If you lurked around used bookstores in 1985, you probably came across Grove Press paperbacks of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels. The covers of his two biggest books played against each other. The Voyeur had a view through Venetian blinds of woman undressing on a bed. Two Novels featured Jealousy and In The Labyrinth and featured a man looking through Venetian blinds. Was he looking at the woman in the other book? Eventually you would buy them if you were the type of person who did more than required class reading during your college years. His biography in the book mentioned he had directed films. The only VHS tape involving Robbe-Grillet that North American video might have on the shelf was Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet wrote the script for the arty classic. But his erotic tinge films were not to be found in my town. For those of you who still have your old paperbacks, you can be a voyeur of Robbe-Grillet’s biggest hit featuring the Queen of mid-70s Erotic cinema arrives on a solo Blu-ray. Playing With Fire (Le jeu avec le feu) will keep you watching, wondering and occasionally laughing.
A Banker (Cinema Paradiso‘s Philippe Noiret) gets a ransom note that his daughter Carolina (Successive Slidings of Pleasure‘s Anicée Alvina) has been kidnapped. The trouble is that she’s at the house. Who did the kidnappers abduct? The father is taking no chances and brings in a detective (Z‘s Jean-Louis Trintignant) to investigate what is going on. This leads to the daughter going to a strange house which might be a mansion or an opera house where depraved acts are carried out on other young women including Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle). There’s an Eyes Wide Shut vibe during Carolina’s tour of the mansion that feels like Kubrick must have watched the film. The depravity is captured in a strange artsy vibe so this isn’t an exploitation flick. This makes you wonder if the detective is really there to protect Carolina or part of the kidnappers’ plan. Doesn’t help that as soon as Carolina leaves her place, the detective hooks up with the banker’s maid. Why does her father show up at the strange house to give her a bath? Or is it really his daughter? What is going on here? Don’t overthink this bizarre slice of comedy from Alain Robbe-Grillet. Just go with the flow of an art house exploitation film that also feels like an inspiration to David Lynch. How else do you explain the kidnappers nabbing a woman on the street using a fishing net?
Don’t get too confused that Sylvia Kristel isn’t playing the daughter. Kristel wasn’t a major star when she was cast in Playing With Fire. She doesn’t show up until halfway through the film. She does dominate the screen when the kidnappers drag her into their evil scheme. During the post-production of Playing, Emmanuelle came out and set box office records around the world. This changed the marketing of the movie. What probably would have been another movie by Robbe-Grillet that played in select art house to a sophisticated audience became a film that cinemas around Europe wanted to book to keep. They wanted Sylvia Kristel fans to keep coming back to their cinema. Moviegoers didn’t feel cheated and revolt at Kristel’s small role because Robbe-Grillet made a film that had plenty of kinkiness and a female cast in minimal or less wardrobe. Anicée Alvina doesn’t disappoint in her leading role.
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Playing With Fire is the perfect intersection of art house cinema and exploitation film. He combines lofty intellectual discourse with comedic visuals and goofy sound effects. This is his kind of funny. Philippe Noiret and the cast play the roles so seriously that they don’t give away that the plot is such a lark. Playing With Fire is the perfect film for when you want a sophisticated French comedy, but crave erotic European elements.
The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the detail of French life in the mid-70s. The audio is French LPCM 2.0 Mono and French DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono. The movie is subtitled in English.
Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas points out that Sylvia Kristel had been cast before Emmanuelle had been released. Before Playing With Fire came out, the promotion elevated her to a co-star status. He also says that part of the funding came with a promise that the film would feature plenty of unclothed moments and Alain Robbe-Grillet had no problem with that stipulation.
Interview with Catherine Robbe-Grillet (5:16) has her thinking it was Alain’s funniest film. She views the film as a comic book. She says her husband and Phillipe Noiret didn’t get on too well, but they worked well. Catherine’s novel The Image was adapted into a film by Radley Metzger. She feels this is a film that couldn’t be made now.
Promotional Gallery includes posters, lobby cards and a media guide in French. They really highlighted Sylvia Kristel being in the film.
Trailers for Mysteries (2:34), Pastorale 1943 (2:01) and Julia (2:26) which are film starring Sylvia Kristel that are out from Cult Epics.
Booklet features an essay on the cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet by Marcus Stiglegger.
Cult Epics present Playing With Fire. Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Phillipe Noiret, Anicee Alvina and Sylvia Kristel. Runing Time: Rating: Unrated. Release Date: January 24, 2023.