For 1967's loopy Trans-Europ-Express, the French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet constructed a self-referential thriller with Jean-Louis Trintingnant (Amour) as a brooding drug-runner obsessed with a) trusting no one, and b) beautiful women in bondage.
Arriving a bit late for the French New Wave party, Trans-Europ-Express nevertheless stands out for its playful film-within-a-film structure. In addition to writing and directing, Robbe-Grillet cast himself onscreen as a movie director discussing with his colleagues what the Trintingnant character ought to do. As such, it could be considered a copy of a parody, or an homage to a tribute. Whatever it is, Redemption Films' sharply presented home video edition of Trans-Europ-Express affords a good opportunity to view this clever if sometimes frustrating '60s-Mod exercise.
Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europ-Express script centers itself on the Trintingnant character Elias, a sullen, trenchcoat wearing antihero hired to transport a shipment of drugs from Paris to Antwerp, Belgium. Despite Elias' straight-faced literalism (asking a shopgirl to find him a suitcase ideal for hiding illicit drugs, for instance), it seems we're in for a straightforward crime drama - but wait! On Elias's journey to Belgium aboard the modern Trans-Europe-Express train, one compartment is occupied by a film director (Robbe-Grillet), a producer, and a script supervisor chatting about the particulars of their upcoming production - a crime thriller about a drug runner being pursued by thugs on a train. Upon his arrival in Antwerp, Elias spends much of the time being shadowed by men who are actually members of the crime syndicate who hired him, testing the green recruit on his loyalty. As if that weren't fuel for his paranoia, he eventually finds that French police inspector Lorentz (Charles Barbier), is hotly pursuing him throughout the city. Meanwhile, Elias delves into his kinky side with an alluring prostitute named Eva (Marie-France Pisier), a enigmatic beauty (could she be a spy?) ready, willing and able to indulge in the man's bondage fantasies.
Throughout Trans-Europ-Express, Robbe-Grillet playfully comments on the artificiality of the story and the medium of film itself. The train's shiny surfaces turn its occupants into hazy copies of themselves. Once Elias arrives in Antwerp, he is constantly shown looking through windows or reflected in mirrors. If anything, Elias is defined by what he consumes - buying a dirty magazine, navigating a street where prostitutes are posing in windows like products on display. Later on, as Elias takes refuge in the Antwerp apartment of a young sympathizer, Robbe-Grillet further stresses the pop culture in-jokery by having the youth's room decorated with a James Bond poster and portraits of famous movie actors. From a 2014 standpoint, we take it for granted that in-references to films, television, comic books, even porn is part of one big, amorphous whole - in this context, it's a fresh and startling conceit.
By turns fascinating and plodding, Trans-Europ-Express was the second of just ten feature films directed by Robbe-Grillet. At this point, he was brimming with ideas, even if he didn't have the wherewithal to execute them well. The disengaged, dry way it's done makes this clever exercise in meta-filmmaking a little too clinical. In Robbe-Grillet's hands, Elias' journey has the banality of another day at the office. Even the sex scenes are filmed too coldly to have much erotic power - perhaps it's a comment on how modern life has dulled our senses, but it could have been done with more nuance.
The 1.66:1 black and white DVD picture on Redemption Films/Kino Classics release of Trans-Europ-Express uses a newly remastered picture from the original 35mm elements. The restoration pleasantly ironed out instances of dirt and dust, while retaining the warm, grainy texture of the original celluloid picture. Although some scenes sport too much contrast (present in the original film), it's a solid and pleasing looking transfer.
The French-language mono soundtrack sports relatively clean-sounding dialogue and sound effects in a decent sounding, spacious mix. Optional English subtitles are provided, of course.
The main extra on this release is an absorbing Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet, recorded before the auteur's 2008 death. In this half-hour long talk, Robbe-Grillet discusses the film's production in gleeful detail. Other bonuses include a brief Promo Short on the film and trailers for three other Robbe-Grillet efforts getting reissued by Redemption Films.
A playful excursion in meta-film, Trans Europ Express benefits from the brooding charisma of actor Jean-Louis Trintingnant and the boundless creativity of writer-director Alain Robbe-Grillet. Its bone dry, self-referential cleverness didn't completely wow this viewer, although Redemption Films' solid transfer makes it worth a look for French New Wave enthusiasts. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.