A group of three filmmakers board the Trans-Europ-Express and decide to spend their journey discussing a possible project they can work on together, and the train they're on would appear to be the ideal setting for it. How about a drug smuggling yarn between France and Belgium? You could have your lead, let's call him Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), buy a suitcase in Paris, then purchase boxes of sugar to fill it up for weight, arrange to meet his contact at the station and swap cases for the one with the drugs in it. But what if there were no drugs? Storytelling is so complicated...
If the director of this, Alain Robbe-Grillet, was recalled for anything it would probably be his books, which adopted a non-narrative style which was very unusual in his day, but he made films as well. Trans-Europ-Express is the most famous of them, or it would be if he hadn't written the script for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad a short while before, which may be his more lasting cinematic legacy. But due to the buzz that cryptic movie created this little item was awarded a far greater distribution than any of his subsequent works in film.
He continued working on material right up to his final years, film included, but if you're not connected with French culture in a strong way it's lilkely you wouldn't have heard much about those, so this was probably the best way to experience his oeuvre outside of the Resnais. As it stood, it looked to be ninety minutes of gamesplaying with the audience and indeed Robbe-Grillet's own methods - he was one of the filmmakers we keep cutting back to as we progress through a plot that could easily have been a straightforward pulp crime thrller. Except that there are elements added to the mix which tip this over into strange territories.
Most infamously was the sexual bondage sequences, pretty racy stuff for 1967 and the reason why the film was banned in Britain, although there's not much to get hot under the collar about watching it now. Elias claims his only interest in the world is rape, yet he has a willing partner who acts out his fantasies, a prostitute named Eve (Marie-France Pisier) who he ties up with ropes and chains and has his wicked way with while she pretends to be taking it seriously. But such is the nature of this kind of fiction that she knows more than she's letting on, and Elias is a pawn in a larger conspiracy which he can barely understand.
Part of the reason for that is that his writers are having such trouble coming up with a plot for him, one of the themes of this being how difficult it is to fashion a narrative that hangs together without falling apart due to details that don't add up or something you've missed. Poor old Elias is like a lab rat in a maze, pinballing from character to character, from shady police who may not be who they say they are to criminals who might be all too willing to sell him down the river. Yet because this is so self-consciously artificial you do start to wonder why you should be bothering with any of the twists and turns when none of them really matter much in the long run anyway - this is as much a put-on as it is a proper story, maybe even more, and its attempts at obfuscation are distractions that grow to be the whole of the film. So it's amusing enough for a while, but begins to test the patience well before the end. Music by Michel Fano.