Given that TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS is the only movie directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet which the late conservative British film critic Leslie Halliwell reviewed in his celebrated “Film Guide”, one would think that it was more accessible than his usual reportedly impenetrable stuff and, in a way, it is – but still, the end result is hardly straightforward and almost as cerebral!
Jean-Louis Trintignant, in the first of four films he made with Robbe-Grillet, plays a novice drug courier tested by his future employers in carrying a stash of cocaine (which is actually sugar) by train and depositing it into a train station locker – but this simple task is fraught with any number of unexpected complications including police interrogation and night-time chases. Marie-France Pisier is a very beguiling presence here as a whore/double agent with whom Trintignant has several S&M encounters in a hotel room until her ‘double face’ drives him to murder…or does it? Although I was aware that the actress had played Colette in Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series and had the leading role in the trashy THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT (1977), looking at her filmography just now I was surprised to learn that she was also in one of my favorite films, Luis Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974), as well as Jacques Rivette’s ambitious fantasy CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974; which I’ve just acquired via the BFI’s 2-Disc edition)!
What this film has that the other Robbe-Grillet titles I’ve watched (including THE IMMORTAL ONE ) don’t, is a surprisingly substantial dose of humor: in fact, the writer-director himself appears as a train passenger who is contemplating a film about drug-trafficking which (given that he happens to be on the train himself) would be an ideal vehicle for Jean-Louis Trintignant!; similarly, when Trintignant and Pisier go to a café he tells her that the waiter who had just served them was not a waiter at all but an actor playing a waiter!; during one of the various meetings with his shady employers, Trintignant is asked to repeat where he is supposed to meet his contact – implying a very complicated route – he simply replies “Where” (at which his employer doesn’t even bat an eyelid!), etc. At one point, Robbe-Grillet’s fellow passengers complain that drug-trafficking is no longer hip and that diamond-smuggling is the current criminal fad; therefore, Trintignant & Co. exchange costumes and settings accordingly…before the director decides to stick to his original idea (whim?) after all! Incidentally, this ‘screenplay-in-the-making’ structure reminds one of the contemporaneous Hollywood comedy, Paris WHEN IT SIZZLES (1964), which was itself a remake of an earlier French original – Julien Duvivier’s LA FETE A' HENRIETTE (1952). In fact, the whole self-referential element in the film and its heady spoof on the thriller genre recalls the Jean-Luc Godard of BREATHLESS (1960), BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964), ALPHAVILLE (1965) and PIERROT LE FOU (1965) more than anything else...
Unfortunately, what I said about the poor video quality of EDEN AND AFTER (1970) applies to an even greater extent here – since this one looked distinctly like a tenth-generation dupe (with actors’ features being quite blurred at times and especially, alas, during the S&M striptease act towards the end). That said, the film itself is let down somewhat by sluggish pacing – even if the version I watched ran for a mere 88 minutes, when all sources I know of give its running-time as 105! As it is, I’d welcome a legitimate DVD release of TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS and one hopes that the recent passing of its creator will inspire adventurous labels to pursue its rights.
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