Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Starring James Wilby ("John Locke"), Arielle Dombasle ("Gradiva"), Dany Verissimo ("Belkis"), and Marie Espinosa ("Claudine"). Not rated.
Source: Region 1 DVD (Mondo Macabro)
Running time: 01:58:34
Country: France, Belgium
It's rare that, when reviewing a film, I allow myself to throw logic out the window. This is probably why I can't get behind a lot of Euro-horror films as much as the hardcore fans; I tend to take things at face value and disregard the whole "it's not to supposed to make sense" theory. With this film, however, I just had to make an exception. With a lot of the older Euro-horror movies that put an emphasis on atmosphere and mood rather than narrative (Fulci's Gates of Hell trilogy being a prime example), I have a tendency to call bullshit more often than not. Not that I'd categorize GRADVIA with any of those films, but I'm just using them as an example.
The thing with GRADIVA is that it doesn't even try to deceive the audience. It's obvious early on that the film takes place in the real world, the dream world, and somewhere in between where the lines are blurred. John Locke is an Orientalist who's in Morocco doing some research on the artwork of Eugene Delacroix. He somehow comes across some supposedly lost pieces of Delacroix's artwork, and through them he discovers that the artist was fascinated with a particular woman, whom he obsessively sketched portraits of. John Locke in turn becomes obsessed with these pieces of art and begins to see visions of the woman from the artwork, be it in the form of an apparition or an actual woman who bears a striking resemblance to Delacroix's muse. Locke's obsession somehow leads him to a brothel, where he discovers young women being enslaved for sadomasochistic purposes.
GRADIVA is very dreamlike in its presentation, which goes hand in hand with the theme of the film. Three of the lead actors play two or more characters. There's a lack of continuity when it comes to locations and character appearances more often than not, just like how it would be in an actual dream. So there's that. There's also what appears to be symbolic figures in the film (the most obvious of which being a white horse that accompanies the mysterious blonde woman on a few occasions), but who knows how many of these are actual symbols or just random things that the director threw in for aesthetic reasons. Unfortunately, I don't care for the film enough to really delve into all of that. Visually, the sadomasochistic elements of the film often reminded me of the heavily fetishistic SALON KITTY.
Director Alain Robbe-Grillet (also a well-known French novelist) drew inspiration from different sources for GRADIVA and tried to combine them all, resulting in a mess of a film, quite frankly. Perhaps, in his mind, this film was everything he envisioned. But, like a lot of art, no matter how personal, it doesn't necessarily come across as such to the eye of the beholder. At times GRADIVA can be visually interesting and haunting, and at other times it's incredibly frustrating, boring, and far too pretentious. On a side note, I much prefer the literal translation of the film's original French title: IT'S GRADIVA WHO IS CALLING YOU.