Lights, camera, sounds and action
At the grand age of 85, Alain Robbe-Grillet is feted in his homeland for his elliptical books and films. But, as he tells Stuart Jeffries in Paris, he's still neglected by British audiences. Will the kinky sex in his new movie grab our attention?
Saturday September 15, 2007
'We're not going to talk about Spider-Man 3' ... Alain Robbe-Grillet. Photograph: Daniel Janin/AFP
"Nowhere in all the world has anywhere been less interested in my work than in Great Britain," says Alain Robbe-Grillet. In this country, few know that he is a film-maker. Even fewer are aware that he is a novelist. Yet he is known across the Channel as the Pope of the nouveau roman ("new novel") and was hailed for his literary achievements half a century ago by great critics such as Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. Hardly any Britons know that in 2004, Robbe-Grillet was elected one of the 40 "immortals" of the Académie Française in recognition of his great contribution to French literature. If few know that he is a novelist, even fewer have read his novels.
And yet Robbe-Grillet's work will be celebrated in London this weekend with a season of films and discussions about his influence on literature and the visual arts at the Serpentine Gallery and the Institut Français. The season could be taken as both remedy and apology for decades of neglect. It will culminate with the premiere of Gradiva, his 10th film since his directorial debut in 1963 with L'Immortelle.
Gradiva did little for French critics. Commenting on the film's whipped bottoms, pinched nipples, caged women, chained bed slaves and other S&M behaviour, Pascal Mérigeau wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur: "When the pretty bed slave turns on her belly and shows her buttocks at the camera, the Englishman with toothache lifts his eyes to the sky and looks at the moon. That's what we, for 118 minutes, would have liked to have been able to do."
"The critics have become philistines," fumes Robbe-Grillet, 85, bearded and slippered on the sofa of his fourth-floor apartment near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. "They used to know about cinema, but their sensibilities have been ruined by television." I suggest the French public went to see Gradiva in negligible numbers because it came out in Paris as Spiderman 3 was dominating the French box office. "We're not going to talk about Spider-Man 3," he says.
Robbe-Grillet's films have been nothing if not conceptually consistent. L'Immortelle, like Gradiva, was the story of a man in an Orientalist setting (Turkey) in frustrating labyrinthine pursuit of a beautiful enigmatic woman. The pursued woman in L'Immortelle may or may not have been kidnapped to work in a ring of prostitutes; the pursued woman in Gradiva may or not be the reincarnation of 19th-century painter Delacroix's slave-girl lover. She might equally be a present-day writer or, most likely, a fantasy made real by the workings of the male protagonist's troubled psyche.
Gradiva is loosely adapted from the 1903 German novel of the same name by Wilhelm Jensen. Today the book is known, if at all, as the subject of one of Freud's first forays into psychoanalysis of a literary text. Jensen's story concerned a German archaeologist who becomes fascinated by a bas-relief of a young woman in a Neopolitan museum. He has a dream in which he has been transported to Pompeii on the day of Vesuvius's eruption, and briefly sees the woman depicted in the bas-relief alive, but she disappears. Robbe-Grillet picks up the story: "Later, he visits Pompeii and he gets stuck in an intolerable crowd of tourists. Then suddenly everything changes. It is at the moment when light is vertical, or what Verlaine calls 'le grand jour tremblant de midi'. The archaeologist sees a woman across the street. It's Gradiva! She is another world and enters into that imaginary world, that mental reality, that he has created. All of this is in the text. My idea was to actualise all that."
Robbe-Grillet switches the action to Marrakech. John Locke, an art historian played gamely by James Wilby, may or may not have discovered some missing Moroccan erotic sketchbooks by Eugène Delacroix featuring not just sketches of bondage but also the image of a mysterious woman played by Arielle Dombasle. Locke pursues this ageless phantom as she rides, vaporously clad in white, astride a matching white horse through the medina. "That apparition would do marvels in an advertisement for washing powder," observed Pierre Vavasseur of Le Parisien, writing under a headline that needs no translation: "Tragiquement drôle". In his endless pursuit, Locke often leaves his sex slave chained to his bed (as one does), while he is driven by a blind taxi driver to a private club where all kinds of chains, whips and knives are used on naked women's bodies for the diversion of the, to my mind, questionable clientele.
Are we supposed to make sense of this story? "Yes, but not by establishing a clear and unambiguous order of events. In that sense there is a continuity with my novels. My narratives are often composed in such a way that any attempt to reconstruct an external chronology results in a series of contradictions. More intelligent critics have called what I do 'temporal irony'." But does it upset Robbe-Grillet that his film got such a poor reception in his homeland? "It didn't surprise me. I make films to please myself and a few others. This is the cinema of auteurs, not of spectators. I make films of the same kind as Antonioni and your Peter Greenaway." I mention to Robbe-Grillet that I recently interviewed Alain Resnais, director of the great 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, for which Robbe-Grillet wrote the famously baffling scenario.
