The line between artistic experimentation and amorphous indulgence is very fine, often more a matter of inclination and sympathy than a reflection of any obvious achievement. You have to take on faith that your confusion and disorientation result from deliberate, exploratory purpose, that the artist’s goals deserve a serious effort to understand and that the blurred work in front of you results from feelings or ideas beyond the capacity of traditional methods to express. When the results are as uneven and problematic as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Eden and After, it is even more difficult than usual to make the distinction.
Eden, a student café hangout, is a kind of chrome and glass, pop expression of De Stijl abstraction. The main character, Violette (Catherine Jourdan) speaks of the students “playing” this or that part, but it is not clear if they are literally actors, or if she is making sardonic comments about their behavior. In any event, the café scenes are so fragmented, alienating and pretentious that it takes real dedication to sit through them. The students’ games have an irritating similarity to the worst of Godard’s “Marx and Coca-Cola generation” antics. Even Robbe-Grillet followers will probably look upon the tedium in the beginning of Eden and After as something to be endured in order to enjoy the problematic, but sensually gratifying remainder.
The “After” of the title refers largely to Tunisia, pre-figured when Violette tries a “fear powder” while still in Eden, inducing visions of what will follow. (Typically, the visions prove more suggestive than accurate.) Once the location changes, Eden picks up, mainly because Robbe-Grillet and cinematographer Igor Luther use the desert sun and bleached stucco architecture to produce eye-popping splashes of color and texture. Even the Tunisian scenes are a touch off-putting, however, since the film’s exploitation of exotic locales inevitably raises the question of whether the results warrant yet another equation of sun, sand and Arabs with sex, violence and corruption. (One wonders what the Tunisians in the film thought of the goings on.)
My ambivalence may result from Robbe-Grillet’s own. The Kino-Lorber Blu-ray includes a different cut of the footage, entitled N. Took the Dice, created for French television. The rather singular phenomenon of a director completely re-cutting an existing work results in something equally indecipherable, save for a concise statement of Robbe-Grillet’s theory that narrative is created by the viewer. (It’s essentially the same point he made in his essays about the reader of written fiction in For a New Novel.) The recut changes the point of view of the story, alters much of the dialogue and largely eliminates the admittedly somewhat arbitrary plot thread that holds Eden together. Unfortunately, instead of cohering more effectively, the results are even more difficult to follow and endure. Even if the outcome had been lucidity itself, however, the fact that Robbe-Grillet recut the film at all suggests he too was not entirely happy or secure with Eden and After.