave? It only made sense that an artist preoccupied with surfaces might flourish in a medium that was utterly two dimensional and illusory. “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961; playing at Brattle Theatre February 29 to March 6), which he wrote and Alain Resnais directed, became, especially for those who never saw it, a synonym for all that was enigmatic, pretentious and opaque in foreign cinema.

It’s also pretty funny, and absurdist humor might be the key to that and Robbe-Grillet’s subsequent films. “La Belle Captive,” in particular, draws on the unnerving hilarity of surrealists such as Rene Magritte, painter of the nightmarish canvas the movie is named after. It also is visually stunning, diabolically cryptic and filled with beautiful naked people.

He’d make only two other films in the 25 years after “La Belle Captive.”  I saw “The Blue Villa” (1995) at a film festival somewhere and I don’t remember much about it except for flashes of absurd humor, diabolical crypticness and naked people (jet lag, I suppose). “Gradiva” (2006) never made it to America. It’s another tale of an elusive, perhaps imaginary, definitely unattainable and frequently naked (and whipped and tied up ) beauty, and the French were frankly getting tired of it. You can get a sense of the film and the octogenarian filmmaker in this interview done in the “Guardian” after the film opened in Britain. As you might imagine, Robbe-Grillet is quite a handful -- enigmatic, pretentious, opaque, with a weak bladder and mad as a hatter (sample quotes: “Similarly, lots of my books feature 13-year-old girls getting fucked. That doesn't mean I have done so… But if you are asking me if I have chained a slave to a bed in a room in Marrakech, I would say your question is ridiculous." And: "I have to pee.")

So, now he is gone. Or perhaps not. Some of his antic spirit lives on in directors such as P.T. and Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Spike Jonze, Richard Kelly and others. Like Marienbad, we haven’t seen the last of him yet.



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