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Sensing the Sensuous


Alain Robbe-Grillet is interested in a variation of the statement that nobody was born yesterday. In Robbe-Grillet’s films (as well as in his novels) it is as though the characters were born today, devoid of a previous life that will link them to a psychological and plausible milieu. Whether it happens to be the script for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, his early work L’Immortelle, or the later La belle captive, Robbe-Grillet wants, finally, not only to indicate that the image is always in the present, but that we cannot take the past seriously; we cannot assume it is a reliable indication of event, but that we need to question whether it is a false memory, imagined situation, dream sequence or parallel world. If we can say of L’immortelle that it is about a melancholy man of independent means falling in love with a mysterious woman in Istanbul who then disappears, and that he then finds her, that she then dies in a car crash while he survives, and that he will later die similarly, this appears a justifiable explanation of the diegesis. But it will be saying nothing about the form in which Robbe-Grillet explores this relationship. The scenes are so fragmented, with the soundtrack sometimes alluding to sequences elsewhere in the film, that we might be tempted to insist it is the product of one’s man mind.

But if the detailing of events does no more than offer the story, the latter goes too far in offering an interpretation. If Robbe-Grillet insists that the image is in the present one can see why a subjective approach is tempting: when we think about a visit to the zoo when we were a child, when we recall a parent chastising us, when we remember a wonderful holiday, we are doing so in the present. We’re not returning to the past; just accessing now memories that have lost their reality and only contain their traces. It is the rare person who is able to reconstruct a childhood memory with the cause and effect so coherent that it could be re-enacted. Our memories play to the vagaries of time rather than to the coordinates of space. As Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography, Ghosts in the Mirror, discussing his approach to writing and memory: “They’re extremely intense, unforgettable impressions yet nebulous, fleeting, evoked by the sticky (often comforting) adjectivity of the familiar world, by its emotional pressure which soon becomes unbearable, by its questionable insistence – they compel us to describe it in order to explore it or give it shape.”

Yet to put memory into the past nevertheless can often give it a certitude Robbe-Grillet wouldn’t want to provide. Frequently, when we talk of the past, our relationship with time as opposed to space can allow for ellipses that space will not countenance. We talk about arriving by train at one and catching a bus at two, but if we could look at the records perhaps the train did not arrive until two fifteen and so we couldn’t have caught a two o’clock bus. Time does not often concern itself with these discrepancies our relationship with space cannot accept. All it would take to upset the universe is that we had caught the bus at two even though the train had arrived fifteen minutes afterwards. Dream and recollection allow for such possibilities, our relationship with space does not. This is perhaps why Robbe-Grillet is so insistent in claiming that the image is always in the present. He seeks perhaps a work that is closer to Borges’s ‘The Aleph’ than Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’. It is more the simultaneity of all things over the recollection of past actions mingling with new thoughts that often interests Robbe-Grillet, and so it makes sense that he would elaborately evoke, for example, Camus over Proust. When he talks of Camus’ The Outsider he says: “what this [Meursault’s] consciousness needed was to feed off the external world, devour it day by day, digest it and in the end itself become the world, leaving nothing outside.” Yet consciousness cannot evacuate itself, and for all Meursault’s attempts to live in a perpetual present, a self constantly and inevitably intrudes. “He has to purge his soul relentlessly by casting himself out as if he were bailing out a boat that’s filling with water, unburdening it by throwing overboard the meagre treasures stored in its hold.” (Ghosts in the Mirror) Robbe-Grillet’s films frequently place themselves within the space between time unreliably and acceptably accessible, and consciousness inevitably unable to live in the present tense.

