“This stuff never happens in Belgium!”
It’s time once again to enter the heady, sometimes inscrutable, often sexy, occasionally kinky world of French art house cinema with a look at one of the earlier works in the BFI’s forthcoming Alain Robbe-Grillet box set.
We’re in the Gare du Nord in Paris. Robbe-Grillet himself flicks through what might be termed at the time a publication for ‘sophisticated tastes’ at a newsagents before boarding the train of the title. But wait! It’s not him at all! Instead he’s playing a director called Jean who, together with his producer Marc (Paul Louyet) and his script girl Lucette (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) is trying to work out the plot for a new film. We see his initial crime movie plot pitch acted out with men in fake comedy beards and an Adam West-era BATMAN-style bomb which explodes and gets us into the main credits.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is an actor who, for me as a boy, was always the Man Who Was In Every French Film Ever, beating even such ubiquitous late-night BBC2 favourites like Alain Delon and Gerard Depardieu. He gets on the train. “He could be your star” says Lucette and all of a sudden he is, playing drugs courier Elias and getting into all kinds of mishaps dealing with a gang who seem to be constantly testing his trustworthiness. It all reaches a climax when the police set a trap for Elias that involves a naked girl sitting on a rotating disc while chains are wound around her as part of a nightclub act and train noises and the sound of a woman moaning play on the soundtrack.
For the most part, TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS is a light-hearted play on the French Flic movie genre. All the traditional tropes are there, including Alan Partridge’s “men in long raincoats who meet in brasseries at dawn”, silly coded messages, fake policemen (including Daniel Emilfork who will be known to fans of Euro-horror for playing the devil in Jean Brismee’s THE DEVIL’S NIGHTMARE (1971), obviously pretend blind men, tiny guns, and a beautiful girl (Marie-France Pisier) who isn’t what she seems and also isn’t averse to a bit of bondage (this is a Robbe-Grillet film after all).
The film frequently cuts back to Robbe-Grillet and his collaborators working on the plot that is unfolding in front of us, effectively blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality (which in this film is also fantasy of course, but of a different kind) and placing it firmly in that special genre of movies that are about movie making, one that might include Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) and, perhaps even more similarly, Michael Winterbottom’s A COCK AND BULL STORY (2005).
The BFI’s Blu-ray transfer looks excellent and the print is clean and bright. Extras include another thirty minute interview with the director that’s actually quite a delight to watch, and a newly recorded commentary track from Tim Lucas that is likewise pleasantly informative and points out things that may well get missed on a first viewing. In fact it’s a bit like having a good (and chatty) friend who knows a lot about the movie in the room with you.
Another winner from the BFI, I have to say I found much to enjoy in TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS. I may well be becoming a fan of M. Robbe Grillet.
The BFI is releasing their box set ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET: SIX FILMS 1963-1974 on Blu-ray and DVD formats on 30th June 2014.