The long elusive films of Alain Robbe-Grillet hit Blu-ray first stateside with Redemption Films' release of SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE.
Accused of the bondage murder of her model roommate Nora (Olga Georges-Picot, LOVE AND DEATH), an unnamed artist (Anicée Alvina, ANIMA PERSA) undergoes a series of interrogations by a detective (an uncredited Jean-Louis Trintignant, THE MAN WHO LIES) – "Do you like eggs? When was your first communion? Do you know a man named Boris?" – a repressed judge (Michael Lonsdale, MOONRAKER), curious Sister Maria (Nathalie Zeiger, THE SENSUOUS DOLL), a sexually-obsessed priest (Jean Martin, Rivette's THE NUN), and her lawyer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nora). "Likeness, repetitions, substitutions, pretensions. Enough!" cries her lawyer who believes her client is innocent but does not understand why she tells tales to the contrary. The artist – a witch, a magician (or fakir), a literal or psychic vampire, or a demon as suggested by seemingly impervious Sister Julia (Claude Marcault, ASTRAGAL) – shuffles a series of visual and mismatched aural clues (eggs, wine/paint/blood, a blue shoe [a fetish for hustling], a pair of scissors, and a broken bottle) with alternative narratives involving prostitution, sadomasochism, corporal punishment, magic (and magic tricks), and additional murders to excite the libidos and horrify the imaginations of her inquisitors.
Seasoned readers and viewers of Robbe-Grillet's of literary/cinematic gamesmanship – starting with his script for Alain Resnais' masterful LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961) before stepping behind the camera himself for L'IMMORTELLE (1963) – will know from the start that they are in for mind games where the narrative is subject to manipulation by characters and the images and sounds can neither confirm nor refute what is said. The fragmentation of the investigation as it takes on the obsessions of its investigators proves intellectually stimulating even as we know that there is no definitive solution (or that Robbe-Grillet would have cared if the viewer had arrived at one). Exploitation-minded viewers will find much to appreciate here with Robbe-Grillet coming across more here than elsewhere as a more refined but no less obsessive fetishist filmmaker than Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. The dungeon scenes were shot in the Chateau Vincennes where the Marquis de Sade had once been imprisoned, an apt choice given the prisoner's perversity and the way she both lashes out and draws her inquisitors in with her imagination (bringing to mind Sade's "Dialogue Between a Priest and Dying Man"). Robbe-Grillet's wife Catherine – who has a small role as a nun – would write the sadomasochistic novel "The Image" – adapted into a hardcore film by Radley Metzger – under the masculine pseudonym Jean DeBerg in 1956, and Robbe-Grillet himself would write in 1987 under the feminine pseudonym Jeanne DeBerg in which his female dominatrix explicitly references SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE in her attempt to create an erotic tableau vivant involving eggs and nude models. A young Isabelle Huppert (MADAME BOVARY) has a bit part as a schoolgirl, Robbe-Grillet's regular editor Bob Wade (who also edited Michael Lemoine's SEVEN WOMEN FOR SATAN) appears briefly as a gravedigger, and Robbe-Grillet himself cameos as a passerby.
SUCCESSIVE SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE was difficult to see outside of an untranslated SECAM bootleg until it was remastered in high definition in Italy for an Italian DVD release a few years ago. Redemption's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 Blu-ray is sourced from a newer HD master (also transferred and cleaned in Italy) which is apparently also the source for the transfer in the recently released French Robbe-Grillet boxed set. The results are stunning with stark whites and reds free of distortion, and a wonderful level of detail throughout (one does wonder if the blues of the schoolgirl flashback might possibly have been digitally tinkered with, but not enough to detract from one's enjoyment of the film). The French LPCM 2.0 is clean and ear-splitting when appropriate thanks to the sound design and editing of Robbe-Grillet regulars Michel Fano (A MAN AND A WOMAN). The optional English subtitles are seemingly free of errors – and quite a revelation to those of us who have only previously seen untranslated – although I am told that the subtitles mistakenly say "script girl" when a character says "strip girl" (which does seem like the more likely choice).
The sole contextual extra for the film is a recent interview (34:09) with the late director conducted by Frédéric Taddeï (host of the French cultural TV show "Ce Soir"), one of a number of interviews produced specifically as DVD extras (suggesting the French Robbe-Grillet boxed set had been in the works for some time since the director died in 2008). Robbe-Grillet reveals that the original title was "Progressive Displacements", but he felt that use of the Freudian term "verschiebung" would be too revealing (hence the use of the more smoother "slidings" from the more abrupt German "shifting"). The project originated in a bet with producer André Cohen that he could produce a film for 500,000 francs. The external constraint dictated a minimalist aesthetic – compared to LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, EDEN AND AFTER, and even THE MAN WHO LIES – of static camera shots and an apparent lack of depth in the image (in terms of surface composition not depth-of-field).
Taddeï points out the director's regular use of police investigations even though his plots are often anti-narrative, but Robbe-Grillet points out that real life police investigations often lead to multiple possibilities rather than narrowing them down. Robbe-Grillet states that once he cast Alvina (suggested by his wife based on her appearance in THE BEGUINES), the film was essentially made for her. He describes her as "practically illiterate" understanding only "the language of comic books" but taking his spoken direction skillfully (the sound was re-recorded in post). Given the plot, one almost wonders how much the actress might have performed without understanding or might have pretended not to understand. He also recalls that actress Georges-Picot was concerned that the movement of her breast implants might seem unnatural on camera, but it proved oddly appropriate for them to look the same with her standing or lying down (given how her character is at times treated like a mannequin). The disc also includes trailers for TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS, THE MAN WHO LIES, and EDEN AND AFTER, as well as a promo piece called "The Cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet". (Eric Cotenas)
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