If film is the ideal medium for such an approach to existence, it rests in cinema’s capacity to generate the perpetual present much more acutely than literature. One can feel in film the safety not of time regained (though most films still settle for this approach to the temporal), but the vertiginous sense that time is not so easily compartmentalized into the past, the present and the future. As L’immortelle initially introduces us to a series of brief moments that are provided with no temporal context, so we are in a series of presents we wait to disentangle into the appropriate tense. Many films of course play with this temporal confusion partly because of the film’s capacity to generate the present: from 21 Grams to The Burning Plain. As the films move from one scene to the next we assume we are in the present only to discover that some moments are in the past. But the image then settles into narrative convention as it easily if eventually distinguishes its past from its present. As Paul W. Kahn says of The Burning Plain: “The trick of the film is that we don’t realize until deep into the movie that two sets of characters, who seem quite different, are actually the same people at two different points in their lives.” (Finding Ourselves at the Movies) In 21 Grams the early stages cut between three main characters and also moments leading up to the event that will link these three people (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts): a car crash which kills Watts’ husband. The husband’s heart will be Penn’s new heart. Penn and Watts will become involved, while Del Toro is the man of God fretting over the crash he caused. It takes a while before this story is revealed to us, but there is a clear line between past event and present predicament. The temporal order may initially be confusing, but it ends up coherently putting time in its place, just as in The Burning Plain time sorts itself out too.

L’immortelle wants time to remain disorderly. No matter if we can extract from it a story, we cannot quite extract from it a sense. What do we mean by this? Let us look more closely at the film’s opening moments. First we have a lengthy tracking shot as if seen from a passing car showing us a ruined castle and its walls, accompanied by Oriental music. There is a screeching noise on the soundtrack as the film then cuts to a woman sitting back as if transfixed only for us to notice a slight heaving of the breast and the faintest movement of the eye as the film’s blurred image of her becomes more focused. As she fades out the film cuts to a man standing in the corner of a room looking out of a window through the blinds, and then to blinds being pulled as we see another shot of the woman similar to the one moments before. The film then offers a series of shots with what seems like the same woman L. (played by Francoise Brion) except for one where the woman has shorter hair and we only see her from behind. After these shots the film goes back to the man N. (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) looking out of the window. As he looks out through the blinds we hear the sound of a clipper boat passing and, in the moment before the film goes back to him looking outside, we also hear a clipper boat and see it passing through the window as L. turns towards the camera. Can we assume that at the very least the room she is in when she turns is the very room that N. is standing in? Can we also assume that the shot where L. is standing by a ruined wall is the very wall of the castle that the tracking shot shows us in the opening moments? These would seem to be fair inferences, but others would demand less confident assertion. When we see the blinds pulled to reveal L. we cannot take for granted that these are simply being pulled by N. as he looks out of the window, because she is shown inside as if someone from the outside has been pulling the blinds.What is so infuriatingly dizzying about Robbe-Grillet’s film is that it demands and defers reasoning constantly. If The Burning Plain and 21 Grams puzzle us all the better to remove that confusion later in the film, L’immortelle never quite allows us to put the pieces back together again.

For example we cannot at this stage in the film see that N.’s hand is bandaged, cannot know that the screech of the car could indicate L.’s death in a car crash. Later the bandaged hand will give us an opportunity to make some inferences about where we are in time, just as L.’s death later in the film might lead us to locate that early sound in a later narrative moment. Yet the bandaged hand only gives us a hint of temporal coherence, and the car crash could just as easily be an audio foreshadowing of N.’s own demise at the film’s conclusion. From where are these images narrated we might wonder, from beyond her death, or even beyond his own? It is not so much life flashing before a character in his moment of death, or a melancholic reflection of a man at a window looking back on a lost lover and a tortuous affair, though the film contains these narratives within a broader one, it is finally more that the whole film is a moment of simultaneity forced by the circumstances of a temporal medium to offer progression that alludes to time but doesn’t want entirely to be contained by it. Where The Burning Plain and 21 Grams are happily embedded within linearity and play with it all the better to generate curiosity in the viewer before tidying up its chronology, L’immortelle remains caught in the impossibility of time.

