A self-referential metafilm with self-deprecatory humour, a satire on the filmmaking process, a satire on the crime thriller genre and its usual tropes, a paranoia thriller/comedy, and what-not! That may seem like too many ways to describe a single film, but rest assured, it is by no means a stretch. Alain Robbe-Grillet experiments with the film within film device with successful results in his truly avant-garde and unique genre-bender, "Trans-Europ Express" (1966).
This enjoyable film stars Robbe-Grillet himself, as a filmmaker who, almost on a whim concocts an idea for a film, which plays out within this film as a central plot, only to serve as a tool for the filmmaker and his assistants to manipulate and play with. The so-called plot of the film within the film revolves around a rookie drug peddler (Jean-Louis Trintignant, as himself and as Elias), who appears to be smuggling drugs across stations in the said Trans-Europ Express, which is the primary universe of this picture. And this is rightfully so, for the very idea of the film and the whole mise en scène, in fact, is born in this very train, as the film proceeds.
Nevertheless the premise of the film being proposed, and what to expect of it on a broad level is declared at the outset in a deliberately cartoonish fashion, fake beards and animated explosions included! It is a masterstroke, as the supposed plot is symbolically as well as literally, rendered secondary and non-serious. Furthermore, the filmmaker shows who the boss is, by twisting seemingly straightforward events in the day of this drug peddler, constantly toying with ideas and eventually turning a predictable caper/crime thriller into something wholly unpredictable, much like the capricious mind of the filmmaker.
And thence, Robbe-Grillet demonstrates, how the suave protagonist who appears to be this super confident smuggler is actually being controlled by the filmmaker and his script girl (Catherine Robbe-Grillet), as is the case in any film for that matter, wherein the iconic status of a hero is actually a creation, an illusion for an entertainment hungry audience who wants someone to idolize. With most of the action on the streets and in the train, and also in a room with a beautiful young female lead, and a charismatic central character involved in crime, being pursued by the cops from Paris to Antwerp, this film in many ways reminds of Jean-Luc Godard's acclaimed classic "Breathless" (1960).
But Belmondo in the Godard film was portrayed as this uber cool, extra confident, smooth-talking street-smart charmer who appears to be the one in control. Could Robbe-Grillet’s film be a sly dig directed towards this very persona and film by turning the tables and showing that the protagonist is in fact, a puppet - one being watched and controlled? It's certainly more of a satire or at least a subversion than a tribute.
Establishing and exercising control is a prominent theme of this film, that also encompasses the seemingly gratuitous scenes of masochism and bondage that the film is more notorious for. It is possible that when "Trans-Europ Express" was filmed, such scenes were considered very bold for the time, but frankly by today’s standards they are really very tame. As far as graphic content is concerned, there is not even any on-screen nudity involved in these scenes. The only real nudity comes much later, in the final 'Woman in Chains' striptease scene. The aspect which could perhaps be deemed shocking or somewhat misogynistic is the protagonist's bold declaration that it is only rape that turns him on.
In a somewhat self-deprecatory manner, the gratuitousness of the subplot of the prostitute, Eva (Marie-France Pisier) and the ensuing violent sex scenes is questioned by the secretary, to which the filmmaker is ready with a justification. "She is not important. He has some free time", he says! The filmmaker controls his central character, who in turn, exercises control over Eva, who at once is an assistant of Elias's employers, and is also working for the police. It is insinuated that this dual nature of hers is an indecision on part of the filmmaker whilst discussing her. Thereby, while the scenes may be gratuitous from the standpoint of the film within the film, they in fact are a thematic fit in the actual film!
Attention to detail in the filmmaking brainstorming process is extraordinary. Taking a dig at the rather whimsical minds of filmmakers and how they play around with glee with their creation, the plot begins to twist and turn; moves made by characters are backed up, fates are altered, events are questioned. Plot points are picked, then abandoned, after being deemed absurd or unnecessary. Perhaps in a subtle dig at crime/caper thrillers in general, a plot hole appears whilst complicating the story. The entire scene is axed, just as soon as the hole is pointed out.
This twisting of the fate of the protagonist at every step magically gives "Trans-Europ Express" the look and feel of a Kafkaesque paranoia thriller, as surprises await our protagonist at every corner. People aren't always what they seem, for at one time they are on his side, and later they aren't! This uncertainty and convoluted chain of events, eventually give the film its surrealistic quality.
Just when you think this gang of filmmakers have had their fun after the climactic scene at the cabaret, Robbe-Grillet introduces an outlandish meta twist and ends it with a cool, savagely funny statement about films based on true stories, that makes you cheer. This is classy and intelligent filmmaking at its finest.