"Not really a feminist protest, although why not? In another sense of the word feminist."
That's Alain Robbe-Grillet describing how his protagonist (brilliantly acted by Anicée Alvina) subverts the institutions of law-enforcement, justice and religion. The confusion over the film's gender politics comes from the fact that this agent of destruction spends much of the film in the nude and playing on the (undeniably male) spectator's own desires. Robbe-Grillet was probably aware of feminism's fire-breathing over sex in the 70s, which is why he's a bit uncertain of his claim that the film is feminist. I suspect today's more sex-positive attitude may accommodate a feminist reading more readily.
Then again, there are uncertainties throughout this film, and Robbe-Grillet is perfectly content with letting them lie unexplained. The artist doesn't have to speak for the work, it just is. And you can read as much or as little as you want into its succession of disturbingly pleasurable images. Although some viewers may dismiss the project as horribly pretentious and confused, I think that reaction misses the mischievous sense of humour running through it. This is a film made on a bet – Robbe-Grillet was determined to stick to a shoe-string budget of half a million francs. And some of the scenes are little more than in-jokes. Apparently the gravedigger who unearths the props in the film one by one is the editor, which Robbe-Grillet finds hilarious.
Even with the very obvious wreckage the creator has wrought, I think there are things to salvage. One of the funniest 'jokes' in the film is when two actresses woodenly play out the beginning of a porn scene, the seductress eagerly consenting to unimaginable horrors because they "sound like fun", before turning her eyes to the camera, and making clear that the only fun being had will be by the people watching. Robbe-Grillet likes to allude to Aristotle's idea of catharsis in justifying the allusions to murder and torture. These things reveal the monsters in our own heads, and allow us to confront them – and tame them.
Although most of the unreal, outrageous tale-spinning that we see playing out on screen is supposed to occur when Alvina is imprisoned, I actually don't think any of the film is intended to be "realistic". Partly this is because the budget didn't allow for it – the look of the film is sparse, clean and "superficial" (in Robbe-Grillet's words). Everything we see is a visualisation of what is going on in someone's head – whether the characters' or ours is an open question. A simple example the film starts with is the interrogation scene, in which Alvina starts to disrobe simply because the interrogator (and the audience) is already imagining her naked.
Another example is the flashy police investigator, who swoops and spins ridiculously in front of the camera. Again, it's the man's own interior sense of himself, or our own expectations of the cool noir hero, that we see – not what's really happening. The film's archness only draws attention to the fact that all fictional films are representations of reality. The sense of "realness" is always smoke and mirrors. Successive Slidings of Pleasure brings out that artificiality mostly to make some sly jokes at the expense of the viewer and their expectations, but also by emphasising the way our subjectivity warps the reality around us, to the point where we can get lost in the stories we tell, and the images we fetishize.