Rediscovering Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, based on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Academy Award-nominated original screenplay) recently re-released at New York’s Film Forum, feels something like unearthing a fantastic couture gown in a grandmother’s attic. On the other side of a trap door in time, one is faced with not just a dress, but the sensual presence of something uncannily beautiful, nearly impossible, and overtly problematic all at once: the cinematic equivalent of whale bone-enforced corset, silk from the colonies, and the kind of workmanship only extreme class disparity can provide.
We are back on the terrain of high modernism. Advertisements almost inevitably quote critical declarations that Marienbad is “the Finnegans Wake of movies” (does the Joyce estate get a penny every time they set the standard?). In 1960s Paris, it was “Resnais’ Picasso.”
Today, lines down the block and another extended run attest to Marienbad’s continuing ability to delight and derail. The film hit New York for the first time almost half a century ago, opening at Carnegie Cinema Hall in March of 1962. For a taste of the bewilderment it caused then—and for the allusions to the glamorous alterity of not just European film-making, but Europe itself—one need only glance at the contemporary reviews. For example, Bosley Crowther’s lovely New York Times review, “Be prepared for an experience such as you’ve never had from watching a film when you sit down to look at Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad,” a truly extraordinary French film, which opened at the Carnegie Hall Cinema last night.” (“The Screen: ‘Last Year at Marienbad’:Carnegie Hall Cinema Shows Resnais”.)
My generation of cinephiles grew up with Marienbad in the guise of inspired music videos, perfume commercials, as well as the films of Peter Greenaway and David Lynch. Yet encountered on a big screen, in the company of a rapt, stumped (or, in New York, wisecracking) audience, the film still feels avant-garde.
What makes the movie—which is still somehow an event—is Resnais’s remarkable collaboration with Robbe-Grillet, pioneer of the nouveau roman and, until this February, possibly the best French writer alive. Neither of them reached the same cinematic heights alone, Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Robbe-Grillet’s own directing notwithstanding. Miraculously, Resnais chose neither to explain nor illustrate Robbe-Grillet’s obscure and intelligent text, writing instead a cinematic counterpoint hardly matched since.
Visually, Marienbad is a chiaroscuro fantasy, all shadow and mirrors. Long takes and frozen tableaus alternate with sudden changes of angle, frame, and costume. The script, meanwhile, doesn’t even nod in the direction of mimesis. The characters have no names, just functions (the woman, the man, the husband), forcing the most unwilling viewer into a structuralist reading. A hypnotic voice-over drones obsessively about a (partly? almost?) parodic love triangle, looped over strains of crescendoing organ. The words sometimes match up with, and make sense of, the visuals; at other times, they float right past. “The door was open,” the narrator recalls, but sometimes the door is and sometimes it isn’t.
Time, in Marienbad, is both the only thing that matters and utterly, hopelessly broken. Everything is based on nostalgia: you can’t fall in love in this place, only fall back in love. But we also never know when we stand—long after, during, or simply removed from the film’s events.
Part of the resulting magic, if you make it this far, is that even with such bare bones of a plot, with really little more than fragments and leitmotifs to go on, the mind stubbornly works to reconstruct a story. An analogy is to stand in front of an almost-entirely abstract Kandinsky, and, from just a few lines and shapes hovering on the figurative, to create an entire human drama. Complex emotions project onto a thick black line. (It is striking, by the way, how much more sophisticated and open we are when approaching painting and the static visual arts, compared with the medium of film.)
Marienbad snares us in a baroque hotel in a resort town, midst the glittering aristocratic swarm that descends on such places in periodic migration. Last year, everyone was at Marienbad. Maybe we still are. A play-within-the-movie (Ibsen—interpretations of whom have always snapped between social and realist to mystical-Symbolic) introduces the love triangle plot that then spills over into the rest of the movie. But everything is already awry: the actors seem positively human compared to the artificially frozen audience watching the play. The sumptuous, unbelievable costumes by Coco Chanel (really the third master collaborator of the film) are oddly foregrounded, making most characters as secondary as mannequins. The sheer presence of gilt, statues, paintings, and mirrors furthers the confusion. The line between persons and things is awfully porous.
