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Last Year at Marienbad (1961) –Submitting to Another’s Interpretation

February 3, 2016

As I remarked in the introduction to my recent piece about Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad is one of a handful of works comprising the peak of the sensibility or movement known as European art house film. Great works may have followed in its wake, some may even continue to be made, but few films have managed to equal (let alone outstrip) Marienbad when it comes to sheer inventive panache. This was a film that did not so much bend the rules of cinematic story-telling as shatter them into a thousand beautiful pieces.

There are many critical paths into Marienbad, but the one I would like to focus on today involves the colliding sensibilities of the film’s writer and director:

The film’s director – Alain Resnais – may have begun his cinematic career as an actor but his reputation was built on the back of a documentary exploring the extent of France’s collaboration with the German war machine during World War II. Night and Fog served to confront the myth that the French people had spent the entirety of World War II actively resisting the German occupation. Far from spending their evenings blowing up ammunition dumps, many French people welcomed German occupation and their welcome even extended as far as helping the Nazis to exterminate France’s Jewish population. The myth of the citizen-resistance fighter was not only put about by French political elites eager to evade answering questions about their own wartime activities, it was also embraced by a French population wracked by feelings of guilt and shame. While themes of remembrance and forgetting may have gone on to dominate the rest of Resnais’ cinematic career, that career began with an examination of how memories can be manipulated by those with a vested interest in particular truths.

The film’s writer – Alain Robbe-Grillet – differed from most writers in so far as he trained as an agronomist with a particular interest in diseases of the banana. As someone whose perhaps more scientific than humanistic, Robbe-Grillet’s writing was famously devoid of humanity. Even when his work did feature conventional characters and narratives, the prose would invariably be affectless and profoundly wedded to the surface of objects. For example, consider the opening to his classic experimental short story “The Secret Room”:

 

The first thing to be seen is a red stain, of a deep, dark, shiny red, with almost black shadows. It is in the form of an irregular rosette, sharply outlined, extending in several directions in wide outflows of unequal length, dividing and dwindling afterward into single sinuous streaks. The whole stands out against a smooth, pale surface, round in shape, at once dull and pearly, a hemisphere joined by gentle curves to an expanse of the same pale color—white darkened by the shadowy quality of the place: a dungeon, a sunken room, or a cathedral—glowing with a diffused brilliance in the semidarkness.

 

There are two further things to say about this quotation: The first is that, despite appearing to be written in an objective or photo-realistic style, neither the room nor its contents ever existed. The room is a complete fiction that has been introduced into your head by the simple act of reading the above passage. The second thing to say about this quotation is that the red stain is blood dripping from the breast of a woman who has been murdered. Indeed, while Robbe-Grillet never killed or maimed anyone, his fantasy life is said to have revolved around the torture of young women. These fantasies would often inspire real actions undertaken as part of a long-term sadomasochistic relationship with another consenting adult. I mention this not to posthumously kink-shame Robbe-Grillet, but rather to position him as someone who would have been quite comfortable distinguishing between non-consensual sex and the performance of non-consent as part of an activity to which everyone involved would have willingly consented.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory but also about consent and the extent to which our memories and actions can be shaped by other people.

The film’s terms of engagement are obvious from the opening scenes:

A man in formal attire delivers a speech. His voice contains not a single trace of emotion despite the content of the speech referring to love and passion. He stands in front of a backdrop depicting vast formal gardens and opposite him stands a woman who is completely immobile. The camera moves back and forth between the two ‘characters’ before showing us an audience of people in formal dress say in tidy rows. After a while, the man stops speaking and a curtain open and closes a few times as the audience applauds. The actors do not move and we do not actually see the audience clapping but sound and context links the events together. We then move to what we assume must be a post-performance reception and we find the guests standing motionless and speaking with just as little affect as the man on the stage. The reception is taking place in a sprawling mansion, with vast formal gardens similar to those featuring on the backdrop.

 

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The comparison between the setting for Marienbad and the setting for the play serves to suggest a broad equivalence between the two contexts. If the play’s setting is fictional and yet identical to the real world of the film, what does that tell us about the real world?

 

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We are then shifted into a scene where the formally-attired spectators seem more comfortably realistic in so far as they move and speak like regular human beings. We overhear conversation fragments about a man named “Frank” who undertook a spectacular piece of seduction by setting the stage as carefully as a theatre director. As people talk, a man sets up a simple game where two players remove cards from three rows in the hope of not being left to pick up the final card. The man plays a number of games throughout the film and continues winning. People assume that there must be a trick to it… he knows the rules that govern the game and so is able to guarantee the outcome he desires. This idea of a ‘fixed’ or ‘unwinnable’ game connects not only to the gossip about Frank’s stage-managed seduction, but also to the relationship that dominates the foreground of the film.

