Judge Michael Nazarewycz is getting a little choked up.
Erotic? Serious? Funny? Tragic? A Mystery? A Game? A Paradox? Neo-Sadism? A Detective Story?
Sometimes you look for the movies. Sometimes the movies find you.
There are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes here at Verdict. The staff is spread across the country, watching dozens of DVDs every week and filing reviews on them to a crack editorial staff for review and posting. (Yes, I'm sucking up to my editor.) With all of these moving parts, sometimes little hiccups can occur. My little hiccup was Trans-Europ-Express, which was sent to me in error.
I don't necessarily specialize in any particular genre, but I have a few that are in my swing zone. I can assure you that 1960s European Art Cinema is not in my swing zone. Like I said, sometimes the movies find you. This one found me—and that's okay.
Facts of the Case
Filmmaker Jean and his secretary Lucette (director Alain Robbe-Grillet and his real-life wife Catherine) are aboard the new train known as the Trans-Europ-Express when Jean has the inspiration to write a film that is set, in part, on the locomotive. The story will be one of a man who gets involved in drug trafficking and rape. The protagonist is Elias, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour). The filmmakers decide to cast him in the lead when he makes a brief appearance on their train. Elias spends the film embroiled in an "adventure" littered with shady criminals, a prostitute, and other questionable ne'er-do-wells.
All you need to do is look at "The Charge" above (which is the film's tagline, according to IMDb) to understand just how peculiar this film is. Every word or phrase in that tagline should be followed not by a question mark, but by an exclamation point, as the film is jammed with all of it. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it never settles into any of those attributes long enough to get into a rhythm. It isn't that it's trying to be all things to all viewers, it's almost stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.
Most shocking (for lack of a better definition) is the erotic vein of the film. Elias has a bondage and rape fantasy fetish that he plays out frequently with a prostitute (the gorgeous Marie-France Pisier, Cousin cousine). The action is tame by today's cinematic standards, but the scenes are no less unsettling, as Elias' satisfaction seems less about committing the act and more about fulfilling a need to commit the act.
Aiding this overall viewing experience is the fact that Trans-Europ-Express is a film within a film. Beyond that (or in addition to it?), the Elias story plays out as the filmmakers are thinking of it. This means there is the occasional stoppage in the action to question character motivation or verify the continuity of actions. The interruptions become fewer as the movie proceeds, and you get used to the storytelling methodology, but there are so many spinning plates to begin with, it's one more thing to manage.
Like the film, the technical presentation here is also peculiar. Unlike most Blu-rays, which attempt to offer something in the neighborhood of pristine imagery, the 1080p transfer of Trans-Europ-Express (Blu-ray) zigs instead of zags. Kino Lorber has opted to offer a very organic granular look to the film. It's clearly an artistic expression, which takes some getting used to. Beyond that, though, there are some issues with the imagery, mainly washout along a subject's outline when there is bright backlight, as well as minor visible damage to the film print. There is nothing noticeable—good or bad—in the PCM 2.0 audio track. Voices are clear and sounds—be they ambient or prominent—are discernible.
The extras are okay. They include a 2014 promotional spot showcasing clips from "The Cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet" Blu-ray collection, as well as full trailers for three of those films. The real draw is the 32-minute interview with the director. During the discussion, the Robbe-Grillet delves into the film's origins as well as some personal connections to the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was oddly intrigued by the whole thing. At no time did I know where the story would go next, and while I thought none of the elements were compelling enough on their own, their combination and presentation kept the film from laying flat on the screen. This could have been a disaster, and yet somehow it all works.
I'm not quite ready to board the 1960s European Art Cinema train, but I am happy Trans-Europ-Express chose me, opening my eyes to a genre I wouldn't have otherwise sought out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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