SLOW SLIDINGS OF PLEASURE (ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET, 1974)
aka Glissements progressifs du plaisir
Slow Slidings of Pleasure is a very difficult film. It's remarkably intelligent in both it's construction and execution, and it features images that are utterly sensational. Despite my affinity for experimental and avant-garde film, I've often commented on the fact that I wish the amazing structural ideas and other experimental techniques would be put forth telling a story-- Don't get me wrong, I love experimental and avant-garde film exactly how it is, but as far as my personal interest in films go, I'm always drawn more towards amazing ideas and images if there is a narrative strand holding the images and ideas together. Incredibly enough, Slow Slidings of Pleasure manages to do just this; use an almost structural/materialist construction to deliver an utterly enigmatic and interesting story.
The film depicts the story of an unnamed protagonist (in the cine-roman of the film, the character is named Alice, but that name is never used in the actual film) who is being investigated for the murder of her roommate. The girls live in what appears to be a sort of nunnery, or at least an apartment where the nuns are overlooking everything. She acquires a lawyer, and the lawyer somewhat falls for the young girls sensual charms. Throughout the entire film, elements of the incident that may or may not have been a murder are told, in repeated ways. The girl is at "court," and throughout the film the girl deconstructs the events of the narrative to the judge. This creates a tension, as obviously a judge must organize events in order to objectively make a decision, but the girl is utterly against it. The girl, as Robbe-Grillet has said himself, represents freedom.
As my short plot synopsis indicates, the narrative is more or less quite convoluted, but not impossible to follow. While I'm sure I could have gotten far more understanding had I seen the film with English subtitles, I feel that there was enough worthwhile in the film to discuss. First of all, in the way that the girl deconstructs the narrative, events are played out in what I describe as a visual equivalent of Robbe-Grillet's 1957 novel, Jealousy. The novel, which is a perfect example of the whole nouveau-roman style that Robbe-Grillet was key in developing, tells the story of a relationship that is possibly being compromised by an outsider. It focuses on key events that reveal a very subtle sort of jealousy, hence the title of the book. The key events are told over and over again with slight variations, allowing each time to be more emotionally revealing to the reader while keeping a very objective, almost anti-emotional viewpoint. The film also carries several key events that are shown over and over again, except instead of only slight variations (in the novel it's almost as if the event is being depicted from an alternate angle; it's another way of looking at the same event) the events play out with different characters; whether it be events happening to the girl herself, or the girl reenacting events on her roommate Laura or one of the much beloved mannequins (which lend themselves to many of the visually incredible scenes in the film).
The way that these variations are introduced into the film is where I can apply my aforementioned notion that it takes a structural construction and applies it to narrative (in order to deconstruct the narrative in fact!). The film takes full advantage of what would be referred to as "punctuation." The punctuation in a normal commercial film will be something simple like a fade, or a dissolve, or some other transitional device that has no relevance the narrative. For the punctuation in this film, Robbe-Grillet uses singular images of objects that may or may not play into the narrative. For instance, between two scenes, instead of a simple cut (which leaves punctuation out) or a fade-out, Robbe-Grillet inserts an image of an open-toed show on the beach. Eventually, as the film gains in momentum, these punctuations stop being quick shots, and turn into scenes in themselves, yet they still don't play into linear narrative in any clear fashion.
So, aside from the protagonist literally deconstructing the story line in her conversations with her accusers, the film itself deconstructs a linear time line and exists in an utterly non-linear fashion, existing on several planes of existence, many of which might not have actually happened. If you can catch on to Robbe-Grillet's methods early on in the film (I suppose in this instance some familiarity with his ideas is helpful prior to viewing) it becomes much easier to read, even without full understanding. On that note, I'm actually not sure that it's that much of a handicap to not understand the dialogue, as often in the film Robbe-Grillet will use non-congruous, diegetic soundtrack elements that obscure the dialogue itself! While it may seem like a frustrating concept, it actually comes together into something wholly unique and stimulating.
Despite being such an intellectual film at heart, Robbe-Grillet ran into trouble with the authorities when the film was first released. In Italy a judged declared Robbe-Grillet guilty of violating morals, and therefore obscene, due to the fact that the judge himself did not understand the film and therefore declared the sadomasochistic elements of the film unnecessary! Which, as Robbe-Grillet points out himself as being quite ironic, as a major element of the film is a judge prosecuting the girl because he cannot make sense of events (refer to my comments earlier about judges looking to organize, while the girl looking to liberate through the deconstruction of narrative).
As I briefly mentioned above, the soundtrack for the film is also very unique. Aside from Michael Fano's (a regular collaborator with Robbe- Grillet) brilliantly unnerving score, elements of the soundtrack often serve to obscure (but elaborate) the plot itself. Robbe-Grillet makes full use of what I've often referred to as "incongruous" sound (if there is a more legitimate term for this, please let me know)-- that is, diegetic sound that is cleary in the narrative realm, yet doesn't match up with anything being depicted on screen. While these elements of the soundtrack may seem odd, if you pay enough attention you can often notice that they actually serve to heighten the narrative. To quote Robbe-Grillet about an example;
"[...] the lawyer and the girl are talking in the cell, with the girl mocking the world and saying, 'Well, they don't behead little girls.' During this scene, the sound of working constructing a guillotine comes through the window. [...] I myself know it is the sound of a guillotine under construction, so it is a private joke for me but not for many others, because they cannot discern the nature of the sound. But the sound of one of the workers whistling while working can be heard distinctly."
While obviously this element of the film is rather obtuse and esoteric, the fact that Robbe-Grillet is doing so much with the soundtrack itself (something often overlooked in the construction of a film) is a very positive thing. It's a technique to elevate the art form that not many people have taken notice of.
One final thing to note about the film, that is probably obvious, is how incredible the visuals are. Robbe-Grillet films consistently have stark, unique, memorable visuals, and this is no different. A majority of the film is shot indoors on sets that are stark white, so all of the colors of the characters, and their blood, and any other visceral element contrasts greatly, placing a brilliant emphasis on the actions of these characters. There is also an amazing scene which visually invokes Georges Bataille; in a sort of charade that recreates a later event in the film, the girl pours deep, blood-red wine on her roommate and then breaks eggs, dropping them onto the girls body, the eggs slowly sliding off. The egg, aside from being a symbol for a number of corporeal images/actions also directly refers to a charges sexuality present in Bataille's The Story of the Eye. However, the most striking images in the film undoubtedly come from a scene where the girl and her roommate are on the beach, each carrying half of a mannequin to a metal bed frame, partially submerged into the sand. They assemble the mannequin and bind her to the bed frame, visually recreating a sadomasochistic scene, and then bloody the plastic body. It is a scene like this that is a key to keep in mind when looking at the sadomasochistic scenes that Robbe-Grillet places actual human bodies, instead of mannequins in. It's all about representation, and how representation affects the narrative.
In conclusion, Slow Slidings of Pleasure is an aurally and visually brilliant piece of cinema that forces the viewer to deconstruct narrative norms in a film and view events from different, possible narrative instances.
Note: Quotes and historical information regarding the film come from an interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet in The Erotic Dream Machine: Interviews with Alain Robbe-Grillet on His Films, written by Anthony N. Fragola and Roch C. Smith, published by the Southern Illinois University Press.