“But debts to the dead are sacred here.”
A year to the day of his stepdaughter Santa’s (Sandrine Le Berre) mysterious death at the hands of her lover Frank (Fred Ward), screenwriter Eduoard Nordmann (Charles Tordjman) begins a screenplay framing the crime in the context of a local myth about a mariner destined to return every year to the place of his crime in search of redemption. He is then informed by Inspector Thieu (Dimitris Koulikakos) that Frank – thought to have drowned during his flight from the crime scene by boat – or his ghost, has been seen all over town by the locals. Although Thieu identified an unidentifiable body found at the time as that of Frank, he has never truly believed the story behind Santa’s death and intimates his suspicion of Nordmann’s involvement since he would benefit from her death by inheriting the money left to Santa by her late mother. Little do either of them know that Santa is in fact alive and being cloistered in the island’s local gambling house/bordello, The Blue Villa, under the care of Madame-smuggler-extortionist-pimp Sarah-Le-Blonde (an appropriately striking Arielle Dombasle). Thieu informs Nordmann that Santa’s real father (Christian Maillet, the film is dedicated to the late actor) has had his daughter’s case reopened and is told not to leave the island until the investigation is completed. Nordmann endures ghostly appearances by both Santa, who reproaches him for his molestation of her, and Frank who tells Nordmann that he has come back from the grave to collect his debt. Is he really being haunted or is he the victim of a plot?
The Blue Villa is the popular English title of the film. The French title actually translates as “The Noise That Drives One Mad” referring to the clattering of shuffling ivory mah-jong tiles that Nordmann claims can drive a man to madness. Co-directed by Dimitri De Clerq (and produced by Jacques De Clerq), who produced the unsubtle Ma Mere (2004), this is perhaps Robbe-Grillet’s most accessible film. There is the Robbe-Grillet trademark use of disorienting sound effects but here they are oddly complementary to the action in an unconventional manner. Sounds of helicopters and gunfire that sound like the soundtrack of another film bleeding into this film’s soundtrack actually underline Thieu’s comment on the death of Nordmann’s wife who was killed in Indonesia by revolutionaries. The sounds of a typewriter underline an expository scene between Sarah and Thieu at which the writer is not present suggesting these scenes may be imagined by Nordmann’s paranoid creative mind.
The imposition of competing narrative structures upon a series of events is the focus of this film. Nordmann first superimposes the local legend of the pale mariner on the crime (“Last year a driller calling himself Frank fit the part…”) to suggest the inevitability of his stepdaughter’s demise. He also attempts to revise facts in the dialogue, claiming to have loved “his only child” only to be corrected by Thieu that not only was she not his biological child but he was known to have hated her. As suspicious falls upon him, Nordmann not only possibly imagines aspects of Thieu’s investigation and the machinations of Sarah and Santa’s real father, he also revises the possible series of events leading to his daughter’s death while skirting the details of his own involvement. He even conjectures an accidental death version after encountering Frank’s apparition as if to placate the vengeful spirit. In the form of police reports, Thieu narrates possible theories and picks them apart trying to fit Nordmann’s involvement into the series of events. Add to this another layer in which Santa’s real father appears to be narrating Eduoard’s haunting and paranoia. Regardless of whether Frank and Santa are truly alive or not, they are specters of a sort as they both (literally on Frank’s part) stroll through the narrative which is shaped and reshaped around them (neither Ward nor Le Berre have much dialogue until the final third of the film). They are, however, given the privilege of erasing Nordmann’s story.
Although the plot is film noir, the film’s visual style emulates that genre but reaches back to its German Expressionist forbears. Frank is followed around wherever he goes by three musicians. In later scenes, their presence suggests Frank’s ghostly presence even when he does not appear. In one such scene, Nordmann encounters their Vampyr-like disembodied shadows. Throughout the film, Sarah teaches a song about the island’s legend of the pale mariner to Santa. Sarah is later seen performing the song at the Blue Villa’s salon to the accompaniment of the same three musicians. Menacing shadows suggest supernatural vengeance even though Nordmann believes he has just as much to fear from the police and Blue Villa owner Mars’ thugs. The apparitions of Santa that appear to Nordmann are theatrically staged – appropriately since we know she’s really alive, even if the conspiracy is a figment of Nordmann’s paranoid imagination – with lighting effects (in one, she simply steps in front of a window as a spotlight comes up to reveal her to Nordmann).
Ward seems an odd choice for the role of Frank. Although he has proven to be one of those ageless actors, he is still obviously a few decades older than the seventeen-year-old Santa. As effective as Ward is, he also seems more like a commercial concession – possibly on the part of the De Clerq’s – and most of his non-dialogue scenes come almost have a second-unit location photography feel to them. An unknown probably would’ve been a better match for Le Barre’s cipher. Dombasle is a striking and charismatic presence but, like similarly arresting La Belle Captive’s Sarah Zeitgeist (Cyrielle Clare), she is given little depth. While it is not surprising that even the principle female (Le Barre) in a Robbe-Grillet film is only rendered in superficial shades, what one finds lacking here is the sort of bewitching, bewildering eternal female figure one expects from a Robbe-Grillet work like L’Immortelle. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that the story that Nordmann and Thieu are attempting to contain within a narrative leans more heavily towards - quite literally - a plot than the supernatural.
The island setting and the shabby environs are effectively realized; an early scene of a fainted prostitute surrounded by superstitious patrons in the Blue Villa’s bar recalls the tense tavern scenes of Jean Rollin’s Les Demoniaques as much as La Belle Captive’s mansion scene recalls the look and feel of a similar scene in Rollin’s Vampire Nue (there is a tenuous link there worth exploring by someone). The Blue Villa, which Nordmann describes the name as possibly “in memory of a famous bordello for well-heeled degenerates in Hong Kong” recalls Robbe-Grillet’s La Maison De Rendez-Vous; “probably imaginary, that too,” Nordmann adds. Santa’s bordello cell – along with the rest of the Blue Villa – also recall the environs of Robbe-Grillet’s Playing with Fire while her pure white bedroom in Nordmann’s house recalls the cell of Slow Slidings of Pleasure. Some of the island imagery, including a shot of a man sitting in a chair along the waterfront directly references L’Immortelle. The Jacqueline Pierreux credited as one of the coproducers is not the actress mother of Jean-Pierre Leaud. Cinematography, production design, and costumes are typically top-notch; perhaps too perfect as they lack the distantiating rough edges of Robbe-Grillet’s earlier work. Nikos Kypourgos’ score is exotic but, once again, seems a bit too refined for a Robbe-Grillet film. Sound was recorded by Francois Musy (Godard's Passion, Hail Mary, Detective, etc). The film was shot in Panavision (2.35:1) – a lot of the setups are static but well-composed and effectively framed with gels, shadows, and Oriental set dressing. The Dolby Stereo soundtrack is thunderous when it needs to be and stereo could perhaps provide Robbe-Grillet with an interesting medium for his use of sound effects as counterpoint to onscreen action should he write and direct another film.*
*This review was written before news of Robbe-Grillet's passing. I still have not seen his last film Gradiva.