Let me preface this review by stating that most Americans will absolutely hate this film, as they do with all of Alain Robbe-Grillet's body of filmwork. Even the widely-acclaimed 'Last Year in Marienbad' (1961), a Criterion release written by Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Renais, falls under most cine-snobs radar due to its surrealistic questions, dreamy and nightmarish fusion of past and present in a confounding fever dream. We yanks like our films set in stone, and all this quasi-philosophical, fragmented, fractured, non-linear stuff that disregards narrative and invites us to think instead of popcorn-pop our way through a flick is disregarded as pompous fodder for the trashbin. I understand this sentiment; just don't always agree with it.
As usual, this film stars ARG staple Jean-Louis Trintignant as protagonist - we can't call him by name, as he first introduces himself as Jean Robin and later tells us he's really Boris Viasso, insisting as such while standing next to a tomb marker whose poor inhabitant has the same name - you see, he's 'The Man Who Lies', and his duplicitous narration of the facts are all we have to believe or disbelieve in. Nothing he claims about himself, the past, present or former ally, resistance fighter, war hero and or traitor (also named Jean Robin) can be relied upon, which will drive some beserk as they watch, but personally I found engaging and humorous to its conclusion.
As the film opens, he's running from the Nazis (even though this takes place years after the war ended) and finds current refuge in a small town, stumbling upon the castle residence of three beauties - a maid and two sisters, one of whom was (naturally) married to his martyred rebel comrade. And so begins his illustrious fabrications, which morph and evolve continuously depending on which of the three women he's conferring with in an effort to seduce them. The three vixens are employing a series of games among themselves, and welcome the new stranger to their fanciful charade as well as their beds.
Robbe-Grillet plays his customary brilliant farces with narrative, editing and imagery, and his almost fetishistic voyeurism with the female form is plumbed here for the first time in depth. In truth, he has made films solely to both worship and exploit the women in his films, such is his adoration of the right female. Unlike say, Jess Franco, whose camera eye lingers over female flesh like a degenerate at a Times Square peepshow (RIP, to both Jess and the peepshows), and I mean that in the best way imaginable, ARG places his women on altars and pedestals so we too can adore and desire them. Here are women in blindfolds, women bound with ropes; tied to bedposts, surrounded by broken glass - and these are things done to them by other women! If I were to intellectualize, on a very loose theoretical plane, the film could be viewed as a very critical essay on the French collaboration during the war and the falsifying effect produced by rewriting memories that we wish to become something else. Just like our narrator and director...
Another thing I loved, but some will abhor, is that no matter when events take place, all the characters wear contemporary sixties clothing, even in flashbacks to the wartime past, when they are supposedly interacting with soldiers in WWII garb. It's fascinating to me, being a fan of all things 60's, and deepens the surrealism at play. Gorgeous Czech locales - dense and menacing forests, a crumbling castle, a labyrinthine cavern, a village right out of a Universal horror flick from the 30's filled with xenophobic residents - are filmed in sumptuous B+W by another ARG stablemate, cinematographer Igor Luthor. This film works as well as it does solely because ARG chose to film it in B+W - it simply would not work in color.
So what we're left with is a fragmented, surrealistic and experimental exposition that's spellbinding and engrossing (or eyeball-bleeding inducing, depending on your stance), beautiful and sexy, thought-provoking and meaningless, as told by a pathological liar and seducer of listeners and women alike. Interested? Then give it a shot. I was captivated - but I'm a lover of transgressive, seditious cinema, so I'm biased. For me, 4 solid stars - would I lie to you?