Alain Robbe-Grillet may be best known to many cinephiles as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’s classic Last Year at Marienbad, although this is at least partially due to the fact that Robbe-Grillet’s films as director have largely been unavailable outside of Europe aside from occasional repertory screenings. Kino Classics and Redemption Films recently licensed six of Robbe-Grillet’s films for their first-ever U.S. releases on DVD and Blu-ray, finally giving North American audiences a legitimate way to see his work on home video. The most recent release in this series is Robbe-Grillet’s debut feature as director, L’Immortelle.
A French college Professor (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) moves to Turkey for a job, and while out looking for the village that will become his new home he meets a young Woman (Françoise Brion) who speaks French and offers him a ride home. He invites her to a dinner party he is throwing for his new colleagues, and the two enter into a tentative flirtation that becomes a strangely clandestine relationship. The Woman presents constant surprises to the Professor, such as her ability to speak fluent Greek and her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the village and surrounding area. He marvels at the architecture, and she douses his enthusiasm by explaining that everything is new and in the process of being rebuilt. He admires a building that from afar appears to be an ornate mosque, which she reveals is actually a new maritime museum. Their meetings abruptly end one day when the Woman does not appear for their scheduled meeting in a graveyard (also false, she later explains) and disappears for several days. The Professor attempts to find her, and meets a series of people they encountered together, but he does not speak the language. Further, no one seems to keen on helping him anyway. When she finally reappears, a series of events leads the Professor back to where he started, although this time he is alone. He continues his search, although it is no longer certain the Woman ever existed, or if she was the same person he imagined her to be.
This outline may make L’Immortelle seem much more straightforward than it actually is, but rest assured it is very much of the same sensibility as Last Year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet explains in a lengthy interview included on the disc that he was trying to make L’Immortelle before Marienbad was produced, and the films do share a similar tone and look. Shot in bright black & white, many of the camera movements (long tracking shots) and locations (particularly a beautiful mosque) seem at least somewhat indebted to Alain Resnais’s style. Additionally, the unnamed characters involved in a sort of loosely-defined romantic triangle and their circular dialogue and events strongly recall that film, as do a recurring motif of seemingly frozen people standing around in busy street markets and the film’s opening montage of wordless imagery that hints at what is to come. Despite these similarities, Robbe-Grillet was clearly starting to stake out his own style and obsessions here, shooting much of the film in bright exteriors that nonetheless underline the sense of confusion and dread of its main characters, as well as hinting at the S&M trappings that would become more and more pronounced throughout his career. Further, the conclusion of L’Immortelle lends itself to somewhat more concrete explanations for the film’s structure than Marienbad.
It is not hard to imagine that had Robbe-Grillet been able to make L’Immortelle before Marienbad, it may have been much more well-known and influential than it is. It is certainly an interesting companion piece to that better-known film, and hopefully with this re-release it will find its own place among the classics of surreal cinema. And hopefully with this series of releases of his films, Robbe-Grillet will take his rightful place among fans of strange, intelligent cinema as well.
Kino Classics/Redemption released L’Immortelle on DVD and Blu-ray on 1 April 2014. Special features include trailers for other Robbe-Grillet films and a 34-minute interview with the director about the making of the film.