Trans-Europ-Express owes its origins to two phenomenon: the recently inaugurated international rail line from which it takes its title—with its modernist design (described by Robbe-Grillet in the supplementary interview as travelling in “glass cages”)—and the sight of prostitutes advertising their wares in the windows of Antwerp’s red light district. Self-reflexive in a playful sort of way, as evidenced in the many word- and picture-games on display throughout, the film primarily concerns itself with the matter of its own construction. It’s the sort of formal preoccupation that will become even more fundamental to Robbe-Grillet’s next film, The Man Who Lies. Trans-Europ-Express further develops the filmmaker’s fetishistic obsession with chains and bondage, where the staging of such fantasies becomes an integral factor in narrative’s unfolding.
The film opens in Paris’s Gare du Nord railroad station with a film director (Robbe-Grillet “playing” himself), his producer (Paul Louyet), and script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) boarding the Trans Europ Express bound for Antwerp. While on board, they brainstorm the director’s latest production, which they promptly decide to set on board a train. What follows is a parodic riff on the conventional detective story, with frequent allusions to the films of Hitchcock and the “trench-coat tales” of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well as an amusingly Godardian swipe at From Russia with Love (set, like Robbe-Grilet’s earlier L’Immortelle, in a tourist-friendly Istanbul). Where later Robbe-Grillet films (especially those shot in color) take their visual cues from modernist paintings, Trans-Europ-Express invokes the Pop Art stylization of comic strips.
The story concocted by the trio centers on a low-level drug mule named Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant)—or is that Alias?—en route to Belgium on a trial run for his new employers. While their plotline unspools like the portable reel-to-reel tape it’s being recorded on, we return to the filmmakers’ compartment for a series of narrative tweaks and emendations. And so the film operates on at least two levels: the “reality” of the tellers and the “fiction” of their tale. Lest all this strike viewers as far too straightforward, Trintignant also plays a fictionalized version of himself, even though Robbe-Grillet appears not to recognize him when he attempts to share their compartment.
Deceptions of this sort are endemic to Robbe-Grillet’s storytelling: The hollowed-out book Elias uses to hide a gun serves as the film’s operative metaphor. The book, incidentally, is entitled TRANSES, which, taken alongside the other two magazines Elias brings onboard with him, makes a visual pun on the film’s title. (Another witticism: Elias uses the reputable news magazine to hide a BDSM porno mag.) Further confounding the twin registers of the story and its tellers is Elias’s perverse fantasy life, focused rather obsessively on some light bondage with ropes and chains, and acted out with the cooperation of a gorgeous streetwalker named Eva (Marie-France Pisier). When Elias later comes to believe she’s acting as a double agent for the police, he uses this erotic roleplaying to commit a “real” murder.
Like nearly all of Robbe-Grillet’s works, Trans-Europ-Express advances by way of duplicity: repetition with variation, the inexplicable appearance of uncanny doppelgangers, and variations on the aforementioned wordplay. The film’s climax (pardon the pun) welds together all three characteristics. The gendarmes finally corner Elias by luring him to a nightclub called the Cabaret Eve, where he takes in a provocative striptease advertised as the “Slave Girl,” a routine that spotlights a nude woman being enwrapped in chains.
True to form, the film concludes with a double ending whose ostensible purpose is to reinforce in the minds of viewers the idea that what they’ve just seen was never anything other than a fiction. “Characters” who have been killed off show up again unscathed to greet each other at journey’s end. And Robbe-Grillet gets to deliver the taunting punchline: “The trouble with true stories is that they’re so boring.” Such, however, cannot be said of Trans-Europ-Express; it’s one of Robbe-Grillet’s most enjoyable (not to mention accessible) endeavors.
[This article first appeared in Video Watchdog #180.]