This attitude to time helps explain two aspects of Robbe-Grillet’s work: his interest in stereotypes and his inclination towards offering a name as an initial. Though later works adopt names like Franck, Violette, Elias and Eva, here and in Last Year at Marienbad initials will do as he emphasizes the type over the character, a cipher for narrative purpose(lessness) rather than psychological investigation. As he would say of the modern novel: “How much we’ve heard about the “character”! Moreover, I fear that we haven’t heard the last. Fifty years of disease, the death notice signed many times over by the most serious essayists, yet nothing has yet managed to knock it off the pedestal on which the nineteenth century had placed it.” (For a New Novel). Better instead to settle for stereotypes he would claim. “I believe that stereotypes are a raw material that one cannot avoid, only one must manipulate them in such a way as not to be a victim of them.” It is a remark he makes in a commonly quoted interview, mentioned by both Nick Pinkerton in a Film Comment piece on Trans-Europ Express, and by David Taylor in the DVD notes to the Robbe-Grillet bfi box set. A stereotype does not have a biographical past as an individual but much more an aesthetic and historical past as a typology. In L’immortelle N. isn’t a man with a detailed personal background, he arrives in Istanbul instead with much literary baggage: he is the man obsessed with a mysterious and beautiful woman and what matters to Robbe-Grillet isn’t what aspect of his personal history leads him to become obsessive, nor what demons the woman might be hiding as she becomes the figure of obscure desire, but the permutations that can come from these broadest of types. We don’t have to agree with Robbe-Grillet’s assumptions; we merely have to accept their importance in his work and understand why he would be drawn to utilizing them.

Biographical detail would be in danger of doing two things: cluttering up the narrative with categorical past events, and countering Robbe-Grillet’s determination to suggest the perennial present. Often what makes a flashback clearly a flashback is that it comes from a character’s point of view, and frequently their need to explain an experience that has happened earlier in time. Whether it happens to be anything from Letter from an Unknown Woman to Double Indemnity, the past explains behaviour and character, where Robbe-Grillet wants to use temporal instability to call into question the solidity of such notions. Now of course Letter from an Unknown Woman and Double Indemnity are also strictly in the present even when they flashback into the past: the film might be moving back in time but we as viewers inevitably experience it as the present moving into time future: it is furthering the story even if it happens to be doing so by travelling into the past. But there are various methods by which the filmmaker can stall this sense of forward progression. One would be apparently irrelevant detail where, if instead of Fred MacMurray explaining how he met Barbara Stanwyck, the film drifted off back into his childhood, explained how he got into the insurance business, detailed friends he had, lovers he met, all the while the viewer wondering why he is sitting dying in his office with a gun wound. The film would have stalled its forward momentum through irrelevance. It would usually be a sign of bad cinema rather than experimental filmmaking, as time past’s purpose is really only to allow the story to move forward while it plays with chronology all the better to tease out the narrative and withhold information from the viewer till a later date. When a film has a gun pointing at our leading character in the opening scene, it is an opportunity not necessarily for the hero to wrestle the gun from the other man, but for us to wonder how he got into the predicament. The most important dramatic point might be whether he will get killed, but that doesn’t make how he got there unimportant, and by utilizing information of secondary significance but of still great pertinence, the filmmaker can ask for our patience without killing off tension.

However, Robbe-Grillet’s L’immortelle might foreshadow the leading character’s death if we accept the sound of the screeching car anticipating his own demise, and it might even share with film noir a fall guy and a femme fatale. But while noir is a genre often given to flashback all the better to tug us forward, L’Immortelle instead borrows the tropes all the better to keep the story running on the spot. We cannot know how the relationship develops, nor know why  L. plays with N.’s feelings if she happens to be playing with them at all. The noir might be a slippery genre but it nevertheless insists on certain fixed points through time, space and through motivation. The spaces are clearly delineated as we know exactly where the femme fatale lives, and the existence of time past fills out the motivation: maybe the heroine was taken in by a richer, older man whom she never really loved and has recently started physically abusing her. She might be making the latter up, but this doesn’t lead to radical indeterminacy; merely a lie the fall guy has to fall for until he learns better, often after it is too late. Robbe-Grillet isn’t averse to using many of these tropes, but the form he offers them in is so obtuse that he dissolves stereotype not through creating characters textured and ‘lifelike’, but by disintegrating the formal constraints that usually contain them. This is why Robbe-Grillet can claim of novels like The Outsider and Madame Bovary that they would be worthless if simply the tense were altered. “It suffices to change the tense of its verbs…for Camus’ universe to disappear.” Hyperbole perhaps, but Robbe-Grillet practices what he preaches: L’Immortelle is a wonderful example of a film that if it did not play with its cinematic tenses could easily fall into exotic cliché as a Frenchman arrives in the Orient and searches for some eastern promise. Numerous moments are obvious and yet to conclude pejoratively that the film is a compendium of clichés would be Robbe-Grillet’s very point: what matters is how the information is organized.

