Latin for "The woman
who walks", The Gradiva is a Roman sculpture of a robed woman walking,
distinguishable by the placement and arch of the figure's right foot. This relief
would in 1903 inspire Wilhelm Jensen, a German writer, to scribe a novel of
the same name in which an archeologist discovers a similar work and subsequently
becomes infatuated with its female subject. Jensen’s novel would in turn
inspire Sigmund Freud to pen “Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva”,
an essay that psychoanalyzed Jensen’s book, providing the prose with greater
popularity. For what would be his final work, writer/director Alain Robbe-Grillet
found similar inspiration in the enduring history of the Gradiva. Using Jensen’s
book and the artist Eugène Delacroix’s time in North Africa as
a jumping off point and unconcerned with typical cinematic conventions, Robbe-Grillet
constructs an erotic mystery that plays liberally with both time and identity.
In GRADIVA, James Wilby (HOWARDS END) plays John Locke, a professor with a fetish for Orientalism, stationed in Morocco to study the North African works of Eugène Delacroix. Between ordering his servant/bedside companion Belkis (Dany Verissimo, DISTRICT B13) around and engaging with the colorful locals, John is made privy of the existence of two forgotten Delacroix sketchbooks. Such a prospect is instantly appealing to the historian, who immediately drops everything to pursue and uncover the lost works. After several strange encounters with members of a secret organization known as The Golden Triangle, John is allowed to view the lost Delacroix sketches and in turn becomes fixated with the identity of a woman who appears regularly throughout the books. His focus shifted, John begins to fixate on the spellbinding muse (played by Arielle Dombasle) and the chance encounters they share both in the waking world and in his dreams. Making his way through the underbelly of Marrakech, John stumbles through time and space as his search for Gradiva leads him deeper into a mystery that has no clear answers or easily definable rewards.
It's probably safe to say that Robbe-Grillet named his protagonist John Locke after the English philosopher and not Terry O'Quinn's character on "Lost" but the time traveling television phenomenon does share more than just a character name with GRADIVA, as both present the viewer with storylines that have no interest in remaining linear. Where as “Lost” told its fifth season by jumping back and forth in time, GRADIVA jumps just as sporadically between reality and dream but without a fade to white and “Whoosh” sound effect to signify or warn of such transitions. With no desire in clearly defining its place in time or space, Robbe-Grillet allows GRADIVA to play out as if it is being written by one of its own characters. Characters which often play multiple roles and interact seemingly aware of their dual identities save for John who remains clueless, chasing after a ghost in a manner that echoes a fictional character chasing after its writer. While I got the impression that the film had something more to say than my humble mind can muster or totally comprehend, taken as a trippy, noir thriller the pictures holds up nicely, playing with a number of ideas, such as the that of dream actors, that I would have liked to have seen further explored. Fans of Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky and even David Lynch should find much to enjoy and discuss with GRADIVA, as it blends art house conventions in a decidedly decadent yet playful manner.
While John Locke runs around looking for answers and inspiration, it is the women he encounters which linger longest in the mind, leaving little doubt as to the reason for John being so consistently flustered. Dany Verissimo is sultry and intoxicating as Belkis, be it fully robed in what appears to be a burlap sack or chained naked to the bedposts in John’s apartment. Her dark, feminine figure mimicks the bumps and curves of the Moroccan desert. Why John ever bothered to leave his home in the first place is a mystery to me. Equally beguiling, yet not nearly as voluptuous is Arielle Dombasle, who plays both the physical and ethereal manifestations of Gradiva. Recently cast along side Asia Argento and Udo Kier in Alejandro Jodorowsky's anticipated return to cinema, KING SHOT, Arielle is perfectly cast as a walking dream with more control over her actions and surroundings than that of the person’s mind in which she is inhabiting. While only one of several Golden Triangle employees, Marie Espinosa’s porcelain skin shines like an oasis among the rich browns and heavy reds, proving one more torment and temptation for John to question. You almost feel sympathy for the guy given the way so many attractive and confident women appear and disappear without notice thought out the picture.
Providing his final film proper justice, Mondo Macabro presents GRADIVA in a brand new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer taken directly from the negative. The print looks brilliant, with nary a blemish or imperfection to be had. Rich in detail with appropriate skin tones and precise coloring, visually there is very little to protest about. Audio features the original French language track with accompanying newly created English subtitles. While the Dolby Digital Stereo track is quite crisp, allowing for several subtle and some not so subtle transitional elements to shine, there are a handful of instances in which the subtitle track fails to translate, predominantly dialogue spoken from John’s “blind’ guide and taxi driver, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sid Haig.
Special features include cast and crew biographies, including a brief piece by Robbe-Grillet about the film, the film's original, very erotic theatrical trailer and a 30 minute interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet. The interview, which features burned in English subtitles, presents Robbe-Grillet as an intelligent and likable fellow who, after several different career paths, found himself as writer and director of both critical acclaim (he was nominated for an Oscar in 1963 for writing LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD) and government censorship. Topped off by their ever-present preview reel, Mondo Macabro has another winner on their hands, sure to appeal to art house enthusiast and adventures fans of European erotica alike. (Jason McElreath)
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