THE IMMORTAL ONE (L'immortelle)
B&W, 1962, 101m.
Starring Françoise Brion, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Guido Celano

TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS
B&W, 1966, 94m.
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-France Pisier, Nadine Verdier, Christian Barbier, Charles Millot, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, Paul Louyet

THE MAN WHO LIES (L'homme qui ment)
B&W, 1968, 97m.
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ivan Mistrik, Zuzana Kocúriková, Sylvie Turbová

EDEN AND AFTER (L'Eden et après)
Color, 1970, 98m.
Starring Catherine Jourdan, Lorraine Rainer, Sylvain Corthay, Richard Leduc, Pierre Zimmer

N. THROWS THE DICE (N. a pris les dés...)
Color, 1970, 79m.
Starring Catherine Jourdan, Lorraine Rainer, Sylvain Corthay, Richard Leduc, Pierre Zimmer

SLOW SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE (Glissements progressifs du plaisir)
Color, 1974, 106m.
Starring Anicée Alvina, Olga Georges, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Michael Lonsdale, Jean Martin, Marianne Eggerickx, Claude Marcault, Isabelle Huppert

Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino / Redemption (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Sony (DVD) (France R2 PAL) / 1.66:1 (16:9) and 1.33:1


L'immortelle

It's safe to say that no one else's work is quite like that of novelist and filmmaker L'immortelleAlain Robbe-Grillet, who made an international splash with his mind-twisting screenplay for the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad. Playful, sexual, and cerebral, his narratives combine lurid pulp and heady mind games into challenging but highly enjoyable entertainments. He retained ownership of his first six films and refused to allow them to be released on home video, citing the visual inadequacies of VHS as a bastardized representation of the cinematic experience. Therefore fans unable to attend the very few retrospectives of his work in theaters had to resort to muddy bootlegs off of occasional TV broadcasts, with the films' reputations flourished more through critical studies than actual viewings (not to mention a tantalizing section in the essential Immoral Tales) .

Rumors abounded for years that these sought-after films would finally be released together on official home video, but that didn't become a reality until 2013 when Sony issued them both in standalone editions and as a boxed set in France without subtitle options. (Maddeningly, his seventh film - Le jeu avec le feu, or Playing with Fire - is still only available in that set.) In 2014 the tide really turned for English-speaking viewers with Name Your Linkstandalone releases in America from Kino and Redemption Films and a much more elaborately appointed set in the UK from the BFI, all with Blu-ray or DVD options.

Robbe-Grillet's first directorial effort, 1963's L'immortelle (saddled with the awkward English title The Immortal One), retains the Marienbad device of depriving its characters Trans-Europ Expressof actual names, referring to them instead by letters of the alphabet. To obtain financing, the film was shot in Istanbul, giving it a distinctly different feel from other French films of the time. Significantly, he would often Trans-Europ Expressshoot his subsequent features in other countries which accounts for their feeling a bit out of step with other French productions of the period. Not surprisingly, there's little traditional structure here as N. (Donoil-Valcroze), a professor traveling abroad, becomes infatuated with a mysterious woman, L. (Brion), whom no one else seems to know (or even remember seeing). When tragedy strikes, the events of the film fragment into a string of possible cause and effect scenarios.

Robbe-Grillet's second film would prove to be his biggest international hit, the kinky continental thriller Trans-Europ-Express. The plot, such as it is, concerns a second-tier executive named Elias (Trintignant) on the titular train on a drug-smuggling run (or is it jewel smuggling?) from Paris to Antwerp and the erotic distractions caused along the way, including flirtation with the beautiful Eva (Pisier) and constant kinky detours. However, this is all presented as a narrative concocted as a potential screenplay by a director (Alain Robbe-Grillet himself), his producer (Louyet), and a continuity supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) on the same train, inspired by a sighting of Trans-Europ ExpressTrintignant the actor.

It isn't difficult to see why this would be a crossover success outside of the fringe art house domain of most of his films, as Trintignant's game performance, Pisier's stunning beauty, and the wildly unpredictable, reflexive approach make for a delicious riff on the conventions of crime stories. The on screen presence of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, his wife from 1957 until his death; though she had a fleeting part in the previous film, here her presence becomes significant as it indicates the growing role she would play in his film, serving in various capacities both in front of and behind the camera. In addition to sharing her husband's fondness for bondage and domination, she was also a novelist herself, penning fairly extreme novels under the name Jean De Berg like 1956's L'image, filmed by Radley Metzger as The Man Who LiesThe Image.

Less accessible to the casual viewer but a heck of a lot of fun is The Man Who Lies, which was shot in Slovakia with dual nationality crews staying together at the same hotel. The setting is largely confined to a massive forest and a decaying castle where Boris (Trintignant), seeking refuse from soldiers, hides out and finds hospitality in the home of local legend Jean Robin, now presumed dead. The absent man's family includes his wife, The Man Who Liessister, maid, and elderly father, with the first three becoming possible conquests for this lying Don Juan as he regales them with stories of his false past with Jean, whom he also claims to be on occasion. However, fate has more than a couple of surprises in store... or does it? Here Robbe-Grillet dispenses with any pretense of a "satisfying" traditional narrative, instead toying with his story by flipping it around over and over. The setting is also extremely effective, feeling at times like a gothic '60s horror film while also injecting elements of other genres like war thrillers and drawing room mysteries, all anchored by another excellent Trintignant performance.

