Monday, December 5, 2011
Alain Resnais | L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)
murder of timeby Douglas Messerli
Alain Robbe-Grillet (writer), Alain Renais (director) L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at
Marienbad) / 1961
As I have hinted in my discussions of Robee-Grillet's fictionsThe Erasers and The Voyeur, there is a significant amount of humor in Robbe-Grillet’s work. The ineffectual investigations of the detetctive Wallas in The Erasers and the highly organzied but internally rambling journeys of Mathias in The Voyeur may result in intellectually arresting conundrums, but the tensions that arise from their actions or lack of actions present us with several humorous twists of reality. Our very confusion in both of these works is based in part of the multiplicity of detail deflected by minds that can make no sense of the reality they are witnessing. The details overwhelm any sense of coherent narrative.
One can almost imagine, accordingly, when film director Alain Resnais began work of filming Robbe-Grillet’s script L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) the glee the two took is creating a work that so purposefully confuses its audience. Indeed the film has absolutely nothing to do with Marienbad, being filmed almost entirely at Nymphenburg and Schleissheim Palaces. X suggests to A only the possibility that they may have met at Marienbad. Moreover, except for vague whisperings and fragments of conversation, the only coherent sentences are uttered by X as he repeatedly recounts the background of “Empty salons. Corridors, Salons. Door. Doors, Salons. Empty Chairs, deep armchairs, thick carepts. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other. Glass objects, objects still intact, empty glasses. A glass that falls, three, two, one, zero. Glass partition, letters….” A says very little as X attempts to convice her—in a kind maddened version of the commonly used comeon: “Haven’t I met you somewhere”—that he has been waiting for A ever since their affair last year at….wherever that affair may have been.
Early on in the film we observe the hotel guests attending a play announed as Rosmer, presumably a production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm of 1887, a work centered upon a dialectic between the opposing forces of Rosmer and Rebekka West, the first representative of conservatism and idealsm, the second of radical reality. Accordingly, we have evidence early on in this film that X and A are polar opposites, she clearly a passive dreamer, wandering through space, while X attempts to bring her into a real world where they might rediscover their love—or at least tranform his apparent rape of her into something in which she equally participated.
Bioy Casares has, in turn, admitted that his character Faustine is based on the actress Louise Brooks, who, as he put it, “vanished too early from the movies.” And indeed, throughout Resnais’s film we see in actress Delphine Seyrig a kind of Brooks-like beauty, as she positions herself in various divans and beds.
Indeed, Beltzer goes on to cite other works that relate to Last Year at Mariendbad, creating what he describes as a kind of “ontological vertigo.” Yet the critic naively argues that Robbe-Grillet and Renais refused to make public the relationship between their work and Bioy Casares because they are “Eurocentrics who think art should have nothing to do with the genre of science fiction/horror.” By not revealing the possibility that the characters in Renais’s film are holograms, Marienbad becomes, in Beltzer’s words, “merely surreal art for art’s sake.”
It is odd, given Beltzer’s own references, that he does not link Last Year at Marienbad, for example, to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo released just three years before Marienbad. Yet both movies deal with a relationship that previously existed, ending tragically, in which the male rediscovers his lover, but who is yet somewhat uncertain that it is the same woman. X must almost convince himself in his repetitious descriptions of their previous affair that A is in fact the same being. Like Scottie in Vertigo, X has despaired of ever finding her again, but has believed all along that their reunion was inevitable. X’s passionate despair strongly resembles the kind of madness Scottie has had to endure upon the apparent suicide of Madeline Elster.
A’s husband or lover M clearly has a control over her that is very similar to Gavin Elster’s relationship with Madeline in Vertigo, where he pretends to be her husband, but is actually her lover.
That is just what makes Robbe-Grillet’s and Renais’s work so powerful, that in the world they present, time has become so warped and shifting that there can be no reality, the characters cast no real shadows because they are ghosts who share their reality with numerous other figures of art.
Los Angeles, July 12, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2008).