A guilt-ridden nightmare, or a PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) influenced, vague recollection of a disturbing event? Alain Robbe-Grillet's "The Man Who Lies" (1968) is a surreal, befuddling and fractured first-hand account of a French resistance fighter who may or may not have betrayed his comrade (or leader?) to the Nazis.
With some gorgeous cinematography, and a narrative style that often reminds of Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) (also written by Robbe-Grillet), Robbe-Grillet takes us through a labyrinthine web of confusion, which is likely a construction of a mind that is either traumatized, or guilty.
The film begins with an alarming anachronism, with a dapper looking gentleman (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in a visibly contemporary 60s designer suit, being chased through the woods by soldiers in what looks like the World War II environment. But is it really war time? Or is it post war? Or is it still much after? We are unsure, as is the unreliable narrator of this strange story. Hell, we don't even know his real name. He first introduces himself as Jean Robin and then suddenly backs up and says he is Boris Varissa. There is clearly an identity crisis at work here, among other things. It is possible that these are assumed, made-up names as well. There's a good excuse to cover this part. Everyone in the resistance had nicknames, as Boris keeps reiterating! Blink and you might miss that scene in which Boris is leaning against a grave with the name 'Boris Varissa' written on it!
It is not difficult to predict that what we are watching may not be the absolute truth. This is made clear at the outset. Varissa gets hit by one of the shooting soldiers. Or does he? No injuries, just a theatrically dramatic death, that lasts for a few seconds. We see at least a couple more instances of his death further in the film, in a similar fashion. Very soon, the man gets up and starts walking. Before you know it, he is out of the woods and into a very civilized looking small town...or village. The temporal inconsistency is not the end of it, there is spatial discontinuity as well. Quick flashes from memory or imagination occur out of nowhere in seemingly random editing choices and peculiar camerawork. At one point we see Boris in some corner of the street, looking over his shoulder, and in the next, he is sitting at the bar..but it seems like these two frames are not temporally disconnected.
Speaking of the bar, it is one of the first instances in which there's an exact contradiction in what we see and what we hear in Boris' voice-over. Whilst Boris says the bar was empty as usual, we see that it is bustling with people, all tables occupied! It is possible we are watching the broken, distorted reminiscence of a man troubled by memories of war and the resistance. There is a deep-seated guilt, of having been a traitor, and a palpable fear of his treachery being discovered.
A genius sequence shows the faces of all the patrons in close-ups, seemingly talking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, discussing a certain Jean Robin, a hero who's whereabouts are not known. Robin has probably been captured, or is in hiding, but some gossip seems to suggest, that he has been betrayed. The uncomfortable close-ups of the faces of these patrons looking directly in the eye of the viewer is also from the point of view of Boris, who clearly feels discomfort amid suspicious gazes, a constant feeling that all fingers are pointing at him, as he keeps looking over his shoulder.
Whilst narrating his story, Boris is sometimes interrupted, then backs up, completely forgets a thread, picks up a new one, and even alters events. A very tangible denial or hesitation, and the inability to make a confident eye contact when looking in the camera is evident, more so, when interacting with the three strange women in the castle (a nod to the Kafka novel?). Jean Robin's beautiful wife, his sister and their maid seem to lie in wait forever in the castle, awaiting Jean's return or for an update. Whilst waiting in silence, they also engage in playful activities like playing Blind Man's Buff. Meanwhile, the maid and the sister also indulge in a lesbian relationship, while Boris attempts to make a pass at all three at some point of time! The choice of the game is an odd one. But perhaps, in the context of the film, it reflects the total isolation of these ladies; an obliviousness to the truth and the world outside, or even Boris' own obscured sense of reality.
The castle looks something strange, out of a nightmare; an empty, large abode, partially cluttered with baroque furniture and paraphernalia. There are never ending passages and corridors, and strange looking doorways with two doors attached to a single frame, opening opposite ways. Sometimes, the corridors of the castle resemble the ones in the inn, the product of an obvious memory mix-up. There's a vivid sense of melancholy and loss in the depiction of the castle and its inhabitants. It has a distinct tragic, and ghostly feel.
Is our protagonist spinning a yarn to cover up the fact that he in fact did betray his friend, or is he a survivor of the brutal war, left with broken fragments of memories, and yet unable to rid himself of the agonizing happenings of the past? Are the mental mix-ups a product of post-war hallucinations and nightmares, a psychological scarring that is permanent? Frequent images of glass shattering, shooting, fingers pointing, all perhaps reflect some terrible remembrances, the truths about which we may never know, but can only guess. But then, that isn't the point anyway.
What Robbe-Grillet presents with "The Man Who Lies", is a work of hallucinatory brilliance, an artwork for the senses, with its dream-like structure, recurring and inconsistent flashbacks, brisk editing, and wildly bizarre imagery, sometimes laced with erotica, to please the lovers of surrealism. This is off-kilter done just right, with the right ingredients.