Dir. Alain Robbe-Grillet
It's always an exciting movement, intentional choice of words, when a film director is resurrected or given their first introduction in this age of DVD and Blu-ray. The potential of a new landscape connected to cinema's vast Chinese puzzle box form. Even if the director has had DVD releases before, a grand scale celebration and restoration could have volcanic impact on film viewers - we await Walerian Borowczyk's day in the sun, not that far from when I'm writing this, in Britain. You come to a film like The Immortal One, the debut cinematic work of an acclaimed author and writer of Last Year In Marienbad (1961), and the already rich symbolism, such as our lost protagonist N (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) finding discarded calendar pages in the woods, no transition between picking them up, just cut to different dates in his hands, and an entirely new room in what cinema means is kicked open for me.
N, a foreigner to Istanbul, encountering the beautiful woman L (Françoise Brion), sparking an intimate relationship. When she seemingly vanishes however, everything is up to question, he knowing little about her. Her name she gives him may be fake, she may be married, may be part of a white slavery practice, a total mystery woman elusive to him. The recent release of six of Robbe-Grillet's films for the first time in Britain, including The Immortal One, allows not only for the films to be viewable, but also as a box set for the UK releases, for the themes and ideas to intertwine, an introduction to the director. A person who the greater concern is for the enigmatic nature of his films, the truths held by his characters vaguer and questionable as they go further along. His characters travel in worlds that multiply and distort themselves as they go. When it doesn't, as in the case of Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974), the last film in the set, it's because the protagonist is the one undermining the truth to every other character with their words. N in Robbe-Grillet's first film is left wandering the city of Istanbul, viewed by the mystery woman as a fake city of his dreams, eventually the fabric of reality against dreams being pierced. To those who have never seen one of Robbe-Grillet's films, this one is comparable to David Lynch. In a paradox worthy of his ideals, the director's work can be compared to various other films - Jean-Luc Godard with Trans-Europ-Express (1966), Czeck cinema (shot in Czechoslovakia) with The Man Who Lies (1968), pop art and the French New Wave with Eden and After (1970), and Jess Franco and softcore with Successive Slidings of Pleasure. Yet he is uniquely his own voice in that what undercuts the realities - lies, conspiracies, himself and a producer and a continuity girl scrapping plot points in favour of others film-within-a-film for Trans-Europ-Express - between intellectual deconstruction and a obsession with the fetishishtic that connects to his well know proclivities for bondage and S&M.
In his debut its clearly established where he would go and that, having gone backwards in viewing the released box set chronologically, this film and Successive Slidings Of Pleasure inherit the same mind behind them even if their tones are different. Bold use of cinematography from a man known for his letters and words in novels, rich black-and-white cinematography depicting the Turkish environments. Time is disrupted continually, scenes in the past, future or never having happened spliced between a moment taking place. The disorientating ability of dreams to be able to look at all these sides, inwards and outwards, of a reality, interlocking scenes taking place. A funeral procession is on a white stone courtyard, at the bottom of the screen going upwards, and not an edit later, creating an almost empty space baring one vague figure at the top. Human statues, like Last Year of Marienbad, of people, stuck in time, strangely reminiscent of the graveyard, frequented onscreen, of the pillar shaped gravestones, a place long gone from practical use, as the supernatural nature of the film's title is emphasised from a car accident that takes place onward.
A conspiracy is seemingly taking place around N as he becomes more and more at a loss as he moves along. A fisherman outside his hotel is continually nearby, maybe the mystery woman's husband. Maybe it's the blind man with two Doberman pinchers who develop into nocturnal creatures of fate. Are they involved in a conspiracy in another way or is it mere illusion? More so as the film keeps cutting back to a woman lying on a beach, waking up and saying to someone stood over her she has been dreaming. Like Last Year At Marienbad, the sense of reality is suspect, the chique aesthetics of exotic Turkey, of glamorous women in states of undress and suave men in suits, is undercut as more people look at N suspiciously and the facts are for question. The desire for the mystery woman leads to him even having a scene of self reflection as time seemingly stands still, as he can reflect on his own reflection in front of an antique store window in that moment. By the end, the film repeats itself, sending him into a fate beyond him.