I tell him a joke about the film that Resnais told me. An assassin is arrested by the police for a murder. They know he is guilty. "But I have an alibi," he protests. "I was at the movies when the crime took place." The detective asks, "What did you see?" "Last Year in Marienbad." "Tell me the story," says the detective. The killer can't. Naturally, he is condemned. Robbe-Grillet listens to the anecdote grimly. I realise too late that a joke that trades on the incomprehensibility of his script might not tickle Robbe-Grillet's funny bone. He comments: "Yes, Resnais is a great technician. But no auteur, no matter what you may think." Have you seen his latest film, Private Fears in Public Places? "Good grief, no."
Is his film's hero, John Locke, named after the English philosopher? "No, he's named after a character called John Locke in Antonioni's The Passenger. Antonioni was one of the few geniuses of cinema. The story is about a man [played by Jack Nicholson] who steals the identity of a dead man, hoping that will solve all his problems. Actually, it just makes matters worse, and he gets pursued by the dead man's pursuers."
When I return home, I discover that Nicholson's character in the film was called David Locke, not John. In any case, when it comes to philosophy, Robbe-Grillet is inspired more by Heidegger than Locke. His writing and film-making have long been considered "phenomenological" whereby often repetitive descriptions of objects replace the psychology and interiority of the character. Barthes recognised this early in Robbe-Grillet's literary career. "The whole purpose of this author's work, in fact, is to confer upon an object its 'being there', to keep it from being 'something'," Barthes wrote in 1954. By using the Heideggerian term 'being there', Barthes meant the object in itself without any heredity, associations or references. This is why, in Robbe-Grillet's first published novel, The Erasers, there are so many paragraphs devoted to repetitious descriptions of the configuration of seeds in a slice of tomato. It is also why in Robbe-Grillet's 1957 masterpiece Jealousy, the narrator meticulously describes rows of banana trees and a squashed centipede on a wall. From these neurotically repeated descriptions we piece together the narrator's emotional experience of jealousy.
Robbe-Grillet wrote the novels that would seal his reputation in his spare time. His day job was as an agronomist. He wrote his first novel, A Regicide, in 1949, as he and his sister Anne-Lise (also an agronomist) conducted cervical smears on female rats for a subsidiary of Unilever. Later, before he wrote his novel of jealousy set amid the banana trees, he studied diseases in bananas.
Did the imprimaturs of Barthes and Blanchot help his literary career? "Let me tell you, they helped me sell not one book. Today's novelists seem to only want to write books that make money so they can pay for their families and houses. And one can very well understand that, because they are not trained to do anything else. Whereas for me, I had trained as an agronomist, so that if my books didn't sell, I could always return to my trade. I always wrote for myself."
Are your novels disguised autobiography? "In a sense. Jealousy was about three characters one of whom was me. I lived in a house like that on a banana plantation." Were you the jealous husband? "I won't tell you. In [his 1955 novel] The Voyeurs, the only difference between fact and fiction is that I did not kill the woman. A psychoanalyst once told me that it was useful that I had written the novel so I did not need to perform the murder. Similarly, lots of my books feature 13-year-old girls getting fucked. That doesn't mean I have done so." Are your films autobiographical? "They grow from my fantasies, yes. But if you are asking me if I have chained a slave to a bed in a room in Marrakech, I would say your question is ridiculous."
Only later did Robbe-Grillet's fantasies and quasi-autobiographies earn him money. "That was thanks not to the eulogies of Barthes and Blanchot, but rather thanks to the critics who attacked me." So perhaps the critical drubbing of his new film is a good thing? He ignores my remark. "What's more, I have sold very well overseas - I am the most translated French author in China and very big in Germany. Now I have a chateau in Normandy and a 100 sq m flat in Neuilly [the chic Paris suburb where Nicolas Sarkozy cut his political teeth as mayor]. Not bad for a nobody from Brittany, eh?"
He shows me a photograph of the country house. The word "chateau" overstates the charming country home's size. And yet it is in the grounds of this rustic pile that he wants to be buried. He wanted to be cremated but his wife Catherine opposed the idea. Today, the existence of Catherine, his wife for 50 years and a novelist in her own right, has to be inferred like that of the jealous husband in Jealousy. He will tell me nothing about his relationship with his wife, except for the following: "For years, especially when I was working on films, I had some lovely mistresses, and she didn't mind. she always thought they were flighty and they were. Later she had her lovers too. She's younger than me, you see. Good luck to her!" he adds, rising, saying he must take another leak.
When he returns, Robbe-Grillet offers to show me out. The interview has lasted three hours and it is his birthday tomorrow, so it seems rude to object. In the hall, Robbe-Grillet tells me he has a new novel coming out. (Called Castigarium, it is his 12th and will be published by Fayard.) "Because you haven't read it, we can't talk about it. But it will be a scandal - lots of sex with underage girls. It will be really shocking to the French reading public." He shows me to the lift, and bids me an affable "Salut!" As the lift descends, I think to myself: the French shocked by a sexually explicit book? It seems about as likely as French film critics finding Robbe-Grillet's celluloid S&M fantasies anything other than daft. Which is pretty unlikely.
· Alain Robbe-Grillet: Art, Architecture and Cinema is at the Serpentine Gallery on September 15 2007. He is appearing at the Institut Français on September 16 2007.
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