Friday, 6 February 2015

Eden and After/N. Takes The Dice

Grillet In The Midst

Eden and After (L'éden et après) 1970
N. Takes The Dice (N. apres les dés...) 1971
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Redemption US 
US Blu Ray Zone A

It’s kind of interesting how these kinds of films come to light sometimes and how they’re seen to be perceived by the general public at large. I’d been seeing loads of tweets about Alain Robbe-Grillet just lately and then I saw this US Blu Ray edition containing both Eden and After and the companion piece, N. Takes The Dice, going relatively cheaply at the Westminster Film Fair. So I took the chance on it as a blind buy, thinking I’d not seen any work by this director before, and I’m rather glad I did though, it turns out, my assumptions about my previous experiences with the director were false.

When you look at a synopsis for Eden And After on the IMDB you’ll find that the basic story synopsis has been written to fit in with a very conventional and linear reading of a subjective response to the material which is actually quite alarmingly 'off' and makes me wonder whether the author had actually bothered to watch the film all the way through. It also makes me wonder why a film which eschews such a kind of linear coding, quite implicitly and deliberately (as made even clearer by the character narrative on the recut N. Takes The Dice version of the film) has been subjected to somebody trying to find a story in it for any reason anyway. As it happens, the film can be interpreted in a linear fashion if one so desires... but not in the way that it’s been written up in the IMDB, from what I can see.

Now I thought I’d not seen any of this director’s movies before but, as it turns out, I’ve not only seen one but I reviewed it for this blog a couple of years ago (see my review of Gravida here). As I started watching the movie I started to notice, very quickly within the first 30 seconds or so, a strong game playing element to the film, which led me to say to some people that I felt the movie was playing in the same kind of territory as Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year In Marienbad (L'année Dernière à Marienbad). What I didn’t realise until the day after, when I looked Alain Robbe-Grillet up on the internet, was that he’d provided the story and script of the Resnais classic, so it’s interesting that his writing left his fingerprints all over the work of the Resnais film in such a way that my subconscious could pick up on it with this movie, also written by Robbe-Grillet.

Eden And After becomes quite implicit from the start that nothing is necessarily what it seems, opening with two and sometimes more voices throwing out single words or double word phrases in a kind of question and answer response in exactly the same way that someone interested in psychological responses might play a word association game. Interspersed with these shout outs are also names and job descriptions culled from the opening credits typography, which is being displayed simultaneously as these words are pitched against different shots, some of which may be establishing shots and some of which (if not all) are future or discarded shots from the movie you are about to watch, presented in a fragmentary fashion.

So we have one voice saying something like “Mise En Scene” to be answered by another voice in response saying “Flowing blood” and stuff like this, while the opening titles are running their course. Even this opening is fairly surrealistic and an indicator of the inherent, unreal nature of a lot of the film... concentrating as it does on a lot of shots of texture made by objects as part of the credits montage, pitched against the typography and voices. In a possible, and I think probable, nod to Hitchcock, one of these shots throws typography against an angled set of windows of a multistory building in a way strongly reminiscent of Saul Bass’ opening titles for North By Northwest.

The film is unbelievably rich in composition, design, editing and pretty much everything else you could think of. Starting out in the local student hangout, the cafe known as Eden, where the main protagonists play out their storytelling games with each other... the space is sharply split into vertical shapes which divide the screen and informs the way the characters are sequestered into their own areas of the frame. Indeed, even when the characters are depicted outside the less naturalistic set confines of the Eden of the title, Robbe-Grillet continues to throw up strong vertical shapes when he can and, when we have long stretches of time away from the cafe, this modus operandi helps glue the various pieces of narrative strand, if that’s the right term for this kind of “event cinema”, together in a much easier to swallow form.

Sometimes, for instance, shapes and colours of clothing, bed sheets and the arrangements of these items will match the compositional style of a painting in another shot of the other side of a room. These early indicators of echoing this specific painting become more implicit in the 'narrative drive' later on as the shapes of the painting are revealed to be a representation of a specific location, once the painting is turned through 90 degrees. So these deliberate visual echoes are left in and later exploited to build up levels of mystery in a game the director/writer plays with the audience.