However this wouldn’t be to indicate an ironic relationship with the image, but instead a maddening one. If the former asks us to be wise to the tropes, Robbe-Grillet asks us instead to be wary of such confidence: he wants the image to be obvious initself but not at all obvious in our perceptual comprehension of that image. Take a couple of brief moments we have already mentioned. One is where we see a woman from behind with shorter hair and, unlike in all the other brief shots at the beginning of the film where we are certain that the woman shown is L., we might be inclined to think this is someone else. Yet a couple of minutes later the film shows that this is L. with a different haircut. When she had this cut and how it works with the temporality of the film we will have to then try and work out, even if it happens to prove impossible. After all, if this is the first meeting and then they meet again not long afterwards, L.’s hair has grown remarkably quickly: at the party at N.’s her hair is much longer. (The film will play throughout with the two haircuts to create indeterminacy) Also, later in the film we see at the quayside a woman dressed identically and with the same haircut  but see that this is another woman. It isn’t that Robbe-Grillet wants us to sort out the chronological events, but to call into question our assumptions once we start trying to do so. If an ironic image playing up the stereotypical can lead to the viewer feeling they have mastery over the material as they notice femmes fatale, fall guys and unlikely romances; familiar lines of dialogue with a wink, scenarios with a nod, Robbe-Grillet offers clichés all the better not to subvert them, but to deny us our certitude in relation to them. Thus we can think of another moment we’ve mentioned, where L. turns to face the camera in a room that would appear to be the same one that N. so often longingly looks out from. We see her a few minutes later in the film in the same dress arriving at the N.’s apartment for a dinner party. Again boats can be heard passing but the windows are curtained yet appear not to have shutters. In the other scene they are both shuttered and curtained. Are these the same windows? Perhaps, but they have been modified rather like L. herself.

Just after this shot of L. looking out of the window, the film cuts to the quay with a solitary chair on it, and then pans in the direction of a boat on the Bosphorus to L. standing on the deck. She looks screen right and the film cuts as if to what she is looking at (the chair on the quay) before cutting back to L. looking out of the window. This is a play with continuity editing where our mind makes connections between cuts because of the logic usually assigned to them in most films. If someone looks out of the window and we see what is there we will usually credit it to a point of view shot. If the camera pans in the direction of the boat and in the next shot we see someone on it, we take the initial image to be an establishing shot of the person on the boat. If a person looks screen right, then we reckon that the next image will show us what they are looking at. In L’immortelle the grammar of film allows us to make the assumption, but what is in the image contradicts that certitude. During this brief sequence we also hear what we might assume is L. being offered a drink, and then a conversation about the chair that seems initially to emanate out of a conversation heard offscreen on the boat, but that would seem to refer to another moment altogether on dry land. Should we then assume that when the film cuts back to L. at the window that the few shots have been a reverie? Perhaps, but a reverie to what, since L. and N. do not really yet know each other, and her invitation to the party is where she initially gets to know N?

In Paris Review, mainly discussing his literary work, Robbe-Grillet says what annoys him about critic Georg Lukacs is that he is so interested in what something is saying that he doesn’t see clearly enough its form. “Lukacs doesn’t see it. I mean he doesn’t see the way it is made.” Robbe-Grillet adds, “it is not a question of evoking, but of piercing the world. Suddenly a fundamental meaninglessness appears in the world”, and Robbe-Grillet sees this aim in literature as much more important than one of evocation. Talking of his novel Jealousy he says he wasn’t looking for an objective description of the world; he was looking to achieve “an experiment with anxiety. The anxiety which Heidegger believes man must experience as the price of his spiritual freedom.” He sees this price being paid in Flaubert but not in Balzac (whom Lukacs wrote so positively on). What counts is not descriptive brilliance capturing the ready coordinates of time and space, but their rupture as formal achievement, and this  is exactly what we see at work in the scene we’ve just quoted.

