Monday, December 5, 2011

Alain Resnais | L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)

murder of time
by 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.

      Using eighteenth- and nineteeth-century dramatic conventions such as melodramatic music that sounds as if it had been composed for a silent movie and tableaux vivants, in which the numerous visitors to the hotel are gathered in small groups and frozen in space as the camera passes, Renais creates a landscape that is almost hilariously stylized, at one point even painting in shadows for his characters trapped between shadowless, manicured trees—as if to point up the fact that the charcters of this film are so insignificant that they cannot even cast their own shadows.

      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.

      We also recognize in the Rosmerholm connection that Last Year at Marienbad is not so much a story about a man and a woman who may or may not have had a previous affair, as about a couple trying to uncover their own reality in a world that seems to have no solid past, present, or future—in a landscape which destroys time. All the guests have come here, we are told, for relaxation; no business is allowed. In such a desultory place, games such as Nim (a game based on mathematical principles, in which the the first player inevitably wins) and target shooting are the primary activities, reminding one of Renoir’s Rules of the Game; just as in that film, the only other entertainment available to the bored and wealthy guests is the game of love.

      Finally, one perceives in the in the reference to Ibsen’s play that this is an extremely literary work, what film critic Thomas Beltzer has described as “an intertextual meditation,” a story not so much about a couple attempting to uncover love, but just as do authors, to create a world in which they might survive. Beltzer argues that the script is based, in part, on Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, a work, published in 1940, that was itself influenced by H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. In The Invention of Morel, a fugitive entrapped on an island, falls in love with a woman, Faustine, controlled, it appears by a tennis player, Morel. As in Robbe-Grillet’s script, when the fugitive attempts to speak to Faustine, she does not react, and the many other tourists around him seem not to notice him. Ultimately, he discovers that the figures he is seeing are holograms created from the original beings, now destroyed, trapped in an eternal mechanical reality that is repeated again and again.

     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.”

      Obviously he has read little of the great Argentine writer’s work, and has no perception that in Europe, Bioy Casares is far better known and respected than in the United States. My Green Integer press is the publisher of Bioy Casares’s Selected Stories, and I would hardly describe these metaphysical tales (or The Invention of Morel) as belonging only to the genre of science fiction or horror tales. I would suggest, rather, that Robbe-Grillet refused to tie his script down to a single work or even multiple sources, simply because he sought to make Marienbad a kind of Borgeian “library” (Bioy Casares wrote many works with Borges), a work which calls up numerous other fables of desperate love.

     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.

 Throughout Marienbad, in Seyrig’s long narcistic-like reveries, the theme love lost and rediscovered, and the attempt to make the “new” woman over into the one in the past, there are similarities Vertigo and Last Year at Marienbad. But then, of course, they are elements in most stories of love  lost and found.

      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).

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