Made in 1974, Successive Slidings of Pleasure demonstrates novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet’s obsessive interest in sadomasochism, particularly enacted upon beautiful young women. It is tempting to suggest that obsession is all the film has to offer. There certainly is no effort to camouflage that orientation in this story about a young woman who brings out the deviant in nearly everyone she encounters, nor any hypocritical effort to moralize about it. (The one character who indulges in a bit of moralizing is in fact something of a villain.) Indeed, the main character (played by Anicée Alvine, in a role never named) implicates the spectator in the action more than once, even turning to the camera after asking a priest to burn her at the stake because she says she wants to entertain us, the audience.
Does that open, honest approach make the proceedings easier to accept? For most people, probably not, but then Slidings is not a movie for “most people,” and not just because of the violence and sex. (When it was new in the “porn chic” ’70s, it probably wouldn’t have seemed all that scandalous.) As with all of Robbe-Grillet’s work, action is fragmented, incomplete, repetitive, unmotivated and frequently unexplained. Anyone expecting the methodical forward movement, careful dissection and constructed revelations of standard crime fiction will be alternately bored or confused. The “characters” are little better than emblems of obsession and futility, whose every move only deepens the sense of stasis. It surely can be no coincidence that one of the few characters unaffected by the protagonist, the inspector played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, ends the film with the line “Then we have to start all over again.”
There is, of course, the sex to keep interest, but anyone eagerly anticipating pornography will be as disappointed as someone expecting a three act drama. A great deal is implied, several beautiful women are stripped naked, the color cinematography has a Kodachrome-like vividness, a broken bottle serving as a condensed point of fixation for libidinous violence is invested with crawling, suggestive dread, but the cumulative effect is cold, nearly clinical. As if to underline that lack of sex appeal, at one point the main character and her roommate, Nora (Olga Georges-Picot) “torture” a mannequin that is just as perfectly formed, just as carefully posed, just as lifeless as all of the women in the film.
If there is any point to this strangely asexual catalog of deviance, it is the interaction between the spectacle and ourselves. Alvine’s diabolical innocence seduces us as much as the other characters, but for all the depravity, Successive Slidings of Pleasure is emotionally flat. Alvine charms in a vacuum, because our final desire is simply to know what all of this is about. Predictably, that question is never answered, with results for neither the faint of heart, nor the easily irritated. Any reaction beyond indifference is possible; to understand, we “have to start all over again.”