What we have are two things: the world that is filmed and the world that is edited. Usually there need be no discrepancy between these two worlds because the language of film has worked hard to eradicate the gap. When a film cuts from one face to another, from one scene to the next, the space is clearly delineated in the former and the transition smoothly pragmatic in the latter. If for example in the former instance a filmmaker has two shots where the characters are talking to each other and the shots don’t quite match, so that it appears as though they’re not quite looking in each other’s eyelines, the filmmaker can cut again to the establishing shot of the two of them sitting at the table talking. Because there has been a cut in between the failed eyeline match, the viewer won’t notice the mismatch. In the latter, when a film shows a character getting on a plane in San Francisco and arriving in New York, with a shot in between of the plane in the air, we do not assume that this is another plane, but the very one the character happens to be on. All it would take in the first example is to refuse the cutaway, and in the latter to make the plane belong to a different airline, for the viewer to call into question these coordinates that are so often taken for granted. In many a modernist filmmakers’ work (Godard, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Bunuel) the gap between what is filmed and how it is edited is pronounced. This is due to their interest not in describing the world but in piercing it as Robbe-Grillet would say. By refusing certain formal assumptions that lead us to say where we are in the story, the director asks us to wonder what underpins our certitude. If earlier we invoked the example of the train arriving at 2.15 which would have made it impossible to catch a bus at 2, for Robbe-Grillet such contradictions are possible because we live not in time past as space, but in time past as memory, and memory is a fiction. “Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention.” (Paris Review) By analogy Robbe-Grillet and other modernist filmmakers insist we should see film less as computationally logical than cerebrally vague. By playing with our expectations concerning filming and editing, Robbe-Grillet can give cinema a properly cerebral function.

This helps explain and clarify a contradiction that lies in the director’s work, and also some would say his writing. Is Robbe-Grillet a subjective filmmaker or an objective one? Roland Barthes writing on his fiction referred to Robbe-Grillet as objective in a very specific sense: that his work was turned towards the object, was fascinated by descriptive possibilities in the objects of scrutiny. Robbe-Grillet in For a New Novel says that “the New Novel aims only at total subjectivity.” However, by focusing on the objects the subjectivity becomes freed rather than falling into a false subjectivity that end ups objectifying the viewer or reader. When he says “to reject our so called “nature” and vocabulary which perpetuates its myth, to propose objects as purely external and superficial, is not – as has been claimed – to deny man; but it is to reject the “panathropic” notion contained in traditional humanism and probably in all humanism.” (For a New Novel) Think of how often the shot and the cut contribute to this humanistic assumption: a cut to a reaction shot of a tearful wife watching her husband leave for a job abroad; a mother watching her child playing on a swing, a son attending his father’s funeral. These are all opportunities for humanist assumption contained with conventional film vocabulary. The film tells us how to feel both technically and ideologically. There is no space for the piercing; no space for the thought that happens to be one’s own as it asks for homogeneous feeling through conventional form.

Robbe-Grillet wants to break with such grammar of feeling, and claims for example that he and his characters never feel moral responsibility or guilt. (Paris Review). Whether or not the director is exaggerating, it is central to his escape from humanist comfort. To explain finally how he tries to generate a post-humanist aesthetic let us look at two further scenes. The first is the most dramatic scene in the film: the car crash that kills L. Here in a sequence that resembles scenes from Vertigo, Psycho and Eyes without a Face, L. drives through the outskirts of Istanbul at night with N. asking questions in the passenger seat. The sequence plays fair with our spatial expectations: shots from them looking out into the night in front of them are matched by shots of the road and the forestry lit by the car’s lights. The crash is presented elliptically but not at all confusingly. The film cuts from a dog on the road, to L.’s screaming and losing control of the car, to a cut of the tree that the car crashes into, and then the car crunched up against the bark with N. standing next to it in the background, the dead dog lying in the foreground. The film shows torchlights suggesting an off screen presence, as we hear Turkish voices talking but with nobody seen. The police arrive shortly afterwards, and then N. is asked some questions at the police station. Perhaps the oddest element of the sequence resides in L.’s scream: she might be careering into a dog, but the sound she offers resembles the screech of a cat. It is a minor example of audio infidelity that nevertheless reflects a soundtrack that doesn’t want us to take anything for granted. Moments earlier, as they are driving and after N. asks questions about her life, L. talks about being free at night as oriential music starts playing on the soundtrack. It is a cinematic invitation to flashback that the film refuses, as L. will remain a mystery saved from revealing her past by the unfortunate fact of her demise. Though Robbe-Grillet presents the sequence with a high degree of relative convention, nevertheless the film does so all the better to withhold the mystery. It is an ironic play with the stereotype of the mysterious object of desire that can never really be known, and the director offers it well aware of the cliché, but all the more so to undermine any clear idea we have of what is going on. It is perhaps closer to Bunuel than to noir: closer to the narrative interruptions practiced by the great Spanish director in Belle de jour, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty than to the fall guy getting in too deep.

