To the extent viewers are aware of writer-director Alain Robbe-Grillet at all, it is probably for his novels and his collaboration with Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad. All involve complex non-linear narratives that circle back on themselves as much as they move forward, in obsessive, sometimes ponderous formal experimentation. Like the protagonist of his early novel In the Labyrinth, struggling through the snow to deliver a package, the reader of a Robbe-Grillet novel can often feel trapped in a claustrophobic, fevered world, in which everyday details and objects take on hallucinatory brilliance, heavy with at times nearly unbearable deliberation.
Many would insist the results are pretentious at best. The baroque implausibility of Trans Europ Express avoids that criticism by displaying a side of Robbe-Grillet that is not often credited, his sense of humor. Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a drug courier delivering a suitcase of cocaine. He is also openly the creation of Robbe-Grillet, who participates as himself, telling Elias’s story to his producer and secretary on a train trip from Paris to Antwerp. It just happens also to be the train taken by Elias who, at one point, joins the filmmakers in their compartment, only to scurry away. When his secretary asks what he was doing there, Robbe-Grillet replies, “Didn’t you see? That was Trintignant.”
The film maintains that playful spirit throughout, ribbing and simultaneously exploiting the clichés of crime thrillers. Unlike Robbe-Grillet’s novels, which can sometimes feel as if they end without ever starting, Express builds to a climax of sorts, perhaps in a concession to the expectations of film storytelling. It nonetheless manages to “end” several times, tying up each plot thread, mischievously underscoring the arbitrariness of it all.
That playfulness may be enough to overcome some people’s resistance to the unconventional structure. Robbe-Grillet’s rather clinical, almost frigid eroticism is likelier to turn some people away. (Elias’s preferred form of intercourse, for example, is rape.) It would be a shame, because writers of Robbe-Grillet’s stature have rarely been given the chance to express their ideas directly in film, to revel in possibilities, open new territories and broaden expressive horizons. The kink is the least of it. This is filmmaking exuberantly determined to make more of the medium than yet another three act melodrama.
It has been frustrating to have none of Robbe-Grillet’s cinematic work other than Marienbad available until now. An absolutely abysmal VHS copy of Express that circulated for a while was so bad that the comic elements were completely lost in the struggle to determine what was going on. The Blu-ray from Kino/Lorber provides a beautiful, fine grain transfer that amply rewards any viewer eager for the genuinely new and smart. (It also includes some nice extras like an interview with the director.) Trans Europ Express proves that anyone who chafes at the constraints of contemporary film and aches to see the medium used to its potential can find much to enjoy in the work of Robbe-Grillet.