Published on August 19th, 2016 | by John Wisniewski0
Encounter with Roch Smith who tells us about Robbe-Grillet’s work
John Wisniewski: When and why did you become interested in the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roch?
Roch Smith: I first encountered Robbe-Grillet’s work when my wife and I saw the film he did with Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad around 1962 at an art theater in Lake Worth, FL, now known as the Lake Worth Playhouse. I confess that I did not immediately understand the film, but I was decidedly captivated by the hypnotic repetition of images and voices, especially that of Sacha Pitoeff who plays the role of what appears to be the jealous husband. I say “appears” because there is no reliable story line in this movie, written by Robbe-Grillet and directed by Resnais. But I was hooked and left the theater persuaded that this film would reward additional viewings… A few years later, while in graduate school, I began reading Robbe-Grillet’s novels and learning about the French new novel or nouveau roman, a literary movement in which Robbe-Grillet played a leading part. Here, too, it was hard to find a reliable story line. When I returned to Last Year at Marienbad and other Robbe-Grillet films such as L’immortelle and Trans-Europ Express, I began to understand that the real “story” for Robbe-Grillet was not the straight narrative we had all come to expect in a movie or in a novel. For Robbe-Grillet, what mattered was the telling of the story. The real “story” for Robbe-Grillet was to be found in the twists, turns, and hesitations a narrator faces in creating a yarn.
John Wisniewski: Do his films and books continue to cause controversy?
Roch Smith: I must say, I am uncomfortable with this kind of question because in seeking out the merely scandalous or sensational, it misses the point about Robbe-Grillet’s quite significant exploration of narration in both novels and films and his influence on how stories can be told. Was he controversial? Yes, as anyone who challenges established aesthetic patterns would be. And, yes, as a figure who made use of popular tales of sex, violence, drugs, revolution, etc. as tools in mounting that challenge. I first met Robbe-Grillet in 1982 when I invited him to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where we screened his 1968 film The Man Who Lies (L’homme qui ment). An aesthetically challenging film, it was well-received by an enthusiastic audience. No real controversy here. Two years later, I brought him back to campus for a screening and discussion of his first film in color, the 1971 Eden and After (L’Eden et après). Like all his films this one also defies established norms of story-telling, but it also goes further, in a very “soft” way, in making use of sexual clichés. In the discussion with Robbe-Grillet that followed, most expressed interest in narrative and aesthetic issues. But a small number of viewers did voice their objections to scenes of sexual violence involving women. Robbe-Grillet defended his work on the grounds that the lead female character, played by Catherine Jourdan, ultimately gains the upper hand and that the sexual vignettes he uses are stereotypes drawn from contemporary culture. When I arranged for Robbe-Grillet to return as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the fall of 1987, one of the highlights of his stay was the North American premiere of his 1983 film, La Belle Captive. This beautiful film, with its sumptuous chiaroscuro, lush color, and superb sound track virtually turned the audience into “beautiful captives.” Perhaps because the lead female characters, Cyrielle Claire as Sara Zeitgeist and Gabrielle Lazure as Marie-Ange, were clearly dominant, perhaps because of the sheer beauty of the film, or perhaps because Robbe-Grillet was particularly able to tell the story of story-telling in more familiar ways, this film did not seem to cause controversy. Other films have met with controversy elsewhere. Thus, the 1974 film Progressive Slidings of Pleasure (Glissements progressifs du plaisir) was condemned as pornographic in Italy, perhaps as much for the title as the actual content. But as Robbe-Grillet has explained, the slidings or slippages in question have to do with the narrative displacement of meaning that permeates the film. Likewise, the 1975 film Playing With Fire (Le jeu avec le feu) ran afoul of French authorities for similar reasons. As far as I know, more recent films, like The Blue Villa (Un bruit qui rend fou) (1995), Taxandria (1995), and Gradiva (C’est Gradiva qui vous appelle (2006), have not generated much controversy, in part perhaps because Robbe-Grillet’s filmic art has grown more familiar.
