Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review of Eden and After

This February, novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet died. The news was not nearly as publicized as last year’s passing of directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, perhaps because virtually no Robbe-Grillet films are available on DVD. At the time of his death I hadn’t read any books or seen any movies by the French surrealist, though I was highly interested in his work. One reason was that he’d written the screenplay for “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961), a movie over which I constantly obsess.

Over the last month I made it a top priority to see two Robbe-Grillet films, “Trans-Europe-Express” (1966) and “Eden and After” (1970). The presence of Jean-Louis Trintignant and some misguided information that the film was linked with the Kraftwerk album of the same name focused my efforts towards “Trans-Europe-Express,” but ultimately it was the latter film (suggested by Cinebeats) that proved more rewarding.

“Eden and After” can be divided into three sections by location: Eden, a factory just outside Eden and a coastal Middle-Eastern region which dominates the film’s second half. Eden is a combination nightclub, playpen, Piet Mondrian installation, and house of mirrors. Those outside of Eden speculate about the hedonism and crime that goes on within, while the jaded sensualists that haunt the place act out the creative rumors from sheer boredom. They live a life free from responsibility, emotion and truth, occupying most of their time with word association, exotic role-playing games, hallucinogenic drugs and mock funerals. Franz, a waiter who “feigns to be bizarre and ominous” serves drinks.

This charmed, but meaningless existence is shattered by the arrival of “The Stranger” from the outside world. Violette (Catherine Jourdan), a short-haired girl from Eden, samples his “powder of fear” and experiences a powerful series of horrifying visions and sensations. She soon emerges as the main character during a terrifying night in the industrial landscape that surrounds Eden. When she returns to her living quarters she finds that a valuable abstract painting, her only possession, has been stolen. She journeys to the Middle-East to recover it, but finds that so-called reality is a nightmare wonderland far stranger and crueler than her sheltered fantasy-life in Eden.

It’s a testament to Robbe-Grillet’s skill as a provocative surrealist that at times I felt that his allegories were plainly spelled out, but moments later I would be utterly baffled as to the precise meanings. Certainly the title and plot have a death of innocence hue, and they work both as a metaphor for the personal transition from home/school to independence/work and for the sixties counter-culture watching its idealism turn trite or grow corrupt. Yet this hardly works as a skeleton key for unlocking the full meaning behind the story. Besides, much of the film’s magic comes from its mythic spirit-quest delivery that relies more on the emotional and psychological impact of individual images (whether they be upsetting, erotic or just aesthetically intriguing) than on overt metaphors or fables.

One thing I like about “Eden and After” is the way that it deals with the nature of reality and abstraction. Like many of my favorite directors, Robbe-Grillet does not draw a clear line between fantasy and reality. However, unlike Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the audience’s sympathy is not stacked in favor of fantasy through a tacit value system that exalts imagination and novelty. In “Trans-Europe-Express” and “Eden and After” the excursions outside reality are loaded with dark intimations. The opportunity for new possibilities goes hand-in-hand with untold dangers.

The director’s ambivalence towards fantasy/reality is quite pronounced. It is not even clear exactly how the central dichotomy (“Eden” versus “After”) is situated. Does Eden represent a sheltered fantasy world while the outside chaos is reality? Maybe the passionless malaise of Eden is a metaphor for bourgeois life while the intense escapades that ensue outside are actually the exciting dream-adventures for which the Edenites yearn. (At one point a bored Russian roulette player wistfully wishes he were playing with real bullets.). Either way, Eden is no paradise and the external world bears little similarity to our own so it remains difficult to reliably anchor an interpretation.

Though their meaning is debatable, the relationship between “Eden” and “After” remains the main object of interest for me. Some thoughts on it:

Almost all of the role-playing and story-telling that are played out in the facility have analogues in Violette’s outside quest, implying that Eden is a training ground or shadow simulation. Then there is the hallucinations triggered by the powder of fear, later revealed to be largely accurate glimpses of the future. Are we then to suppose that everything “after” Eden is merely a continuation of this drug episode, no more real than the other antics, or is it an honest fulfillment of a predetermined destiny? What are we to make of Violette’s beloved abstract painting, which eventually turns out to be a landscape, albeit turned sideways? Its theft motivates Violette’s extended odyssey and yet she ultimately dismisses it as “that absurd little painting.”

“Eden and After’s” visual motifs vary throughout the three major settings, but the tone remains consistent. Robbe-Grillet indulges his fascinated with the formal properties of image-making, particularly the division of the frame with strong lines, the relationships between colors and the contrast of abstract geometry with the complexities (and often the sensuality) of the human form. His conception of interior design and architecture is uninviting and sparse whether he is dealing with the colored partitions and rectangle mirrors of Eden, the clanking metal struts and menacing cylinders of the factory or the white-walled domes and blue-trimmed apertures that populate the Middle-Eastern village. There is often a sexual quality to his work, most conspicuously in several scenes of bondage and captivity (a theme that runs through “Trans-Europe-Express” as well). Robbe-Grillet’s painterly eye for form and composition is all the more impressive given his background as a novelist.

There’s much more to be said about the film and many individual sequences that I’d like to single out, but it will have to wait until I’ve seen the film a second time. It does a wonderful job speaking for itself and I don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises. Yet, like many of art house films I mention on my blog, it’s hard for me to guess what type of viewer will appreciate the film enough to make it worthwhile for them to seek out. Here's one litmus test: “Eden and After” would likely appeal to anyone who liked two or more of the following directors: Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alain Resnais, Luis Bunuel and Raoul Ruiz.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

8 comments:

Kathryn said...

I'm glad you called me over for the 'powder of fear' scene.

Too bad that one's not on you tube like the subway scene in possession. Or is it?

Walrus said...

There you go:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YauhheIq3Tk

Wireless said...

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Mad Dog said...

This movie sounds up my alley! I enjoy a good balloon-popping when it comes to movies and their stances towards fantasy worlds. There's only so much whimsy I can take before I want to shake the TV and say, "GET WITH THE PROGRAM!!" I sort of equate it with my impatience with regards to ghosts.

So since it's not on DVD, I'm assuming it's available on VHS?

Walrus said...

Mad Dog,

Knowing how you feel about the sublegal, I'd warn you not to pursue that line of questioning too much further. After extensive searching with plenty of financial willingness I was not able to find any vendor who could promise me a fully legit copy. If Criterion or someone ever comes along with an option where Robbe-Grillet's estate will at least see a dime or two, I will immediately purchase.

Wireless,

Glad to to hear that someone out there shares my love for "the Wireless" and finds my pseudo-academic cinematic ravings so likable that they grant me a cyberhug. I would love to visit your blog and exchange spam with you some time.

Kathryn said...

One of the great articulations of the ages- "If possible gives a last there."

I spent several minutes yesterday reliving the awesomeness of that wording to myself. ...because I am very cool and smart.

paynith said...

Wow, almost shocked to see this on here... Eden & After is in my top ten! It was so rare for so long... well, it's still SO rare, but at least a high-quality version finally surfaced last year. For years I was watching a horrible, swampy VHS bootleg for the last several years. I was hoping Robbe-Grillet's (tragic, duh) death would at LEAST bring forth a slew of proper DVD releases.... we'll see.

You should also check out "N. a pris les dés", (an anagram of l'Eden et après); it's constructed with outtakes from Eden. It was only made for French tv and is also crushingly rare, but not to be missed!

andrew marc said...

Just a note: "N. a pris les dés" can be viewed on ubu.com