Director: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Producers: Samy Halfon
Writers: Alain Robbe Grillet
Cinematographer: Willy Kurant
Editor: Bob Wade
Music: Michel Fano
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marie-France Pisier, Nadine Verdier, Christian Barbier, Charles Millot
Premiere: January 25, 1967 – France
US Theatrical Release: May 12, 1968
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
Alain Robbe-Grillet directed Trans-Europ-Express during his first period of enormous prominence. His novels, Jealousy, The Erasers, and, most notably, The Voyeur, cemented his role as a leading literary voice of the so-called Nouveau Roman. And his 1961 screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais, propelled him into cinematic (New Wave) celebrity as well. Trans-Europ-Express is Robbe-Grillet’s third film project. And it is less geometric and rigid than his first two. In it, we see some of the techniques of intertextuality and pastiche that would come to define his later novels like Project for a Revolution in New York and Topology of a Phantom City.
The plot of Trans-Europ-Express, comes off as an elaborate film-within-a-film, as Director (Robbe-Grillet), Producer (Paul Louyet) and Script Supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) all board a train traveling to Belgium. From there, they outline a spy thriller, they’d like to make, starring Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Eva (Marie-France Pisier). As the three brainstorm, their ideas play out in neighboring compartments, in a sort of New Wave Duck Amok. The ostensible plot has Trintignant smuggling drugs across the continent, regarding Marie-France Pisier chiefly as a romantic interest. But, in the true Robbe-Grillet fashion, no plot advances unhampered for very long.
Robbe-Grillet employs discontinuity in his work as a way of rupturing the traditional viewing experience. Stemming from Brechtian theatre, he introduces incongruous and contradictory action, forcing consistent reappraisal. The Kirkus review of Robbe Grillet’s Project for a Revolution in New York describes this technique:
By subverting traditional plotlines, the director encourages reengagement throughout the film. Trans-Europ-Express is not a difficult film to watch, but it’s multivalent. And by reassembling contexts and continuities, Robbe-Grillet touches upon the essentially iterative aspect of contemporary life. Fragmented spheres of information and media contribute to the mass schizophrenia that Robbe-Grillet captures so well in his fragmented and contradictory narratives.
The director of photography for Trans-Europ-Express, Wally Kurant, also filmed Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-féminin, and these two films are kindred projects. Both capture a cutup and frenetic energy, occasionally bordering on slapdash. Robbe-Grillet threw out the first script after filming had already begun, making his shooting method very similar to Godard’s. Actors were given a freedom to improvise and the material shot was radicaly reshaped over the four months he spent editing the film. Robbe-Grillet used techniques of automatic writing and improvisation to catch the revealing slip of the tongue, or crystallization of contemporary language.
Trans-Europ-Express is also in close conversation with Godard’s Alphaville, whose adventures of the trenchcoat wearing PI Lemmy Caution become a source for parody. And like Masculin-féminin and Alphaville, Trans-Europ-Express is ultimately very funny and touching. According to Renata Adler in her 1968 NYT review,
The film’s premise, a team of creators constantly reframing its reality, says a lot about avant-garde filmmaking in the mid-sixties, and the movement towards potential fictions. Like the best work from Godard or Makavejev, Trans-Europ-Express is wholly heterogeneous. It tends to lag and digress, and then explode in a compelling interrogation of sex and love with eyes wide open.