Mondo Macabro // 2006 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // August 13th, 2009
Je ne sais pas, monsieur.
French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet (Trans-Europ-Express) spent half a century using disconnected storytelling and erotic imagery to explore the world of memory and time. It's good to see in Gradiva, the artist's final work before his death in 2006, that he never abandoned the ideas that brought him to the dance.
A British historian named John Locke (James Wilby, Gosford Park) travels to Morocco to do research on the painter Eugéne Delacroix, who had spent considerable time in North Africa. While conducting his work, Locke hears word of a previously unknown set of Delacroix prints, but his quest to see them sends him down the path of obsession and his implication in the murder of a mysterious blonde woman who supposedly died a hundred years earlier.
Based on the 1903 novel by Wilhelm Jensen from a Roman legend, the story of Gradiva fits right in with Robbe-Grillet's usual themes of memory, obsession, and murder. Owing much to William Burroughs's fever dreams and Paul Bowles's travelogues, Locke goes through exotic locations searching for these mysterious pieces, but also searching for sexual thrills. He tries to excuse himself by saying that he wants to follow in the path of his subject, but he revels in it as much as he can. As Locke's obsession with Delacroix and the exotic fetishes that brought him to Morocco take more complete control over him, we watch him spiral into madness and also, seemingly, through time, depending on whose story you want to believe.
Before he ever meets the mysterious blonde woman, Locke has already employed his native maid/concubine Belkis (Dany Verissimo, District 13), who is paid to agree with him until it's time to sleep with him. She is resentful and resigned to her position sometimes, but also occasionally shows affection for him. Much as she may have feelings for Locke, she knows that she is now equal, little more than a slave. She has satisfied him for a while, but the world that these Delacroix prints lead him into render her inadequate to the Grand Guignol presentation on display for him here.
It is only when Locke begins his search that he encounters the blonde and his memories start to play tricks on him. While he first sees the woman as an apparition who disappears while leading him toward his goal, we see her alternately at a cafe writing her memoirs and going on with some nonsense about her doppelganger and her memories. Locke's world continues to become more mysterious, though there's no telling whether any of that's really happening. He remembers events from the previous evenings, but nothing is right when he goes back to these places, and now he's implicated in this murder. There's no way he could have killed a woman who died a century before he was born, but then why does he have blood all over him? These worlds run parallel to each other and, like Robbe-Grillet's other work, they serve to explore the experience of memory rather than coherently drive a plot.
This is pretty high-minded stuff for an erotic film, but Robbe-Grillet pulls it off pretty well, steeping the story in as much sex as it can handle, which keeps it moving well enough without forcing the plot points to connect coherently, which they definitely do not. Unlike your average softcore fare, in which people find themselves in random situations that happen to get them a bunch of action, Gradivas doesn't just degenerate into a festival of grinding. The director uses sex to shed light on the power of obsession and memory and, most importantly, understands that eroticism is more effective than full-blown humping. This means a lot more touching, more breathless dialog, and a lustier atmosphere that works much better than such films normally do. The actresses, framed in painterly fashion in concert with the Delacroix motif, are stunning and revel in their sexuality, which ranges from romantic love to erotic violence. Far more subtle and much more beautiful than the normal genre entry, this is the way it should be done.
Mondo Macabro's DVDs almost always suffer from the age and level of care the films they try to preserve have received, but they always do their best. Luckily Gradiva, a newer film than most of their collection, looks great in this release. The transfer is beautiful and, though this is by no means an expensive film, the image is well-rendered and clear both indoors and out. The colors are all strong and the black levels are all deep. The stereo sound is fine, though there is little but the sounds of dialog and whips in the film, so there's little for the speakers to do. The only notable extra is a thirty minute interview with Robbe-Grillet, filmed toward the end of his life, in which he discusses much of his life and career. He is an affable character and this is an engaging interview. While it may not lend a lot of insight into the meaning of Gradiva in particular, it does give you a good idea of his general philosophy.
I've reviewed a fair number of erotic films, and Gradiva stands as one of the best I've seen. The eroticism is effective while the story remains somewhat intelligent, which is rare for the genre. Robbe-Grillet demanded a little more from his audience than your usual bump and grind director and it definitely shows.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated