Trans-Europe Express: Frankly Kinky

12/12/2012 4:00 AM |

Trans-Europe Express (1968)
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
December 18 at Film Forum, part of its Jean-Louis Trintignant retrospective

The movie begins with a producer, a secretary and Robbe-Grillet himself sitting on the titular train—which Kraftwerk would immortalize nine years later—and thinking up movie ideas. Like, a tale about a drug smuggler, Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who buys a false-bottom suitcase and travels from Paris to Antwerp to pick up a shipment of cocaine; while in Antwerp, he engages in bondage with a prostitute. Robbe-Grillet, the avant-garde novelist and Last Year at Marienbad screenwriter, and his companions revise the story as they go along; at no point does the film seem to have a firm basis in reality. Instead, Trans-Europe Express combines the reflexivity of Jean-Luc Godard with the sexual perversity of Luis Buñuel, though it’s not as accomplished as either director’s best work.

A character peruses bondage photos in one of the film’s earliest scenes. Elias seems to have a passion for BDSM; when he tells a prostitute that he wants “rape, only rape,” he really means that he wants rough sex. The film was briefly banned in Britain due to such explicitness, although it now seems rather mild—it wouldn’t even qualify as softcore porn. Nevertheless, its frank kinkiness is still rare, and it’s pursued obsessively enough that one suspects it reflected Robbe-Grillet’s own desires.

The film is quite enjoyable when it’s playful and suffers when it turns darker. There are two murders, but neither is particularly grave. When we’ve seen the filmmakers rewrite the plot on the spot, it’s hard to care much about the characters’ fate. To its credit, the ending seems to acknowledge this difficulty. While Robbe-Grillet’s innovations drew on the French New Wave’s, he took them further, setting the stage for the sexually charged cinephilia to follow.