May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 9, 2009
Criterion’s new edition of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad gave me the occasion to revisit the film, at a point in time when I was already hoping to do so. I’ve always seen Marienbad as one of the most unique of cinematic experiences; it makes viewers entirely conscious of the process of cinema while allowing them simultaneously to surrender to its larger mysteries, and, despite all the films since 1961 that imitate or parody it and the seemingly endless debates about it in print and online, the film still confounds and impresses. The final word on Last Year at Marienbad will certainly never exist. The couple might have met a year before, as the man, generically named X, insists; or they might not have, and each part of their history is a construct, a lie in an elaborate game of seduction. They might have had an affair the previous year, but, then, as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay implies, he might have forced himself on her and raped her, and the woman, simply named A, could be repressing her memory of the trauma. “It was probably not by force,” X says in recollection, “but only you know.” Alternately, the figures who inhabit the film’s baroque hotel might all be dead, caught in a way-station between this life and the next, “frozen, silent figures,” as X says in voice-over, “long dead no doubt.” Or, referring to their previous encounter, X tells A, “I told you that you looked alive. Your response was simply to laugh.”
Resnais’ audience at the 1961 Venice Film Festival laughed out loud, actually, mocking the film, but that was because they initially misunderstood it. By the final shot, they all sat in what Resnais later called “religious silence.” The film’s opening act has always amused me too, although the reasons are entirely different. At about eleven minutes into the film, Resnais tried to sneak in Delphine Seyrig, placing her in the far right side of the frame. She stood perfectly still, making the opposite of the grand entrance:
Seyrig was one of the most enigmatic and alluring of European cinema’s actresses of that generation; she could hardly be considered inconspicuous in any shot, including that one. The same might be said (well, the conspicuousness, not the allure) of Alfred Hitchock, whose figure appears roughly one minute later, hiding, apparently, on the right side of the frame in a wide shot down one of the hotel’s corridors. Resnais meant that as an amusing visual reference to the man who had so deeply influenced both him and Robbe-Grillet. And, then, throughout the rest of the film, Resnais inserted numerous visual puzzles, some of which are quite complex and demanding, such as this one:
Here, X stands next to a doorway while a couple, seen in the mirror to the right, argues. The camera pans closer to the mirror and, when it pans back to the left, X is gone. The couple exit the room through the doorway, two other hotel guests enter, the camera tracks back into an adjacent room, and X appears, unexpectedly, next to a different mirror:
X then turns and walks towards the previous room and passes by the arguing couple, who originally had exited into the opposite room:
Perhaps the couple double-backed; perhaps the events here occur in some odd, reverse, asynchronous order; perhaps they occur simultaneously. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet make no apparent preference for any of these options. This is the experience of Marienbad: repeated sequences, long takes that begin with characters in one place and end with the same characters elsewhere, eyeline shots that don’t match, ones that do, and no identifiable suggestion of the veracity of one sequence over the other.
As much as Last Year at Marienbad confounds the viewing experience, to a great degree it confounds conventional film criticism even more. Explaining the structure, the breaking of narrative conventions, the film’s influence on European cinema across the last century, all seems a bit old-hat now. Why the film is challenging is a more interesting question. As Robert Kolker remarked some quarter of a century ago, perhaps Marienbad isn’t inherently difficult but only seems so because “our expectations about narrative continuity are based only upon what movies have told us to expect.” Resnais himself would have agreed. He states in an interview on Criterion’s new DVD that the film is nothing more than “a simple love story” and, despite the lack of clear chronology, “we’d fully respected the laws of dramatic structure in force ever since the ancient Greeks.” Of course, his approach gave critics all sorts of fits. “The fact that Resnais tells stories and experiments with form,” Jonathan Rosenbaum once explained, “expels him from the avant-garde and mainstream alike.” In other words, he’s difficult to classify, as is this film. Contrary to Resnais’ description (and to that of Mark Polizotti, who wrote an essay accompanying Criterion’s edition), the plot is “simple” only at the most basic level; beyond that, the complexities accrue, like objects in a hoarder’s room. M might be A’s husband, but there is no proof of this. Perhaps she has a husband, perhaps a lover, or both. Perhaps she was in Marienbad, but maybe it was Frederiksbad. Who can say? Maybe A, concinved that X’s story about their affair is true, leaves with him at the film’s end, but didn’t M already shoot her dead?
Chronology is a particular “problem” in Resnais’ early films. For Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), the streets of Nevers, where she grew up, become in her mind the streets of Hiroshima and vice versa. The past becomes the present; the “flashback” as a critical term loses all definition. In Last Year at Marienbad, X and A haunt hallways and rooms, view gardens and statues, play games, and talk in repetitious, maddening fashion because time has the same abstract, amorphous quality. The seduction could be happening right now or a year before, shown in the film not as flashbacks but as representations of what these characters see in their own minds’ eyes. When X enters A’s room and walks towards the bed, while A, in her white gown, retreats, the question arises: is this happening, is it a memory, or is it imagined? Whichever it might be, Last Year at Marienbad breaks down the typical distinctions critics and viewers make between past and present, beginning and end, the structure of a story and our “objective” understanding of it; it renders these distinctions insufficient, even obsolete. It becomes a film not about events across time, but about the subjective experience of them, the individual point-of-view, the subconscious, and it therefore requires new terminology, new ways of thinking about film.
This subjectivity makes Marienbad confounding in another dimension: it undermines the old charge that the film is a cold intellectual exercise, impenetrable, devoid of emotion. In reality, the film surveys, to borrow a phrase from the author of The Wasteland, “memory and desire”, illustrating the experience of the former failing while the latter overwhelms. For all of its amusing parlor tricks, its oddly varied repetitions, Last Year at Marienbad is a nightmare of a film, not about remembering a possible past, but about the terrors of forgetting. Seyrig’s A struggles to recall her previous rendezvous with X, realizing she has no recollection of it. X seems certain, but even then his memory begins to fail. Troubled, he proclaims, “no, no … it wasn’t by force,” as if the proclamation itself would negate a possible transgression, eliminate the past altogether, make their affair in the present real (or make the present livable). X and A fear losing the ability to tell the difference between the present and the past, to place themselves within the passage of time. That, and not the question of the reality of their previous encounter, is the central subject of Last Year at Marienbad, and Resnais’ great ingenuity lay most in fashioning a form of cinema that forced his audience to fear losing their ability as well.
Robert Philip Kolker, The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema (Oxford, 1983), p. 156.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Alain Renais and MELO” in Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley, 1995), p. 192.