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Famous novelist and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet passed away in 2008 having also directed ten feature films. His last, C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle (It Is Gradiva Who Calls You) keeps up his personal themes: erotic obsession, mysteries of the past that invade the present, and in particular mysteries about intoxicating artworks. Gradiva is completely out of keeping with 2006 film styles, which in itself is not a bad thing. Its dreamlike mood and sexual sadism seem more in tune with the 1970s, but lack that decade's exploitative charge.
Researcher John Locke (James Wilby) lives in Morocco with Belkis (Dany Verissimo), a compliant sexual companion. John is unable to get reliable information about the strange events he witnesses, especially when a blind beggar tells him where to find rare sketches by Delacroix. Taxi drivers and local officials conspire to deliver him to a strange "accommodation house" where kidnapped women are tortured and raped. John takes these developments as they come, drinking unidentified liquids when offered. He and we can't tell if some or all of these happenings are real: at one point we think he may be being being framed for a murder. John persists because he wants to make contact with Gradiva, a phantom female beheaded in a seraglio a hundred years ago; he keeps seeing Gradiva dressed only in a filmy garment, running incongruously through Casbah-like corridors. The "Gradiva" he meets turns out to be Leila (Arielle Dombasle), a performer in erotic tableaux at forbidden nightclubs. She may also be a female writer. The story we are watching may be her creation.
Gradiva is beautifully photographed and given a pace that does indeed remind us of a troubling dream, the kind that presents a great deal of provocative content and too many contradictory non-explanations. As part of the "orientalist" tradition, Wilhelm Jensen's original book deals with an obsession over a work of art. Focusing on the pose of a sculpted foot, an archeologist imagines that a victim of the Vesuvius eruption is alive, and that he sees fleeting glimpses of her on the street. Sigmund Freud reportedly used the book as an example in his case studies.
Robbe-Grillet makes all these phantoms and mysterious happenings very literal; surrealists will like the fact that no conventional visual signposts distinguish between reality, psychological underpinnings and just plain hallucinations. The film's content is a nearly constant parade of female nudity and casual bondage and sadism. The victims weep discreetly as they are whipped and mistreated, while a succession of emotionless guards, attentive female warders and jaded customers go joylessly about their business. No actual sex or direct erotic contact is depicted, so fans of porn thrills will see little to excite them.
At the same time, nothing all that challenging transpires -- our "hero" bounces passively from one situation to another. Neither he nor Leila establish much of a personal connection with the audience. The Belkis character seems to undergo an emotional transformation, but Robbe-Grillet keeps her feelings at arm's length as well. Gradiva is artistically consistent but not as involving as the director's La belle captive from a few years before -- there's no intellectual puzzle to ponder. Looking up Robbe-Grillet's inspirations proved to be at least as interesting as watching the movie.
Actresses Dombasle and Verissimo honorably fill roles as erotic extensions of the male personality, with Dany Verissimo having the edge. In practical filmgoing terms Gradiva seems posed halfway between high art and the films of crude exploitation directors like Tinto Brass. Actually, Robbe-Grillet's film is quite a bit like Jesus Franco's Succubus (Necronomicon), except more competently filmed and less trashy. Now we need to see Robbe-Grillet's Trans-Europe Express, another erotic movie with a high reputation.
Mondo Macabro's DVD of Gradiva is a splendid transfer from excellent elements. Dominique Colin's cinematography renders all the events in rich color and impressive clarity, a benefit denied too many newer foreign imports -- this looks much better than Koch Lorber's DVD of La belle captive.
The disc also contains an interesting interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet, who offers strong opinions on the film, his career and the state of cinema. Mondo Macabro includes a trailer and production notes as well. This DVD is apparently the U.S. debut of Gradiva; at 119 minutes it may be as much as nine minutes longer than versions shown elsewhere.
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