Against a picture-perfect Mediterranean sunset, a beautiful woman sings a song from Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" about a ship with blood-red sails guided by a pale mariner searching the seas for his true love. Moments later, the strand of the song lyric is picked up by a narrator named Edouard Nordmann (Charles Tordjman), a self-described screenwriter living on a tiny, isolated island whose hub is a brothel and casino where the specialty is mah-jongg.
In the screenplay Nordmann is writing and continually revising, the mariner is a supernatural sailor named Frank whose annual visits to the island are said to be his ritual atonement for a terrible crime. Gradually the myth assumes a more personal and immediate dimension as the screenwriter recalls the death of his young stepdaughter, Santa (Sandrine Le Berre), possibly at the hands of a sailor named Frank (Fred Ward).
So begins "The Blue Villa," a dreamy puzzle of a film written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who directed it with Dimitri de Clerq. The movie, which opens today at Anthology Film Archives, is a slow, lyrical descent into a story that becomes steadily more intricate as it interweaves Nordmann's ever-changing versions of past events with theories by other narrators, including a police inspector named Thieu (Dimitri Poulikakos), who pores over Nordmann's tape-recorded musings for evidence.
Are Nordmann's notes for a screenplay a true account of the past or the deluded alibis of a drunken pedophile who molested his stepdaughter and possibly had her drowned? As the film goes along, the plot becomes more sinister, and the story's whiffs of perverse eroticism more pungent. The Blue Villa is presided over by a beautiful, witchy woman named Sarah-la-Blonde (Arielle Dombasle), who stalks the seaside cafes on the mainland enticing tourists to visit the tiny island. Her protegee and lover, to whom she teaches the Wagnerian air, is a young woman known as Lotus Blossom, who may or may not be the step-daughter of Santa, hidden in the brothel. Sarah has a boss named Mars (Michalis Maniatis), who may or not be involved in white slavery and drug-dealing. The labyrinth of plot and supposition goes on and on.
For those partial to Mr. Robbe-Grillet's cinematic mysteries, the most famous of which is his screenplay for "Last Year at Marienbad," "The Blue Villa" is a satisfyingly cool, elegant immersion in playful narrative invention. Except for Nordmann, who goes to pieces, wracked by fever and the hallucinations brought on by tainted bootleg liquor, the film's main characters remain dreamlike apparitions.
As the stone-faced sailor who returns to the island, Mr. Ward moves through the film with a ghostly silence. Miss Dombasle's Sarah has the aura of a mythical Greek siren.
"The Blue Villa" is a meditation on storytelling and the way we translate our own lives into movies, elevating experience into myth, exculpating past crimes by deleting and rewriting, and ultimately handing our story over to others for polishing and production. That may be why "The Blue Villa" has a putatively happy ending told by someone other than the original screenwriter. THE BLUE VILLA Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Dimitri de Clercq; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Robbe-Grillet; director of photography, Laurence Tremolet; edited by France Duez; music by Nikos Kypourgos; produced by Jacques de Clercq; released by Nomad Films. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 100 minutes. This film is not rated. WITH: Fred Ward (Frank), Arielle Dombasle (Sarah-la-Blonde), Charles Tordjman (Nordmann), Dimitri Poulikakos (Thieu), Sandrine Le Berre (Santa) and Michalis Maniatis (Mars).
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