You also asked about his books. Some, like the early films raised aesthetic concerns but rarely moral ones. His last two novels, Repetition (2003) (La reprise ) and A Sentimental Novel (2007) (Un roman sentimental ) come down on both sides. The former, a tour de force that recreates a city’s atmosphere, post-WWII Berlin in this instance, in a way that recalls Robbe-Grillet’s early novels The Erasers (Les gommes) and In the Labyrinth (Dans le labyrinthe) will delight any reader who has come to know and appreciate Robbe-Grillet’s unique writing style. The latter, on the other hand, pushes well beyond the limits of taboo subject matter, ranging here from incest to torture and pedophilia, and is undoubtedly his most controversial work. Several critics have tried to see in this book another instance of Robbe-Grillet pushing the envelope of narrative form and an extraordinary exploration of aesthetic possibilities. Others, many who are otherwise sympathetic to Robbe-Grillet’s innovations, simply cannot stomach the extreme subject matter. My own feeling in reading this book is that Robbe-Grillet, for whom the erotic had previously helped generate the narrative imagination without overtaking the finely-tuned mechanism of his technique, allowed himself, in this book published the year before he died, to indulge in fantasies so extreme as to destroy the delicate instrumentation of his art.
John Wisniewski: Why was “Slow Slidings of Pleasure” put on trial in Italy, Roch? They accused the film of not making sense. Could you tell us about this?
Roch Smith: First of all, I take issue with your English translation of Glissements progressifs du plaisir as Slow Slidings of Pleasure. I know this was the English title put forward by an early commentator on the film, but it emphasizes the lurid and the sensational at the expense of the far more significant undermining of order in this film, whether narrative or social. A more balanced and accurate title, one that recognizes possible linkages between prurience and subversion would be The Progressive Slidings of Pleasure. For what is at work here are the slippages in meaning and authority that increasingly occur when such meaning or authority is called into question by the words and actions of the lead female character played by Anicée Alvina.
My answer to your question, which I hope will clarify my point about the title, is based on Robbe-Grillet’s own accounts, the first from his 1987 autobiographical book Angélique ou l’enchantement, unfortunately not yet translated, and the second from Robbe-Grillet’s answers to questions Anthony Fragola and I posed to him in our 1992 book, The Erotic Dream Machine, Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films. Robbe-Grillet’s recollections of the Italian trial in Angélique (pp. 199-209) is fairly extensive. But, to summarize, Slidings was condemned as pornographic in Palermo, and the case was appealed.
At the request of his distributor, Robbe-Grillet attended the appeal, held in Venice in mid-July, 1975. The Palermo judgment recognized that artists had a right to include immodest scenes in their films, provided such scenes were justified by the plot. Since the judges could find no discernible plot in Slidings, the Sicilian court argued it was pornographic. Robbe-Grillet’s lawyer pointed out how that argument justified most porno films since they typically had discernible story lines. He argued further that the judges themselves, as objects of the film’s subversion, could not render a fair verdict. In our book of interviews, Robbe-Grillet emphasizes his lawyer’s argument that the judges were not impartial because each judge had put his own fantasies into the film. He also acknowledges that the Sicilian judge was right in condemning the film because of non-narrativity. As Robbe-Grillet points out, the judge was correct as a defender of order, while Anicé Alvina’s character, a “sorceress” inspired by the work of the same name by nineteenth-century French author Jules Michelet, was correct from the point of view of freedom. Finally, despite Robbe-Grillet’s lawyer warning about a finding that would damage the Italian court’s reputation, the Italian negative and all copies of The Progressive Slidings of Pleasure were condemned to be burned in a public place, much like the image of the burning stake featured in the film itself, an outcome Robbe-Grillet delights in pointing out.
This article was translated in French by Alexandre Patron Ricard.