Sunday, 14 June 2020

Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

Trans-Europ-Express was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s second feature film as director, following L’Immortelle, although he was already famous in the film world as the screenwriter of Last Year at Marienbad. Trans-Europ-Express was released in 1966 and since it’s a Robbe-Grillet film you can be assured that it will be playing games with reality and narrative and with our perceptions and our expectations of both. While it may seem like an art film, and indeed it is an art film, it’s also very playful and tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps surprisingly for such an intellectually ambitious film it’s a lot of fun and it was a major box-office hit.

Three people have boarded the Trans-Europ-Express in Brussels. They are movie people (a producer, a screenwriter-director and a script girl)  and they start working on ideas for their next project. It will be a film called Trans-Europ-Express. It will be a thriller and will of course it will be set on the train. When they notice famous movie star Jean-Louis Trintignant on the train they decide that he will play the lead rôle, of the drug smuggler Elias. Right away we’re put in a position where reality and make-believe intersect. Is it actor Jean-Louis Trintignant we’re seeing on the train or Elias the drug-runner?

Of the three movie people the producer is played by one of the actual producers of the movie, the screenwriter-director is played by Alain Robbe-Grillet himself and the script girl by his wife Catherine Robbe-Grillet. So this is a movie by Alain Robbe-Grillet called Trans-Europ-Express about a writer-director played by Alain Robbe-Grillet who is planning a movie called Trans-Europ-Express. Yes, it’s all very postmodern.

We watch as the story being developed by the three film people unfolds. At times they decide that a particular scene doesn’t work so the scene we’ve just watched is in fact a discarded scene. Scenes also get revised. The story changes as we watch it.

That’s an interesting idea it itself but perhaps not entirely original. Fortunately however Robbe-Grillet adds some further touches and some further levels of unreality and artifice and it becomes much more unclear what we’re really seeing. Much more unclear, but more and more interesting. There are a number of games being played and there’s no certainty who’s doing the playing and who’s being played.

Elias has to buy an empty suitcase and then exchange it for another, containing the drugs. But it doesn't contain the drugs. The gang he is working for is playing games as well, testing him. He is provided with a gun but told he cannot use it. He is given a series of cryptic instructions which have him running all over the city. Various suitcases appear and disappear. Mysterious passwords are exchanged.

One suitcase contains his personal belongings, the things he ways takes with him when he travels. Things like a toothbrush, a razor, his pyjamas and of course a rope and a chain. Elias always carries a rope and a chain with him when he travels. Because you never know when you’re going to meet a girl and if you do you’ll need the rope and the chain.

Elias this he’s being followed but the men tailing him could be from the gang or from a rival gang or from the police.

He meets a beautiful young whore named Eva (played by Marie-France Pisier). She invites him back to her place. He tells her he’s not interested in sex, he’s only interested in rape. She assures him that will be no problem, but it will cost extra. It’s lucky he brought that rope and chain with him.

He really doesn’t know whether any of the people he meets can be trusted or for whom they’re working The viewer also doesn’t know that. And of course the three film people creating the story don’t know either, since they’re writing the story as they go. A character might be a gang member but they might later decide he’s actually a policeman.

The acting isn’t quite conventional and it’s not supposed to be. The performances are either deliberately theatrical or rather flat or they’re exaggerated because after all the writer hasn’t decided on the characters’ personalities yet. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays his part like a puppet, which of course is what he is. So when judging the performances you have to keep this in mind - they’re giving the performances that Robbe-Grillet wanted. Jean-Louis Trintignant is playing Jean-Louis Trintignant playing Elias in a script that is only partially written.

Marie-France Pisier as Eva handles this well. Playing kinky sex games with Elias she is an actress playing the part of an actress playing the part of a prostitute and of course a successful prostitute has to be an actress anyway. She seems amused and seems to be enjoying herself although at moments there’s a flash of fear in her eyes, but naturally in such a situation a whore would want to seem a little bit frightened to please her client.

She assures Elias that she’s not really a whore but at the same time she makes it quite clear to him that that is what she is. She’s a good prostitute and she knows that some clients want the girl to be a whore and some want her to be a nice girl. She’s happy to act either part. The customer is always right. It’s obvious that having one of the two lead characters be an actor playing a part and having the other be a prostitute who can be whatever you want her to be was a carefully considered choice on Robbe-Grillet’s part.

It’s obvious that the film that the three film people are planning is not going to be an art film. It’s going to be a potboiler. It’s intended to be very much in the style of the Lemmy Caution potboilers (such as Poison Ivy) that were so popular in Europe in the 50s and early 60s. In fact I suspect that the audience would immediately say to themselves that this is just like a Lemmy Caution movie and that that is probably what Robbe-Grillet would expect them to think. Robbe-Grillet might be playing complex intellectual games with his viewers but in this film he seems to be having a lot of fun as well, and he seems to want the audience to have fun as well.

The Trans-Europ-Express itself is a vital part of the movie (which was shot in part on the actual train). It’s a wonderful trains with its huge glass windows. Robbe-Grillet claims that his original inspiration for the movie came from the train and from seeing the whores displaying themselves in shop windows in Hamburg (as they do, or at least did, in a number of European cities). Whores in shop windows feature in the film. Is one of the whores Eva? Are they all Eva? She claims that she doesn’t do the shop window thing, but like everything else in the movie we can’t be sure.

Like most of Robbe-Grillet’s movies it contains a generous helping of kinkiness. There is some nudity and there’s some bondage, both of which probably helped it a good deal at the box office (and managed to get it banned in the UK). The scene of the nude dancer on the revolving stage (shot at the legendary Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris) is particularly striking and unsettling, and by 1966 standards it has to be said that she reveals an extraordinary amount of naked flesh. S&M elements are found in all of Robbe-Grillet’s films and reflect his own tastes and that of his wife (Catherine Robbe-Grillet was the author of one of the most famous of all S&M novels). It’s something that made his films controversial but in this case it works, adding an extra touch of strangeness and surrealism. And the sexual fetishism reflects the way the movie fetishes the technique of film itself. It also adds a hint of voyeurism, appropriate in a movie about the voyeurist nature of movies. This is a movie in which all of Robbe-Grillet’s obsessions come together with complete success.

I saw this movie years ago in a hideous grey-market pan-and-scan version. Happily the transfer provided by the BFI in their Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films boxed set (which is available in both DVD and Blu-Ray editions) is widescreen anamorphic and it’s superb. The extras include an interview with Robbe-Grillet and one with his Catherine Robbe-Grillet plus an excellent audio commentary by Tim Lucas. An interesting point made by Lucas is that Trans-Europ-Express was a major influence on Jess Franco’s 1968 movie Necronomicon. This is a movie that you appreciate a lot more when you watch it the second time with the commentary.

While Trans-Europ-Express shares quite a bit thematically with his earlier L’Immortelle it also marked a change of direction where tone is concerned- it’s much more playful and exuberant. Robbe-Grillet is thoroughly enjoying himself and wants the viewer to enjoy the proceedings as well. A great movie. Very highly recommended.

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