The narrator (Albertazzi) tries to persuade a beautiful woman (Seyrig) to run away with him and leave her husband. He seems to think their affair started last year, at Marienbad, but he might be lying, or confusing her with someone else. She in turn either cannot remember or is pretending not to. One or both—or the camera eye—could be insane, blurring fiction and reality beyond hope of reparation. After all, one went to such places to recover and rest, whether from exhaustion or sheer boredom or neurasthenia. Albertazzi is either the most or least sane person here. The husband meanwhile (a wonderfully ghoulish Pitoëff) entertains himself with a parlor game only he can win. What at first seems a simple logic trick takes on metaphysical significance: like death himself, the husband always wins at the end.
The three replay their own stylized, ritualistic tragicomedy, something akin to Italian commedia dell’Arte, with Seyrig as an anesthetized Columbine. It works as a formal exercise, a deconstruction of literary and cinematic roles, but other readings hold as well. A good psychoanalyst might start with the climax that never comes. The film obsessively circles but cannot bear to confront some repressed traumatic event, an aesthetic and emotional epicenter. We can deduce that it is some terrible act of violence inflicted on the woman, but real or imaginary, rape or murder? If murder, by which of the two? When? As in Robbe-Grillet’s novels (The Voyeur, or Jealousy, 1955 and 1957 respectively), the border between love and violence isn’t merely shaky: it’s just not there.
In the 1960s, the French nouveau roman declared war on mimesis, psychological development, subjectivity, continuity—and most of the other conventions inherited from the 19th century novel. Sticking instead to the surface of things, working only with fragmentation and pattern, interested in psychoanalytic rather than psychological truth, the new novel was itself deeply cinematic.
Marienbad is a direct continuation of the project: voila the nouveau film. Sight and sound compound rather than ease the intellectual challenge, and the ethical trap is the same, for the camera eye forcibly transforms us into the narrator’s demented double. In The Voyeur, the reader similarly can’t escape the eponymous role, and with morbid and libidinous curiosity is audience to, and implicated in, the rape and murder of a very young girl. Robbe-Grillet reads something like Nabokov, but a lot less kind.
The world of Marienbad is hermetically sealed, as so many viewers have pointed out. But the why of it, meaning after potential meaning, shifts laterally without losing the power to suffocate. To remain, as Robbe-Grillet so likes to do, on the level of the glittering surface, we might just watch for the decadence of the drifting aristocracy. Marienbad is a fractured, cubist reflection of Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game; the source material could almost be the same. In fact, Mlle Coco designed the costumes for both. (Chanel finished work on The Rules just before WWII and embarked on Marienbad not long after returning to Paris and fashion; the French public, however, had not yet forgiven her affair with a Nazi officer and spy.)
Marienbad is so obviously “about” formal experimentation that the hint of social critique might sound preposterous, but the two are neither mutually exclusive nor was Robbe-Grillet blind to that other angle. Jealousy, perhaps his most famous novel, sets a similar nightmare between A… (the beautiful, perhaps unfaithful wife), Franck, and an absent third-person narrator (the jealous husband, present only in such details as an extra place-setting at dinner) on a colonial banana plantation. Once we get past the shock of the formal exposition, we realize the three are trapped not only by their pre-ordained roles—i.e., by a cruel creator—but by their enforced distance from the dehumanized “natives”, as well.
As in Lynch’s later films then, we sink from one layer of meaning to another, but never escape from the vicious circle. Formally, Marienbad is style dissected; psychoanalytically, repetition-compulsion filmed; politically, the consequence of oppression. We might add: metaphysically, eternal return. Horribly, this center does hold.
The mirror, or doubled-mirror, is the visual symbol for all this as well as a leitmotif. As so often in self-referential film, the mirror stands in for the camera itself. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 (commenced 1964) “Mirror” recreates and captures works of visual art, while dipping into the characters’ lives and immediate history. The poetry of the voice-over, more than any semblance of plot, invests the movie with continuity, meaning, and lyricism: Tarkovsky’s camera is a kind of mirror that reads. In Marienbad however, Resnais’ camera only displays its affinity for other mirrors.
In the end, it is rather perfect that this 1961 masterpiece of the cinematic avant-garde has left its deepest influence on (besides Lynch, Greenaway) the world of fashion. Both are plagued with mirrors and obsessed with time. To be fashionable is to be timely. But the glamour and mystery that fashion must tap into to really excite us—what Chanel, for example, does so inimitably well—is displaced further, onto an idealized past or a fantastic future. Only something that is able to twist time into such sophisticated and paradoxical illusions can hope to beat the clock for the ultimate prize, and be deemed timeless.