A woman, known only as The Prisoner (Anicee Alvina) is held by an unconventional authority figure, known only as The Judge (Michael Lonsdale), in a room not like any other prison cell -- a spacious sort of room with four white walls, a large vanity, a cast-iron bed, and four bars. The Prisoner and The Judge are discussing the murder of The Prisoner's roommate, Nora (Olga Georges-Picot), who was found lying in their somewhat similar cast-iron bed, in an apartment somewhat similar to The Prisoner's cell, with a pair of scissors sticking out of her heart. The pair debate the existence of another man who might have done the deed, what The Prisoner and her roommate were doing before her roommate was killed, and many other strange and important questions, in this surreal thriller written and directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet (screenwriter of Last Year at Marienbad).
There is no type of movie I would openly reject, least of all because the films were challenging, but I have been and remain unable to penetrate Robbe-Grillet's work. (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to watch Last Year at Marienbad multiple times.) Some internet research following Successive Slidings of Pleasure reveals that Robbe-Grillet and many of his contemporaries intentionally aimed to remove clarity and meaning from their films, which is a bit of a relief: Pleasure is packed with all sorts of visual symbolism that suggest signposts that an attentive viewer could theoretically follow on some path to coherency, but it's more likely that the film is simply meant to evoke ideas and emotions in the viewer that are not specific to the film, but the person watching it.
The main thrust of Pleasure may be the power of perception. The body is first discovered by a policeman (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who walks into The Prisoner's empty apartment and circles it multiple times before discovering the corpse in the main room, despite it being empty the first two times he walked through it. When The Prisoner begins telling The Judge her version of events, he finds himself a participant in a visualization of her account...wielding the murder weapon. The Prisoner talks to a nun, sister Maria (Nathalie Zeiger), while a photographer (Hubert Niogret) from a newspaper (or perhaps a fashion magazine) takes increasingly posed and sexy photographs of The Prisoner. The Prisoner also believes she has supernatural powers, including the ability to wish people dead. Robbe-Grillet also breaks the fourth wall: one person wonders if The Prisoner is "the script girl"; later, The Judge jots a note about a "recurring theme of broken glass" into his notebook. Finally, The Prisoner's lawyer, David, arrives -- and she looks exactly like Nora, much to The Prisoner's surprise.
This zigzagging, fractured, near-incomprehensible story is accentuated by stunning visuals, including The Prisoner, completely naked, dipping her body in paint and rolling it onto the white walls of her cell. Although the characters do occasionally venture outside, most of the film takes place against plain, white backdrops that emphasize pink skin, red blood, and dark suits. The reflection of a fire can be seen burning outside the cell at one point. The composition of these scenes is wildly experimental and often feels more like a painting in motion than a traditional film. One scene consists of The Prisoner cracking eggs onto Nora's naked body, then pouring blood red wine down as well and watching the yolks slide off. In the lead-up to the big body-paint scene, The Prisoner places her hand on the nun's breast, leaving a bold red handprint on her white robes.
All of this makes Successive Slidings of Pleasure memorable, but whether or not it's satisfying is a different story. Even acknowledging that Robbe-Grillet isn't interested in anything like a traditional narrative, there is no particular sense of drive or pacing to keep the viewer going. In the face of narrative chaos, an underlying rhythm or propulsive emotion seems like a natural and necessary way to keep a viewer engaged with what is otherwise a series of nearly unrelated sketches. Furthermore, the ideas appear just as spur-of-the-moment and unrelated as the pictures; if Robbe-Grillet is trying to get at a concept or idea through his deconstruction of the murder mystery or exploration of the power of illusion, or perhaps the power of female sexuality, which permeates the film (this might be what gives The Prisoner her power), I'm not sure what it is. Although Pleasure builds to a neatly circular conclusion, the interpretation of what that structure means is perhaps a little too open-ended.
Redemption Films' DVD of Pleasure is summarized with an image from the film, of a hand chained to a wall -- certainly an image that will prompt people to flip the case over to see what the film's all about. The disc is packed into a standard eco-friendly Amaray, and the rest of the artwork uses Kino's usual template.
The Video and Audio
Kino presents Successive Slidings of Pleasure in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen and French Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, sourced from a new transfer made using the original 35mm film elements. This is a fantastic presentation on both fronts, boasting wonderful color reproduction that really brings the film forward into the 21st century. Detail is a touch soft, but in a filmlike way. I did spot some faint artifacting in shots (on a man's suit coat near the beginning, for instance), but it's very brief and only those looking for it will notice. The stereo sound mix is surprisingly loud and aggressive, startling me out of my seat during the opening credits. The film has more of a haunted soundscape rather than traditional music, with the occasional squeaking chair or bed frame punctuating empty, quiet rooms where people talk to each other.
The disc's one real extra is an extensive and very interesting interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet (34:08), who chats with Frederic Taddei about his artistic choices and ideas that went into the film. as well as the traditional challenges of production, such as casting and budget. Taddei's enthusiasm for Robbe-Grillet really elevates the interview and helps make it fun, as well as the director's sharp memory of the shoot.
A promo for all six of Robbe-Grillet's films coming to Kino's Redemption line is also included, as well as trailers for Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies, and Eden and After. No trailer for Successive Slidings of Pleasure is included.
I don't discourage those who are curious about Successive Slidings of Pleasure from watching it. At the same time, although an experimental art film such as this one will always leave plenty to the imagination, I'd argue the disconnect in Pleasure is a bit more arbitrary than artistic. Considering the presentation and extra material, this disc earns a recommendation.
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