Or perhaps we can say the depth the character gets into isn’t criminal, but vertiginously emotional, a state of reverie that draws all moments together into a cinematic collage that collapses time and space. But then we would be sorting the film out so that it appeals to our own common sense: a sense that can easily accept the film’s indeterminacy of meaning by slapping upon it a meaning that it is all ‘subjective’. After all, it is word Robbe-Grillet invokes so why shouldn’t we? However, perhaps it would be more useful to say that what interests the director is that he doesn’t want to radicalise film form for the purposes of exploring a character’s mindset, but wants to take a character’s mindset to explore film form. As he says, talking of repeating certain moments in his work: “it is not because a scene is important that it is repeated, but by being repeated it becomes important. In general, nothing really important happens in my films – it is the way certain scenes recur. As I said, there is no significance.” (Paris Review) To talk of N.’s mind would be to credit him with more meaning than Robbe-Grillet would insist upon, and generate more meaningfulness than he wishes to offer. When he invokes Borges’ claim that the great novels of the 20th century are detective novels (The Turn of the Screw, Sanctuary, The Castle), they are nevertheless, like his own, without the solution of the conventional form. What matters is not the meaning gained from the solution, but the maddening need to make sense out of the senseless.

But perhaps it is better to think of a sense that is not so much senseless but sensuous, and that he wants his work to have some of the feeling of music rather than the meaning of narrative. He would claim that his early seventies film Eden and After was based on the principles of 12 Tone Music, and the repetition we often find in his work could be seen as a variation on the Bolero: that what matters isn’t narrative development, but the rhythm of repetition. Thus to conclude we can think of the last few minutes of the film where numerous earlier moments come back to haunt not only, or perhaps not even so much, the central character, but to haunt the film: to create a haunting as music offers a refrain. These are not moments that reveal the story as we often find in details that are repeated from a different point of view all the better to show who the real killer happened to be, or the motives behind a crime. No, these are moments we may already have seen on a number of occasions before, but whose meaning will remain elusive. As N. drives along what looks like the same road where L. was killed, he passes a man and his dog, a man and dog we might recall from the time when he first meets L. on the quayside, and presumably this is his remaining Doberman Pinscher, the other one having died in the middle of the road when L crashed the car. There is some sort of cause and effect here, but these are questions that we should ask of course but not answer, because if we do not ask them we are not working hard enough with the problems of film epistemology which constantly expects us to make connections, but to come to a conclusion is to refuse the challenge that such weak cinematic links demand. The film seems to insist that we watch with the attentiveness of a thriller, but with the rhythmic expectations of music. When we see shortly before the end of the film a tracking shot remarkably similar to the one that opens it, can we say this is the same scene, and is it a point of view or merely a tracking shot; is it a flashback or in the present as N. moves towards his own death? In the shots that we see of N. driving through the night, are some of them recollections of L.’s demise or are they all concerned with N.’s move towards his own?

Obviously there is the risk in such cinema of arriving at the meaningless as the radical ambiguity leads one to care not at all about the events on screen, but if Robbe-Grillet is an important filmmaker it lies in his ability to shift the question from that of caring about the story and the characters, to one of fascination with the hypnotic pull of the material. How many songs and operas are there where we do not only or especially care about the story, but we still experience the opera or song? We might come away from L’Immortelle completely incapable of disentangling events, however like music it has managed to achieve the temporal demands of its form  yet without making us feel obliged to insist we make sense of the intricacies of its narrational dimension. It remains maddening but not meaningless as the film proves so sensually rich partly because it refuses the ready demands of sense.


©Tony McKibbin