John Locke is a Brit in Marrakech exploring Delacroix's seminal visit there. He's in an isolated villa with Belkis, his enigmatic servant and concubine. He receives slides of erotic drawings that could be by Delacroix; an antique dealer, who's a doctor and may be a white slave trader, says there are two such sketchbooks. By now, Locke's dreams have become intense: they include sado-masochism with compliant young women and visions of a woman in white, who may be a nineteenth century woman executed for an affair with a Frenchman. She looks like a local actress. Against Belkis's advice, Locke accepts various invitations. Aside from dreams and tableaux, will anything real happen? Written by
Here we have a film that should be very intriguing to Alain Robbe-Grillet fans. There is perhaps a tendency of critics and viewers to focus on the more youthful works of directors and abandon the mature canon, Robbe-Grillet falls into this lacuna, alongside Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Argento, Jancso, Resnais, and Iosseliani. This could be a case of going for style over unvarnished self-expression. Gradiva is less stylistically audacious than Eden and After (both movies have similar geographical themes and settings), but Robbe-Grillet is saying a lot more about the nature of fantasy and love, and actually the nature of censorship, in this film. I think it's even really a very gentle movie despite the extended focus on S&M.
ARG has always been very careful to delineate between reality and on-screen fantasy, but nowhere more so than in this movie, where, as in Trans-Europ-Express, he has a character actually creating the story we are seeing, to stress that, "it's only a movie". This has been a tradition of decadent literature, de Lautréamont for example prefaces Les Chants de Maldoror with the following caveat, "God grant that the reader, emboldened and having become at present as fierce as what he is reading, find, without loss of bearings, his way, his wild and treacherous passage through the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-soaked pages; for, unless he should bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a sustained mental effort at least as strong as his distrust, the lethal fumes of this book shall dissolve his soul as water does sugar." To me at least, the plot of the movie is quite simple when stepping back. Locke lives with his (apparently indentured) servant Belkis, who is in love with him. At night he hears the faint singing of Gradiva, who can seen as death, or a ghost, or a facilitator of Locke's more extreme fantasies. He leaves Belkis on his shiny Harley (a motif from La Belle Captive) and journeys into the bazaar of Eastern fantasy. It's a simple Bollywood/Hollywood cookie cutter script at heart, there's a man and there's a good girl and a bad girl battling for his heart.
The main character in this movie is John Locke, presumably a reference to the synonymous philosopher whose conception of the self as a continuity of consciousness is a clear touchstone of the movie. He's an Orientalist professor who is interested in tracing the Moroccan adventures of the painter French painter Eugène Delacroix. This also may pique the curiosity of the Eden and After fan who had noticed at the time the influence of Delacroix in certain scenes of that movie (the firedancing by the sea with the Arabian horsemen for example).
Locke shifts through different modes and interstices, fictional, oneiric, uncanny waking, it's often hard to tell. There's an illuminating quote from Leila/Gradiva, "In fact the world of dreams resembles very much the other. It's its exact double, its twin. There are characters, objects, words, fears, pleasures, dramas, but everything is infinitely more violent." There's a Madame Butterfly theme to the movie, some may say the use of the music was a step too far, but Robbe-Grillet was too old to care about such posturing I'm sure.
So I mentioned about censorship at the start. There's a quite stunning moment where it dawned on me that Arielle Dombasle was speaking as Alain Robbe-Grillet, from beyond the grave, on the theme of censorship. She talks about herself as a "comedienne de rêves", by which she is talking about film direction assuredly. She tells a story about having planned a "Sado-Lesbian epic", which was to have starred an underage girl, the girl was enthusiastic, the parents had signed off, everyone was in accord, but the producer was too afraid to do it, can you imagine, he only cared about money ("des sous!", which I presume is a pun?). It sounds a very interesting film, but I think ARG is being a bit quaint, setting the film industry up as something that would be self-policing on the matter of the use of underage nudity.
There are a lot of likable uncanny touches in the movie: at the start of the film Locke is watching a slide projector with a deck of Delacroix paintings of horses. One particularly good one is in sepia and shows a woman dancing whilst holding the bridle of a rearing horse. Locke hears the clip clop of hooves, the dream has become reality, and he looks out the window and sees a horse and female rider outside. Locke's toothache was a slightly nausea-inducing effect which worked well for me. My favourite though is how characters he meets, strangers or otherwise philosophise at him and finish saying, "Didn't you know that John Locke?" I wondered going in to the movie about the chances that it was on a par with Eden and After. My surprised answer is yes, it may even be better. There is an element of juvenilia to Eden and After, I think ARG, who was a mathematics student once, was probably picturing himself as one of the bored dramatic maths students in that movie. Gradiva I felt was a more mature and frank work.
I think that some would be disappointed that the dreams are not presented with the audacity say of the sequences in Tarsem's Cell. However I think that would be over-exuberant for the subject matter. James Wilby as Locke is interesting, I recognise him as a bit part actor from UK TV series, so how he got involved with this is a mystery to me. I would say a lot of people wouldn't quite go for his performance but he is very much meant to be a Candide in this film, so I can quite happily accept what others may look on as naive acting.
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