Filmed in Bratislava and Tunisia, 1970's Eden and After could be considered the director's contribution to the youth movement of the time, sometimes playing like a cracked variation on Zabriskie Point. The action starts in the modernist Eden cafe, a Mondrian-inspired structure where students engage in dangerous extracurricular activities like Russian roulette. Into the mix comes the Dutchman (Zimmer), who Eden and Afterdemonstrates the ability to heal bloody wounds and induces them to try a "fear powder" guaranteed to expand their consciousness. From there the film largely unfolds through the eyes of Violette (Jourdan), a short-haired blonde who traverses Tunisia in a series of hallucinatory encounters with her friends undertaking different roles from one location to the next.

The Antonioni influence is undeniable here as Robbe-Grillet switches to color with rampant symbolism and virtually every color popping off the screen (except for green, which he apparently hated). Also seen in such films as Girl on a Motorcycle and the notorious softcore outing Aphrodite, Jourdan makes for a fetching lead (and, according to Robbe-Grillet's wife, had a brief affair with the director); she's an almost Eden and Afterliteral fantasy object here but she imbues the role with more fragility than usual for these films.

In fact, Eden and After actually comprises two of the titles in this set as the next feature, N. Throws the Dice, is a completely different cut (including some alternate footage) assembled into an even more random and confounding narrative structure. Not surprisingly, there are no extra features for this version since it basically feels like footage from the standard cut tossed into a blender; however, it's well worth watching as an early example of what we now know as remix Eden and Afterculture with the combination of editing and alternate takes resulting in an entirely different beast.

If Eden and After found Robbe-Grillet inching closer to the horror genre, he virtually dove in headfirst with his most widely censored and extreme film, Successive Slidings of Pleasure. In this unsettling battle of the sexes, a frequently nude young woman (Alvina) is suspected of the sadomasochistic murder of her roommate, Nora (The Day of the Jackal's Georges-Picot), and uses her intelligence and imagination to face off against a cop (Trintignant), priest (The Battle of Algiers' Martin), and judge (The Bride Wore Black's Lonsdale), mostly within the confines of a morally aberrant convent. Slow Slidings of Pleasure

Accusations of sorcery, body painting, art history references, and other unlikely bedfellows combine for an unholy art film collision of nunsploitation, murder thriller, and philosophical puzzle. The cast is also among the best ensembles for a Robbe-Grillet film, with the brave Alvina (who had previously starred in the teen romantic drama Friends) serving at the epicenter of a quirky gallery of characters including future Bond villain Lonsdale (great as always) and even a very young Isabelle Huppert, tough to spot as another ingenue.

Seen together, these films mark a key, previously inaccessible chapter in the evolution of Europe's conjunction between the art house and and "trash," which particularly flourished from the 1960s through the 1970s. For the record, Robbe-Grillet made a handful of films after this but didn't retain ownership; in addition to Playing with Fire, these include La belle captive (the high point of his later cinematic career), The Blue Villa, and Gradiva. Watching these six in succession it becomes clearer how repeated visual and aural motifs, not to mention character names, become significant from one film to the next, such as the name Boris, the recurring use of blindfolds both in and out of a sexual context, and the image and sound of bursting glass as a narrative disruption. Of course, it's also easier to absorb this approach now since other filmmakers have run with the same idea, particularly Krzysztof Kieślowski, Peter Greenaway, and Jess Franco.

The superb new HD transfers used for all of the English-language releases are all in excellent condition, with film grain left as is (most noticeably in the Godardian Trans-Europ Express) and the 1.66:1 framing accurately retained for all but The Man Who Lies (which is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio). The English subtitles and LPCM French mono tracks are all top notch. The BFI version pairs two films per BD-50 disc on the Blu-ray versions while the Kino isolates each separately (obviously), but they appear to be virtually identical. Eden and After

The real difference lies in the extras, with the American versions sporting vintage Robbe-Grillet interviews for each film (except Dice) with Frédéric Taddeï; all of them run about half an hour and feature a wealth of information about the productions, though if you're looking for interpretations or secret meanings, you won't get very far. Also included are trailers for Trans-Europ Express, Slow Slidings of PleasureThe Man Who Lies and Eden and After.

Those are all present on the BFI set as well, but you also get exclusive audio commentaries by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas for five of the films (all except Dice). A clear admirer, he covers everything from Robbe-Grillet's influence on his own debut novel to the intricate verbal and visual gamesmanship on display in each film, with items like books and magazines often serving as anagrams and nods to visual motifs throughout the films. He also covers the actors in depth and points out a few unexpected faces, such as Fellini actor and Devil's Nightmare star Daniel Emilfork. He's especially good at pointing out little jokes that would fly by most viewers completely unnoticed, so prepare to stay on your toes.

Easily the most candid extras are the four video introductions by Catherine Robbe-Grillet recorded for most of the films (excepting L'immortelle and Dice), originally shot for the French DVD releases and subtitled here for the first time, in which she cheerfully recollects the details of each productions including the local quirks of each location and nationally mixed crew, the state of her marriage at the time (and that aforementioned dalliance with Jourdan), and the imagery that irritated feminists at the time which she skillfully defends. The liner notes booklet contains a very thorough essay by David Taylor, "Alain Robbe-Grillet: A Troubling Artist," in which he draws correlations between the films and novels, as well as a vintage Claire Johnston review of Trans-Europ Express and a truly astonishing "Contract of Conjugal Prostitution" written by the director for his wife; interestingly, it was never enforced.

Reviewed on June 20, 2014.