Saturday, August 18, 2012

Robbe-Grillet: avant garde writer, filmmaker

Alain Robbe-Grillet
It is the birthday of French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922), who is best known for his contributions to the genre called the new novel or nouveau roman in the 1950s and 1960s. He contended that artist should be freed from reality to create solely from the mind.

His novels were not traditional narratives with a central character. Instead, Robb-Grillet tended to produce mind-testing games that invited the reader to figure out the writer's purpose.

His best known novel is The Voyager (1955), the tale of a traveling watch salesman who returns to the island where he lived as a child on a quest that is not immediately clear. He frequently looks at a newspaper clipping about the murder of a young girl but it is not clear what his relationship is with the girl — whether he is the murderer, or someone less directly related to the incident.

Another acclaimed novel is Jealousy (1957), about a jealous husband who suspects his wife of having an affair. Imagined scenes of suspicious activity are interspersed with real observed scenes to the point that it is not clear which ones are real and which ones are imagined. Perhaps that is the point.

Robbe-Grillet also wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais'  film Last Year at Marienbad (1961), an ambiguous story of a man who meets a woman at a resort and claims they had met the year before at a spa town in the Czech Republic, and that she is waiting at the resort for him. Another man in the story may be here husband but that isn't clear either. The film explores the relationship of the characters. Some critics hailed the work as a masterpiece. Others said it was incomprehensible.

Ultimately, Robbe-Grillet may be most remembered as a punchline. In the independent 2004 movie Sideways, the Paul Giamatti character explains his unfinished novel as a "kind of a Robbe-Grillet mystery" with no resolution. It is a pretentious comment meant to poke fun at avant garde film and literature.

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