Cast & Crew
A film director, Jean, his producer, Marc, and his assistant, Lucette, board the Trans-Europ-Express in Paris bound for Antwerp. Once in their compartment it occurs to them that the drama of life aboard the train presents possibilities for a film, and they begin to write a script about dope smuggling. Subsequently, they see actor Jean-Louis Trintignant walking through the station. As seen through the eyes of Jean, Marc, and Lucette, Trintignant becomes Elias, the chief character in the script. Elias is going to Antwerp to pick up a suitcase of cocaine for delivery to an international organization based in Paris. As Trintignant acts out their labyrinthine plot, Jean and the others frequently change their minds, re-shooting, parodying, or eliminating entire sequences. Through it all Elias is confused both by the double-dealing of his syndicate compatriots and by the incompetent plotting of his creators, and he seeks release in sadomasochistic rape fantasies with Eva, an Antwerp prostitute planted by the organization. After delivering the suitcase to Paris, Elias learns that the mission was only a trial, designed to test his efficiency and loyalty to the organization. His second assignment is genuine, however, and Elias soon realizes that he is being followed by Lorentz, a Belgian policeman. Entangled in a network of disguises and suspicions, he learns that Eva is working for the police, and he strangles her in earnest in one of their sadomasochistic rituals. Aware of Elias' perverse inclinations, the police follow him to a cabaret featuring a nude-in-chains act. But the syndicate chief, Franck, is also there, and he kills Elias before the police can get to him. Their imagined screenplay completed, Jean, Marc, and Lucette disembark at Antwerp. They read a newspaper account of a real crime that closely resembles their story, and they decide to abandon the project. Leaving the train, Jean-Louis Trintignant is met and embraced by a girl who looks very much like Eva.
Jean-marie De Coninck
Raymond St. Martin
Trans-Europ-Express on Blu-ray
A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director's second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk--a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet--you get the idea)--boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he's recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.
Think of it as Robbe-Grillet's Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director's own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity. Last Year at Marienbad played with the shifting perspective of memory and competing claims to truth with a slippery style that rendered "objective" perspective meaningless in the abstractions of the storytelling, the enigma of the characters, the blurring of past and present, memory and fantasy, even space itself. Trans-Europ-Express takes a more playful approach to the idea of storytelling and the fragmentation of the narrative experience. Robbe-Grillet tosses in the iconography of espionage movies (a suitcase with a false bottom, a gun in a hollowed-out book, bags of drugs) like they were ingredients in a recipe, sends Elias on elaborate assignments (masterminded by the drug kingpin to test his loyalty), adds in double-crosses, and gives him a love interest. Or perhaps sexual distraction is a better description. Marie-France Pisier is introduced as a girl on the train, then becomes the girl in every window watching Trintignant after he disembarks. Eventually this nameless, omnipresent observer becomes Eva, a hooker, and Elias is a client who requests rape fantasies and bondage, which she obligingly provides. It's consensual but she provides the requisite struggling to give him his money's worth, and provides Robbe-Grillet with the kinky erotic angle that will become more explicit in his subsequent films.
We've seen stories that play out with a storyteller narrating and changing details along the way (reflected in amended versions of the scenes, usually for comic effect) and Rashomon texts of stories that change shape and detail depending on the perspective, the teller, and the motivation. This is a little different. Yes, the narrative is constantly rewritten and changed by the filmmakers, who wander down alleys and toss out suggestions, only to discard or revise, and it sends their spy movie rewinding and twisting back on itself. But this is more like a quantum narrative; some of those nixed ideas refuse to die and continue to play out in their own alternate universe. Trintignant is at once Jean-Louis the private citizen, Elias the character, and Trintignant the actor playing the character Elias, identities that get tangled up in each other in the shifting levels of fiction, and the story is both a fictional construct and a "real" event brought to life by the storytelling itself. Dead characters come back to life and the entire cycle seems poised to begin again once the filmmakers disembark. Just like heading back into the pleasures of cinema stories and their mix of constructed plots and contrived twists, the blur between the performer's personality and the fiction created for the character, and the spectacle of screen images constructed for our entertainment. This is a work in progress, a piece in flux, and a sketchbook in motion that turns the blind alleys of a rough draft into a story in its own right.
Kino Classics gives the film its American debut on Blu-ray and DVD in an edition produced in partnership with the British label Redemption (which has its own imprinted line on Kino). It's mastered from original 35mm elements in good condition, with a strong image and mastered with what appears to be a minimum of digital noise reduction. There are soft surface scratches but no print damage. The film grain looks natural and the digital master has that cool, creamy black-and-white quality I associate with French films of the mid-sixties.
The film was previously released on Blu-ray in Britain and is slated for a new deluxe edition in a BFI box set this summer. Kino's American edition features none of the BFI supplements but it does offer a 31-minute video interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet conducted by Frédéric Taddeï a few years ago (in French with English subtitles). Also includes trailers for Trans-Europ-Express and two additional Alain Robbe-Grillet films (The Man Who Lies and Eden and After) slated for release on Kino in the future, plus a fun promo short with clips of all six film set for release by Kino.
by Sean Axmaker
Trans-Europ-Express on Blu-ray
Opened in Paris in January 1967; running time: 90 min. Sources conflict in crediting the role of Marc.