Fairs Features France

When cinema lost the plot

The late French theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet rejected conventional style in his soon-to-be-released films

A still from Robbe-Grillet’s 1974 film “Successive Slidings of Pleasure”

The influential French novelist, literary theorist and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet once said that “nowhere in all the world has anywhere been less interested in my work than in Britain”. Robbe-Grillet died in 2008, so it’s not possible to know whether he would have been comforted by the British Film Institute’s imminent release of a collection of six of his films, along with accompanying essays and interviews, plus introductions to his work by his wife and collaborator, Catherine.

Robbe-Grillet was a pioneer of the so-called nouveau roman literary style, which sought to promote literature that dispensed with the conventions of narrative and closure, plot and structure. His critical writings on the subject were collected in Pour un Nouveau Roman in 1963. He published four experimental novels between 1953 and 1961, when he worked on what is perhaps his best known project: the script for Alain Resnais’s film “Last Year at Marienbad”, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 and was nominated for the Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1963.

The films he would go on to make took his literary theories onto the cinema screen, although not everyone agrees on how successful this transition was. They are tough, often visually striking films with fragmented timelines and narratives, and they increasingly (and often shockingly) involve his own interest in sadomasochism, a feature of his life with Catherine. They can leave contemporary viewers—those used to a more enlightened sexual politics, at least—feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

The forthcoming release is not the first time that a UK institution has highlighted Robbe-Grillet’s contribution to the arts. In September 2007, he made one of his last public appearances at a weekend of presentations and screenings organised by the Serpentine Gallery in London. The event was organised by Hans Ulrich Obrist, the gallery’s co-director, and the French curator and critic Jean-Max Colard, who drew the audience’s attention to Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic references to Yves Klein and Mondrian, as well as reminding them of his short fiction works, which include appearances by his sometime collaborator Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Colard told The Art Newspaper that this was the first time that Robbe-Grillet had been brought together with the contemporary visual artists he had influenced. However, the curator “always had the feeling that there has been, since the 1970s, a ‘perfume of nouveau roman’ in the art scene—in David Lamelas’s videos, in John Baldessari’s photo-paintings and, later, in the work of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and others”. Colard regards Robbe-Grillet’s films as “the continuation of his narrative, experimental and non-realistic literature, but with a deep [understanding] of the specificity of the medium”.

Among those who paid tribute in London were Olafur Eliasson, Dan Graham, Carsten Höller, Runa Islam and Cerith Wyn Evans. Also present were the French-born, New York-based video artist Michel Auder and the French architect Philippe Rahm, both of whom regard Robbe-Grillet’s written work as superior to his films. Auder says: “His novels are ‘pure cinema’… [but] his film works are extremely conventional, even [if] the subject matter is not.”

Rahm collaborated with Robbe-Grillet on a show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 2006, and his interest in the writer’s theories stems from the idea that “architecture has nothing to do with narrative storytelling [or] interpretation… it [is] more to create [an] objective space”. For Rahm, it is Robbe-Grillet’s writing that is his key contribution, but his films form a significant part of a hugely respected body of work. Despite being elected, in 2004, to the prestigious, 40-strong Académie Française, Robbe-Grillet was never formally inducted because he refused to have his speech approved in advance and declined to wear the robes of office. As ever, compromise wasn’t an option.

To buy “Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films” (released later this summer), visit shop.bfi.org.uk. Thanks to the Serpentine Gallery, London, for providing archive materials

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