Alain Robbe-Grillet was already a successful author, with four published novels under his belt. Inspired by cubist paintings and the experimental work of American authors like William Faulkner, these novels rejected normal story structure. Like the contemporaneous French New Wave cinema, Robbe-Grillet’s novels were a reaction against art forms they felt had become too stodgy and formula-bound. When he started experimenting with film in the 1960s he took this sensibility with him: first as a writer of movies, and then writer-director.
Trans-Europ-Express was Robbe-Grillet’s first, and most financially successful, foray as auteur. He embraces much of the New Wave sensibility, shooting with small cameras on-location rather than on elaborate formal sets. The locations include Paris, Antwerp, and the new, very modern train line that ran between the two — the Trans-Europ Express, or TEE. In an interview included on my copy, Robbe-Grillet explains his producer arranged filming on the real TEE for free, promising it would be excellent publicity.
Like The Princess Bride, the movie has its own framing device. A producer, a director, and a “script girl” board the Trans-Europ Express in Paris and start discussing setting a movie on the train. The producer’s vision is acted out on the train in broad, comic terms. A drug smuggler, wearing a huge fake beard, leaps aboard a train pursued by a crowd of police officers sporting hilarious fake mustaches. There is a standoff; the drug smuggler sets off a cartoon bomb, complete with illustrated explosion, that destroys the train.
The director is Robbe-Grillet himself. The script girl is his wife, Catherine.As the opening titles conclude, a man exits the subway and starts shopping for a suitcase. He asks for help from a saleswoman, saying he needs one “suitable for traffickers, with a false bottom to hide the drugs.” Yes, it’s going to be one of those movies. But things take a mind-bending turn when we watch this smuggler board the Trans-Europ Express himself and sit down in the carriage next to our movie-writing team. They stare at each other for a bit, clearly uncomfortable, before the man packs up and looks for a more hospitable seat.
“What’s up with him?” asks the director. “Didn’t you recognize him?” the producer asks. “It’s Trintignant,” says the script girl, and so it is — the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, already in character as Elias, a small-time drug smuggler on the Trans-Europ Express.
This kind of experience is common throughout the movie. The film is shot naturalistically and entirely on-location, but in a way that constantly highlights how artificial filmmaking and storytelling is. In one scene, set in Antwerp’s Central Station, a paranoid Elias constantly looks over his shoulder as a police detective teleports around the station’s stairwells.
In the interview, Robbe-Grillet points out that the TEE doesn’t even pull into Central Station. He just liked that location better for shooting. “I was already starting to interfere with reality by making the Trans-Euro Express arrive in Central Station in Antwerp,” he says. “One of the most entertaining things about film-making is departing from reality with something concrete and not cardboard.”The movie rewrites itself as the script-girl, like Fred Savage a couple of decades later, raises objections or concerns. Characters get dropped, locations change, and details shift as she forces greater and greater continuity on an exasperated director.
Robbe-Grillet invites comparison between Elias and James Bond by having Elias unconsciously mimic Connery’s pose next to a From Russia with Love poster. While Bond visits exotic locations and luxury casinos, Elias is wandering grimy docks and Antwerp’s red-light district. Where Bond is a suave lady-killer, Elias is more than a little awkward. More than once, Elias seems threatened by women unsubtly checking him out. The hotel maid looks like she’s ready to jump him at any moment.
He does, however, take a quick liking to Eva (Marie-France Pisier). She almost immediately invites him to her place. “No, I’m not interested,” he says.
“What interests you, then?”
“Rape,” he says. “Only rape.” That’s a bit jarring, but he appears to mean light bondage. Eva is game, for the right price, and brings him around to her place after all.
This is something bit Robbe-Grillets knew something about. Alain was quite open about his interests, and Catherine wrote popular sadomasochistic novels under the names “Jean de Berg” and “Jeanne de Berg.” One of her novels, L’Image, was burned in Paris in the 50s, then turned into a movie by Radley Metzger in the 70s. Although I am not sure when she started, Catherine also worked as a pro-domme until her death at age 85.
Trans-Europ-Express seems to have done well in France; although it was not a tremendous success, Alain Robbe-Grillet says the producer still made money (“because he’s a good producer”). The story itself is confusing, muddled, and unpredictable — but deliberately so. Just as in his novels, Alain seems aggressively uninterested in telling a straightforward story. It’s up to you to tease out the details and put things together in a way that makes sense for you.
Somehow the cheap budget (and occasionally cheap jokes) keep the film from seeming too artistic or pretentious, however. Trintignant, whose name I really must learn to pronounce, does an excellent job playing a not-too-bright anti-Bond trying to act suave. The movie runs just over ninety minutes, which is a suitable length because it takes a bit of focus to watch.
Kino Lorber distributes the movie in the United States, but if you think you would like more of Robbe-Grillet’s work and have either a Region B player or a region-free player, there’s a Region B/2 box set that’s more economical.