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The Forgotten: Alain Robbe-Grillet's "The Man Who Lies" (1968)

Alain Robbe-Grillet's "The Man Who Lies" is a typically perverse, disorientating garden of branching paths through time and reality.
It didn't take long for Alain Robbe-Grillet to plunge into directing, after the success of his literary career (as doyen of the nouvelle roman) and his screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad. And it didn't take long after L'immortelle, his 1963 debut, for him to plunge into porn. Trans-Europ Express (1966) was banned in Britain, its scenes of s&m kink far too extreme for Anglo sensibilities at the time. We were still reeling from Jane Birkin's pubes. We weren't ready for chains and rape fantasies. Still aren't, probably.
1968's The Man Who Lies again stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, but seems a step back from the extremes of the previous flick. There's little nudity, little sex. But the whole film is redolent of a ritualized, fetishized, sublimated sex, played out in non-sexual arenas.
The film also has a lot in common with Marienbad, since it plays a constant game of "what is truth?" Trintignant arrives at a chateau occupied by three women. He has apparently heard that a lost resistance hero, Jean, is eternally awaited there by his wife and sister. There's also a maid, and Jean's father, and a servant. Trintignant presents himself as a friend of the absent warrior, but his story keeps changing...
Time is destabilized, as in Marienbad. Fashions clearly situate the story in 1968, but WWII is going on simultaneously. Trintignant is eluding Nazi soldiers now, while recounting how he escaped them then. There's a sense that this kind of thing could be used to explore myths of occupation and resistance, as in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem, but Robbe-Grillet isn't interested in delving into that.
Marienbad's genuine sense of mystery is not strongly present here, maybe because there are some gags you can only play once, maybe because the film announces in its title and in every moment that the hero is a liar. We're not waiting for him to reveal the truth. In fact, Trintignant's character, who is called either Jan Robin or Boris Varissa, according to his mood, is probably more than just a liar: he's a bullshitter. A liar knows the truth and seeks to conceal it with a specific untruth. A bullshitter doesn't care about the truth, and sprays bullshit in all directions to confuse rather than convince.
What makes this movie electrifying is Robbe-Grillet's framing and cutting (with Czechoslovakian cinematographer Igor Luther and regular editor Bob Wade) and Trintignant's performance. In literature, Robbe-Grillet specialised in long, insanely detailed descriptions, during which the reader sometimes discovers that the author has started describing a whole different scene somewhere along the way, without giving notice. In cinema, the artist moves in a snappier way, building up a scene from fragments, frequently freezing his actors in situ while the camera jumps around them. Empty picture frames literally turn the stars into pictorial elements. Montages created out of characters glancing one way or another allows for a stepping-stone dance through impossible space-time, as each dart of the eyes triggers a cut to some different character, current, past, real or fictional, indoors or out. A Kuleshov relay.
Trintignant alone retains real agency. I always loved that bit in The Conformist when, presented with a handgun, he aims it left, right, and then at his head. A series of poses which don't make character sense but are connected by the fact that they are a series of poses. His whole performance here is like that. He offers Robbe-Grillet variations of each moment, and Robbe-Grillet dices them up and uses all of them. It's a cliché to describe a given performance as "a masterclass," but that's what this is like: he shows us all the different ways he can tackle a scene or moment.
The film also features Robbe-Grillet's tiny wife, Catherine, now France's most famed and classy dominatrix, at the time nominally his submissive. She now says that, since he was the more emotionally needy partner in the relationship, she was always the one who held the power. Her revelations about their marriage since his death in 2008 help make sense of the world of his films, which are all stylised, ritualized fantasies in which the sex and violence are curiously bloodless, albeit served with lashings of red paint. Robbe-Grillet was incapable of penetrative sex, so his films became a toy theater in which he could act out fantasies of cruelty and power. But, like Trintignant's would-be manipulator who gets caught in his own web of imagination, the slave master was ultimately impotent, a dreamer only.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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