In the beginning of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Man Who Lies (L’homme qui ment), the protagonist (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is chased through a forest by soldiers who succeed in shooting him dead by the end of the credits. A moment later, however, he gets up, brushes himself off, and begins to tell a story about the events leading up to the betrayal of a local hero, “Jan Robin.” When he shortly moves on to the village where those events occurred, he shifts gears to explain his presence to the residents.
As he launches into another story, we begin to recognize that the liar of the title is not Trintignant, as he alternately claims to be Robin, or “Boris Varissa,” but Robbe-Grillet himself or, more generally, any storyteller. For Robin/Varissa tells one story after another about his past, with the result of making events constantly circle back on themselves. Nothing he says can be verified, and little adds up. Held in thrall by his fabrications, the villagers, soldiers occupying the village and Boris himself are powerless to do anything but react, regroup and dance around the maypole of a bewilderingly impenetrable situation.
The troops in the flashbacks, with their leftover Nazi-era Wehrmacht uniforms, are treated like stock villains but their nationality and purpose are obscure, and there is no attempt to make their presence particularly convincing. (For example, Boris engages with them in 1960s dress.) And no matter how elaborately Boris spins his stories, no one seems especially convinced by, or even interested in them. He nonetheless recounts them to everyone, turning the rest of the characters into bemused, vaguely hostile participants and objects of his invention.
Their hostility might result from having no lives beyond the roles he gives them. When Boris, for example, claims to have fallen in love with Jan’s sister, it isn’t clear about which of the actresses he’s talking. And while another actor (Ivan Mistrík) does appear as the “real” Jan, his presence does less to clarify matters than to muddy them further. Identity, truth, betrayal—all are secondary to the seductions and circumlocutions of narrative itself.
So the question “Who betrayed Jan?” is subordinate to doubts as to whether he or anyone else ever existed. And of course, they never did outside the stories themselves, in one of Robbe-Grillet’s more playful demonstrations of fictional contrivance. The Man Who Lies is nonetheless a trap for anyone who insists on the power of narrative. For while Boris’s stories are interesting up to a point, they begin to annoy as they go on and on. As he fails to keep his lies straight, as each moment is instantly subverted by yet another prevarication, we long for an end to the confusion and repetition. Story-telling as a way of life, the film seems to tell us, ultimately tangles the spider in his web of deceit while frustrating the rest of us no end.