Aesthetically bold - ancient Byzantium ruins against modern ruins of a ship in the harbour, carpets hanging everywhere and bustle of city streets rife - it doesn't feel like Robbe-Grillet made any amateur mistakes here with his debut, but already knew where to go. The use of environments, as Robbe-Grillet would continue five movies on, adds to the layers that multiply as you watch along. Underground tunnels, mosques but also ordinary places fleshed out into new dimensions, such as the metaphor for the isolation of a hotel room being ran with as N is complete alien within it to the rest of the world, something returned to for The Man Who Lies. It would continue further from this with the other films - Trans-Europ-Express with the titular train and cityscapes, The Man Who Lies with its rooms and woodland, Eden And After with its mazes of industrial land, Tunisian village squares and a cafe crossed with a pop art installation, and Successive Slidings of Pleasure with its extremely restriction aesthetic and its fetishisation of bare walls and cramped underpass stairs, literal with the former with body paint printed onto it. Again this can be compared to other directors, but this is from the perspective of a cerebral writer who likes mysteries, and realises the power of using the environments for this with the assistances of the cinematographers, camera operators and set designers who worked with him.
And it's a mystery that entices. His more abstract work onwards from this has a playful, even lurid, quality to them that can help a viewer not used to going through meta and self commentating deconstructions. This is why, interestingly, Robbe-Grillet can be placed with the aforementioned Jess Franco, and got y DVD/Blu-Ray combo releases in the United States from the same company that did the same for Franco's work. Robbe-Grillet, the man of letters who is clearly obsessed with pulp as you get to films like Trans-Europ-Express, would've been pleased to be housed with both such a genre luminary unfairly dismissed and also be released by the British Film Institute alongside Akira Kurosawa and Carl Theodor Dreyer in a different country. The protagonist is sent through a mystery as seen in many films, the same question asked - who is this woman? - but Robbe-Grillet is much more precise in the telling of the question than others. The film, no matter how further it reaches the abstract, is always going to an event or moment that has a reason to be included, just to displace the viewer to a momentous shift in tone. Utterances about people, individuals going silent and cautious, brief glimpses if someone out in the corner of the eye, all is precise even if the first viewing for me is a dream that baffled trying to absorb it all in. And it turns into a displacement of the scenario as it wraps up. The protagonist N who, bearing in mind Robbe-Grillet's continual obsession with archetypes, is vague himself, a little weak and displaced as a figure. His mystery woman, made of smoke, a belly dancer to only his (and our gaze) at one point, first scene in snap shots divided by blinds of his hotel window, as if he's made her up, has more complexity than him. The scenario that Istanbul is a place of seedy conspiracy, common in pulp about foreign countries, the exotic as the other, is also undercut by how much it's mentioned N's view of the city is a mere illusion. The locals could be staring at him because he's weird to them, continually asking odd questions about a woman to the shopkeepers and maids he had never even learnt to name of. From there - his own delusions, real conspiracy, or a siren beckoning him to doom - a tiny Möbius strip takes places in the film, time repeating but with significant changes. A Doberman, black fur, peering out in the illuminated darkness of a car lights on a road. It's what one would wish debut to be, more so when learning how difficult it was to get this film made, Robbe-Grillet able to work much, much (for emphasis) quicker as he went on. The obvious questions to ask now is how his novels as an acclaimed writer in French literature, out there for me to find and read, set this film up and was a continuation of it, and how he went on after the last disc of my acquired box set as the filmmaker, almost all of which needing its own box set some day. It is a cinema that can link to others I can recognise already, but is clearly its own, unique one. Vibrant while being very intellectual, possibly in dangers of pretensions in the later works, which become more sexually explicit and divisive in their deconstructive games, but with so much to provide still. Apparently The Immortal One is a weak Robbe-Grillet film, at least according to the booklet in the DVD set; directors would kill for this as a debut considering how colourless, forgive the pun on the film's monochrome look, or compromised some can be.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None) - Medium
It would be Low if Robbe-Grillet never made another film or went on to be more conventional. It's a mystery with leanings towards rearranging your protagonist's perceptions encountered in many films of the sixties. It's a Medium having fed myself on five other films by him, and how noticeably more unconventional it is having seen what came after. He was one step away from Jorge Luis Borges' The Garden of Forking Paths, a character dying in one chapter, alive in the next, as what happens in The Man Who Lies. For all I know, that does happen in The Immortal One too.
It's a great moment when films, or any work, are finally allowed to be seen by the general public, not as a retrospective, but on a purchasable material, even data file. True, this is likely a niche only people like me knew of being made available, but it's now possible to have six films, one a reinterpretation of Eden and After called N. Took The Dice (1971), a fitting connection, in circulation. It's adding a new colour to the spectrum when it's films by an idiosyncratic voice, no matter how divisive they are. New games to use what Robbe-Grillet was playing watching these films. An entire new wing of my cinema, with five films that can be added to the blog later down the line, and others just out of reach.