Other stylistic  and creative flourishes include various characters breaking the fourth wall to let the audience know what is coming next at one point early in film. This is very much, again, in the nature of the game playing attitude expressed throughout the film on all levels and, given the free flow strategies and cat & mouse attitude of the deception displayed here, it seems almost surprising that the beautiful shot compositions are chosen to capture the chaos with a very formal, rigid delineation of space.

That being said, the director is certainly not above playing with his compositions in order to facilitate that attitude at a visual level. The cuts to and from shots and sequences in the film can be jarring and when applied to the sense of where the characters are themselves, in the journey from start to finish, can be quite disconcerting if you’re unfamiliar with this style of movie making. He uses, for instance, the ‘narrative’ to fold time back on itself and displace our notions of the order in which events in the film happen... even though this visual and verbal displacement can often contradict what has been implied as a narrative truth in earlier scenes.

Another example of the visual composition used to disrupt our preconceptions of the visual syntax of film making comes in a lovely little scene where the leading lady, played by Catherine Jourdan, is walking backwards and forwards in profile, left and right, while addressing the camera. Pacing completely off the left and right of screen... the shots are obviously stopped and restarted after each time she is absent from the screen for a short time. Robbe-Grillet takes advantage of the static, formless background to change the distance from the camera of the girl dramatically from what she started off with at one point, meaning she quickly re-enters the shot as a much larger size... only the technical limitations of the day highlighting the technique (you can see the cuts as they are being made) to spoil the illusion that the girl is changing physical space within one continuous shot.

The actual dialogue is interesting and spirited but, looking at it from today’s perspective, does seem a little naive and pretentious in some sections of the movie. You get the feeling that the cast and crew are infants who are learning new ways to walk and, in terms of the way the film is put together, there may be a grain of truth in that. However, it is quite spectacular, both visually and in terms of following through the almost surrealistic ideas in a way that does hold together as a single piece... which is perhaps a bit better than the recut the director did from alternate footage of the same shoot for French television. This version is called N. Takes The Dice and is also included on the Redemption Zone A Blu Ray.

Well, I say it’s a version but, in reality, the same scenes, some of them from different angles, are used while others completely absent from the first film are added, plus there’s a whole lot taken out to give us, pretty much, a completely different film with something approaching a more ‘cause and effect’ kind of cinema... something I’ve always used as a shorthand for linear storytelling and which, to my surprise, is a term the director also uses, through the voice of one of his characters, in this recut. Different things happen in this with, more or less, the same visuals due to little tricks like having voices with new dialogue come out of the various actors’ mouths when the shot cuts away to another person. So the students who take on the role of kidnappers and antagonists towards the end of Eden And After are transformed into rescuers/liberators and it’s done purely through the dialogue and the omission of certain footage.

This version was intended to be aired on French TV but it was never shown at the time. I honestly don’t blame them as the straight jacket thrown over it by the experimentation of the director to make the footage mean something else... an element, I suspect, that was always at the back of his mind anyway, and probably the spirit in which he approached the editing of all his films with, to make the film take shape from the treatment of the footage in various ways like a potter might reshape clay... is much less interesting and much less watchable in my opinion. Now it could be that I was less impressed because I watched both features back to back but, honestly, I think it’s more a case of this experiment not working well in terms of something which is entertaining. It might well be considered a successful experiment but, I found N. Takes The Dice to be rather a drag, in contrast to the original Eden And After, which I found naive but refreshing.

Ultimately, though, this Redemption Blu Ray is an excellent transfer of a great print and I had a much better time with it than when I watched his later work, Gravida. I’ll definitely try to explore some more of this director’s work over the coming years and I found this one to be a much better jumping on point for me. If you like French cinema and want to see something which I would best describe as a cross between Jean Luc Goddard, in terms of the form and intellect of the material... and Jean Rollin, in terms of the beauty of the shot coupled with a little less believability in the acting, then you might want to check out the cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet and, definitely, Eden And After in particular.

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