Like the mythic Flying Dutchman himself, Gallic iconoclast Alain Robbe-Grillet sails in a couple of decades too late with “The Blue Villa,” a psycho-sexual riff on Wagner’s opera set on a Greek island populated by mah-jongg-playing Asians. Decked out with glorious Panavision lensing and a rich array of the helmer’s usual cineliterary games, this strangely empty rerun of techniques that were fresh in the ’60s may still hook a few R-G devotees but will send most scurrying for the lifeboats, judging from its Berlin fest reception. Commercial chances look watery in the extreme.
Robbe-Grillet, whose last movie was the sexy, fetishistic Magritte riff “La Belle Captive” (1983), set “Villa” first in Hong Kong, then Vietnam, and subsequently Cambodia. When Dimitri de Clercq, anR-G student and son of producer Jacques de Clercq, came aboard as co-writer/director and suggested the more practical setting of a Greek island (actually Hydra), the Eastern accretions were retained in the final script.
Result makes for a striking cross-cultural opening as, to the sounds of “Senta’s Ballad” from the Wagner opera, a red junk painted with Greek-style eyes on the prow sails into the harbor of a one-horse island where, per a narrator, “very little ever happens.”
Inhabitants include Greek locals, some Chinese who clack mah-jongg tiles all day (hence the pic’s French title, meaning “A Noise to Drive One Crazy”), an alcoholic screenwriter called Nordmann (Charles Tordjman) and the sensuous Sarah-la-Blonde (Arielle Dombasle), who runs a cathouse called the Blue Villa where she hides the mysterious Santa (Sandrine Le Berre), aka Lotus Blossom, to whom she’s teaching the Wagner ditty.
When Frank (Fred Ward), who may or may not be a ghost, disem-barks from the boat, Nordmann conjures up increasingly corkscrew scenarios involving Frank’s supposed role in the supposed death in Indochina of Santa, supposedly Nordmann’s daughter. And that’s just for starters.
Ward, who doesn’t utter a word for almost an hour, spends most of the movie wandering around the island as if he’s looking for the script. Dombasle prances around in various sexy outfits, warbles the Wagner song accompanied by three Greek musicians and occasionally gives Le Berre singing lessons on her bed. The island’s police chief, Thieu (Dimitri Poulikakos), tries to sort out truth from fiction.
Auds will have the same problem, though for those prepared to enter into the Gallic spirit, the pic looks and sounds great, is rarely dull and at least appears to have a sense of self-mockery. Unlike the best of Robbe-Grillet’s earlier works, however, there’s a gaping void beneath all the gamester frippery.
For the record, the film — dedicated to actor Christian Maillet, who died last September at age 52 — sets a first by noting its aspect ratio (2.35:1) and exact running time in the end crawl. Latter is listed as 1 hour 40 minutes and 23.1 seconds.