PRINT Summer 2008


IT IS HARDLY SURPRISING that Alain Robbe-Grillet should have moved from his particular conception and practice of the French New Novel to the cinema. In literary works such as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), this nouveau romancier delighted in patterned descriptions of nature so plastic as to appear at first reading entirely devoid of any subjective point of view or psychology. In a series of essays ultimately collected under the title For a New Novel (1963), Robbe-Grillet argued for a view of the world that abjured interiority in favor of a formal, almost mechanical technique that looked only at the surface of things in order to establish their exteriority and independence from mankind. In Jealousy, for instance, the narrator painstakingly describes the wooden balusters in the terrace railing in front of him. Eventually, a closer look at descriptions like this reveal that they are in fact more maniacal than mechanical—products of deranged psyches, obsessively displacing their neurotic impulses onto objective correlatives. Thus, a Scutigera of average size squashed on the dining-room wall, described at first in anatomical terms, morphs twenty pages later into a “‘spider-centipede,’ . . . so called because of a native belief as to the rapidity of its bite, supposedly mortal,” and later still becomes “enormous: one of the largest to be found in this climate,” as big as a “dinner plate,” suddenly coming alive and ready to spring.1 These and other more disturbing transformations correspond precisely to the progress of the narrator’s surrender to increasingly unbearable fits of jealousy to which he can give no other expression than these obsessive images. It is no doubt ironic that the very style that Robbe-Grillet vigorously defended in his 1958 essay “Nature, Humanism, Tragedy” as antihumanist and antimetaphorical would be reframed by the author only three years later as the inevitable product of a character “always engaged . . . in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium.”2 It may indeed be precisely because of the inescapably subjective and maddeningly metaphoric nature of language that the New Novelist turned increasingly to the cinema, with its potentially unmediated representation of nature.

It is even more ironic that the film for which Robbe-Grillet will doubtless be remembered is the film he did not direct. When, after his success with Marguerite Duras on Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Alain Resnais turned to Robbe-Grillet for a film treatment, the latter responded with a “direct shooting script” for L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), “a shot-by-shot description of the film [with] corresponding dialogue and sound.”3 Robbe-Grillet’s overly detailed scenario left Resnais so little creative space that the director claimed he “often had the impression of merely serving as an electronic robot in the making of the film.”4

Their collaboration seems all the more bizarre given the intensely modernist approach to the relationship between trauma and memory in Resnais’s first films. By contrast, Robbe-Grillet’s text is rigorously postmodern, involving a series of images of three characters, X, A, and M (Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, and Sacha Pitoëff, respectively), in a Baroque chateau whose labyrinthine corridors mirror the logical impasses of its mazelike narrative. X’s compulsive attempts to persuade A that they met last year (or some other year) in this (or some other) chateau are greeted with incomprehension and evasiveness. No single coherent version of this story can possibly be identified, only a series of simulacra, or repetitive variations that admit of no fixed origin or authenticity. Given the New Novelist’s preference for a “perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions,”5 captured in what he called the eternal “present tense” of the cinematographic image, it is impossible to discern any narrative logic or purpose to Robbe-Grillet’s script.

For those familiar with Resnais’s work both before and after Marienbad, it is clear that the director of Night and Fog (1955), Muriel (1963), and La Guerre est finie (1966) could not entirely sanction such a postmodern, playful, and utterly open-ended film, especially one that contained a gratuitous rape scene. Resnais cut this sequence and added subtle but powerful visual details to his film that allow the viewer to see the work as a meditation on memory and trauma. An unmistakable reference to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (1886), with its themes of incest and madness, constituted just enough of a subversion of Robbe-Grillet’s obsessional undecidability as to give the film the sorts of interpretative possibilities that the scenario had so rigorously excluded. The ambiguities resulting from this dual authorship have provided the grist for a spirited debate about the importance and meaning of Last Year at Marienbad. The film was intriguing enough, certainly, to garner the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice International Film Festival.

Perhaps sensing that he had lost control of this first go at cinema, however, Robbe-Grillet decided that in the future he would direct his own films. L’Immortelle followed two years after Marienbad and was shot in Istanbul, primarily because the film’s producer had identified a source of funding that could only be used in Turkey. Robbe-Grillet was no doubt pleased to return to the city where he had first met his wife and collaborator, Catherine, but that pleasure turned out to be short-lived. The author’s idea for this film involved a much more rigid series of variations on what one might label postcard scenes of N (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and L (Françoise Brion), often motionless in windows or doorways, an approach unable to generate any narrative development other than a kind of formal patterning with little or no psychological depth. The way Robbe-Grillet edited these nearly static images freed them from any chain of narrative causality. He would later complain that it was the recalcitrance of his technicians that had ruined the film. Nevertheless, the first-time director was willing to admit that his method of creating this “structural game of fantasies” ended up being “too ambitious because the viewer does not readily identify these elements.”6 Although the film won the Louis Delluc Prize in France, it was a flop at the box office and today looks merely flat and contrived.