The bulk of the film is given over to what might charitably be described as an open-ended conversation between an unnamed man (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) and an unnamed woman (played by Delphine Seyrig).

 

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We first encounter the couple standing in the formal gardens where he is attempting to remind her of their meeting the previous year. He describes the scene in astonishing detail, right down to their dress and the positions they assumed when arguing over the meaning of a particular piece of classical statuary. She does not deny that the meeting happened, but tells him to keep his voice down lest they attract attention.

As the film progresses, the man’s assertions that he and the woman have met before become more detailed and insistent. Refusing us the safety that might have come from a ‘true’ reality, Resnais moves between flashbacks, recreations, and scenes in which the man simply recalls his past encounters with the woman. Sometimes we are positioned inside a flashback and yet the woman speaks with an awareness of the present. Sometimes we are positioned in the film’s present and yet the woman displays a level of warmth and complicity consistent with the memories asserted by the man. In effect, Resnais makes it impossible to tell the difference between fact, fiction, memory, or fantasy.

 

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At first glance, Last Year at Marienbad is a film about gaslighting. Gaslighting takes its name from a play by Patrick Hamilton in which an unscrupulous man who attempts to drive his wife insane by systematically nay-saying what she knows to be true. We now use the term to refer to the abusive practice of deliberately distorting someone’s memories in an effort to confuse, disorient, and ultimately re-program the victim. Most critical writing about Marienbad stresses the fact that the couple disagree over whether or not they met the previous year whilst downplaying not only the power imbalance between the man and the woman, but also the fact that the man seems to be gaslighting the woman in an effort to trick her first into having sex with him and ultimately into eloping with him. The woman’s affectless exhortations to be left alone coupled with images of the man groping her suggest an abusive dynamic.

 

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It is here that we see the collision of Resnais’ traditional thematic concerns with those of the writer Robbe-Grillet: Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory but it is also a film about a man deliberately setting out to envelope a woman within the folds of a sexual fantasy. The man imposes his memories of a sexual liaison on the woman in the same way as France’s cultural elites imposed their memories of active resistance upon the population of France. The comparison may seem like a bit of a stretch as Resnais would doubtless point out that the French people were complicit in the acceptance of a flattering national myth but the film actually allows for a degree of ambiguity as to the true source of the memories.

 

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One dynamic I have not mentioned thus far is the relationship between the primary male character and the man who introduces the card game at the beginning of the film. The scenes involving this secondary male character present him as someone who is using some secret trick or strategy to win every game he plays. As I mentioned before, this idea of a ‘fixed’ game is bound to the idle gossip about someone named Frank who stage-managed some act of grand seduction. On my initial critical pass through the film, I suggested that this idea of a puppet-master connected with the primary male character’s attempts to gaslight the female character but what if it applied to the card-player rather than the memory man? What if Last Year in Marienbad was about a ménage a trois rather than a folie a deux?

 

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The memory man’s talks with the woman make frequent reference to a third party, a man who was systematically about to arrive and so forcing the couple to complete whatever it was they were doing in haste. In one flashback, the card-player fills that role and so appears to assume the role of a jealous husband whose wife the memory man was attempting to steal. This invites two quite different (but equally compelling) interpretations of the film:

 

Firstly, the husband may well have stage-managed not only the liaison between his wife and an attractive hotel guest, but also the deliberate gaslighting of her lover. Under this interpretation, the wife seduced another man and promised to run away with him only to later deny all knowledge of their relationship. This explains not only her bizarre suggestion that she be allowed another year of marriage before eloping with her lover, but also the sexual undertones acquired by the game as the memory man is repeatedly beaten and humiliated by the card-playing husband.

 

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Secondly, the film might be showing us not the fantasies of the memory man or the card-player but of the wife. Under this view, a woman passes her time by sleeping with other men in an effort to attract the attention and desire of an otherwise distant husband. This explains not only her decision to keep talking to the memory man but also the delight the card-player seems to take in beating his rival at cards and displaying his greater erudition.

 

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What makes Last Year at Marienbad a great film is its complete lack of interest in the idea of there being a correct interpretation of the events described in the film. The characters have no names, the world is paper thin, the motivations and stakes underpinning the plot are entirely absent from consideration. There is no way to ‘solve’ the film because the film contains no more truth than the play that opens it. What we are seeing is pure conceit, pure fiction and yet the cosmetic similarities between the world of the film and the world we inhabit encourage us to treat the film as though it contains some hidden truth or wisdom. What holds us in place is not only the film’s ideas about the ultimate fragility of human memory but also the intense feelings of claustrophobia and dread emanating from the inhumanly beautiful photography and dirge-like score. The effect is one of perfect disquiet and concern over all of the interpretations to which we regularly submit ourselves.

 

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