Monday 4 December 2023

Playing with Fire (1975)

Playing with Fire is a 1975 movie written and directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet was one of the foremost exponents of cinematic surrealism and may in fact have been the greatest of all surrealist film-makers. As with most film-makers who explored such territories you can argue about whether he really qualifies as a surrealist. Robbe-Grillet was a novelist as well as a film-maker and certainly belonged to both the literary and cinematic avant-garde. Robbe-Grillet made art films but he was also a very playful film-maker. His movies are puzzling and cerebral but they’re also a lot of fun.

Playing with Fire was inspired to a considerable extent by the Patty Hearst saga.

Playing with Fire begins with the kidnapping of a young woman, but was she really kidnapped? Maybe the kidnapping hasn’t occurred but will occur. We see middle-aged banker Georges de Saxe (Philippe Noiret) sitting at his desk writing. He may be writing a story or an account of real events. He may even be writing the script for the movie we’re watching.

The kidnap victim is, or possibly will be, his daughter Carolina (Anicée Alvina). We notice something slightly odd about this father and daughter. They seem to be intimate in a way that is a little disturbing. Carolina seems totally unconcerned about having her leg fondled by her father.

Carolina has not been kidnapped but she did write the note saying that she needed to be rescued. Her explanation for the note is very odd.

Georges de Saxe hires a private detective, Franz (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to protect his daughter. Trintignant plays two roles in the movie, or perhaps they’re all the same rôle.

The banker is advised to send his daughter into hiding in a safe place. It is suggested that an insane asylum or a brothel would be suitable hiding places.

Carolina ends up in a very large old clinic where everybody at first seems totally immobile. She is not sure if she is a prisoner. The clinic seems to be a brothel rather than a clinic. There are lots of women there. It’s uncertain if they’re there voluntarily or not. Some of these women seem to merge into each other. In other cases we have several male characters played by the same actor. Are we in a dream? If so, whose dream?

Robbe-Grillet’s films still have the ability to upset and bewilder both viewers and critics. When faced with a movie without a straightforward linear narrative there’s a temptation to approach it as a puzzle to be solved. Like a jigsaw puzzle - at first you just have a jumble but if you’re clever and patient you put the pieces together to form a straightforward picture. That doesn’t work with Robbe-Grillet’s movies. No matter how hard you try you’re not going to be able to reconstruct his movies into straightforward linear narratives. You’re never going to be able to give a definite answer to the question - What Really Happened. That exasperates viewers who feel that they should be able to answer that question.

Critics still get upset and uncomfortable with the eroticism of Robbe-Grillet’s films, particularly the hints of sadomasochism. That’s becoming more of a problem in today’s increasingly puritanical world and even Robbe-Grillet’s admirers sometimes feel the need to offer justifications for the eroticism.

The eroticism is part and parcel of his work. And it’s complex. He uses it for varying purposes. Robbe-Grillet wanted to create strange magical images and at times he’d include nude women in shots because they made the images more strange and magical. In Playing with Fire nude women are potent symbols, but not necessarily erotic symbols.

Robbe-Grillet was immensely influenced by Jules Michelet’s 1862 book on witchcraft, La Sorcière. There are subtle hints of vampirism, black magic and witchcraft in many of Robbe-Grillet’s movies and these elements certainly intersect with the eroticism, and the female nudity creates a feel of some weird kind of occult ceremonies. But again the more you try to analyse his work the more you get led astray by a search for meanings. It’s better just to immerse yourself in a Robbe-Grillet movie rather than try to analyse it logically.

Robbe-Grillet had zero interest in conventional cinematic realism and he was not interested in getting realistic performances from actors. The performances are all slightly distanced and artificial which seems to be what Robbe-Grillet wanted (it’s something that you notice in all his movies). There are also moments when the characters are aware of being characters in a film, such as the moment when Trintignant tells us he doesn’t understand the script.

It’s also worth mentioning that Robbe-Grillet uses three key pieces of music as what he called “generators” in this movie. The music is as important as the visuals.

Sylvia Kristel has a small rôle. By the time Playing with Fire was released Kristel had become a sensation in Emmanuelle so she was hurriedly given equal top billing, which made sense since she was now Playing with Fire’s biggest drawcard.

Robbe-Grillet may have been playing games with his audience but he wanted the audience to have fun playing those games. His movies are wild and exhilarating and exuberant. Playing with Fire is very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of his other movies - L’immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1966), Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and La Belle Captive (1983). All are must-see movies.

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