In 1966, Alain and Catherine Robbe-Grillet joined Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier as actors in Robbe-Grillet’s second directorial effort, Trans-Europ-Express, surely the most popular and accessible of his films. Twelve years earlier, in “A Novel That Invents Itself” (later included in For a New Novel), Robbe-Grillet had written approvingly of fellow New Novelist Robert Pinget’s characters:

Their existence . . . is merely a process without purpose, subject from sentence to sentence to the most extravagant mutations, at the mercy of the least thought passing through the mind, of the least word in the air, of the most fugitive suspicion. Yet they make themselves. . . . [T]he world around them is merely a secretion—one could almost say the waste product—of their suppositions, of their lies, of their delirium. . . . The story, in this regard, can only turn in circles, unless it stops short, unashamedly turning back on itself; still elsewhere it branches off . . . into parallel series which . . . destroy each other._7

One might argue that Robbe-Grillet successfully adapted this strategy for his second film. Trans-Europ-Express puts into play an errant filmmaker, Jean (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), boarding the Paris–Antwerp Express, hoping to discover a subject for his film. He encounters Trintignant on the train and wonders whether this well-known actor might be right for his project. But Trintignant is already cast in the film as Elias, a drug smuggler and soon-to-be rapist. These and other characters constantly invent their situations as they go, moving endlessly between different fictional and real levels, repeating scenes or starting over entirely. The film has an easy, humorous lilt to it that viewers found quite appealing on its release in Paris cinemas. Robbe-Grillet was happy first of all to be able to insert the rape scene cut from Marienbad and, second, to introduce a triple pun as the film’s nucleus: One character is carrying a book titled Transes (it conceals a gun), and both Jean and Elias purchase copies of L’Express, which Elias uses to provide cover for a nudie magazine, Europe. But, sadly, such lighthearted use of pornography was to become the central, and deadening, focus of all of the director’s films after 1970. Trans-Europ-Express’s MO (and much of its success) was replicated in Robbe-Grillet’s next film, L’Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies, 1968), in which Trintignant now plays a Resistance fighter who compulsively reinvents his stories, leading his listeners ever further from any possibility of coherence. Robbe-Grillet’s liar doesn’t necessarily lie; he simply builds and rebuilds his reality in obsessively repeated and inverted versions of himself.

After 1970, Robbe-Grillet turned to color film and simultaneously succumbed to an obsession with submitting naked women to humiliating and grotesque varieties of sadomasochistic games. Lending the cachet of art cinema to these exercises in adolescent fantasy, the director introduced serial structures, citing Arnold Schönberg’s variations on and inversions of the twelve-tone scale as the model for these works (although the films rarely remain faithful to this system). The set of films from L’Éden et après (Eden and After, 1970) on could easily and appropriately be grouped under the title of the third film in this series, Glissements progressifs du plaisir (Progressive Slippages of Desire, 1974). The use of obsessively repetitive “generative themes,” the flattening out of screen depth, the elimination of psychological and/or political meanings—all lead to a type of cinema that offers the spectator little relief from either the crudeness of the sexuality or the maddeningly abstract patterning of the images. The reaction to these later films, condemned by various critics for being “puerile,” “ponderous and repetitive,” “mere pornography to excite sado-masochism,” or, at best, “tame porno under the guise of art,” put Robbe-Grillet repeatedly on the defensive. At one point, he attempted to have his interviewers believe that subjecting a series of naked women to various forms of violence constituted a “feminist” cinema(!), but ultimately, when pressed hard by one interviewer, he candidly confessed, “I am simply not concerned about that.”8

In the end, Robbe-Grillet will be best remembered as an artist undaunted by the charges of sexism leveled against him, undaunted by his failures at the box office, and entirely focused on freeing the cinema from its reliance on comfortable stereotypes and narrative assumptions. It may well be that his work can only be appreciated in its particular historical and cultural contexts; but considered in that way, he will be admired for his unabashed experimentation. And while we shouldn’t condone the slippery prurience of his later work, we may yet respect his insistence on undermining accepted meanings, his focus on replacing familiar narrative signposts with patterned figures and serial progressions, and his subsitution of pure artifice in place of accepted acting styles. If, in the process, he allowed his own films to be condemned as incomprehensible or, at times, simply uninteresting, we might nevertheless applaud his efforts in extending the boundaries and possibilities of the cinema.

T. Jefferson Kline, professor of French at Boston University, is the author of Screening The Text: Intertextuality and New Wave French Cinema (Johns Hopkins Press, 1992). His book Unraveling French Cinema is forthcoming from Blackwell Press.


1. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy and In the Labyrinth, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 96, 112.

2. Robbe-Grillet, “New Novel, New Man” (1961), in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 133–42, 138.

3. Robbe-Grillet, “Introduction,” in Last Year at Marienbad, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 9.

4. Robbe-Grillet, cited in “Marienbad ou l’exception,L’Arc 31 (1967), 9. Translation mine.

5. Robbe-Grillet, “Introduction,” in Last Year at Marienbad, 10.

6. Anthony N. Fragola and Roch C. Smith, The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 27.

7. Robbe-Grillet, “A Novel That Invents Itself” (1954), in For a New Novel, 127–32, 128.

8. The Erotic Dream Machine, 91.