Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year at Where?
by Mark Polizzotti
on Film / Essays, Jun 22, 2009
So much critical ink has been shed over Last Year at Marienbad that one might wonder if the flood of commentary, once receded, would take the film along with it. Alain Resnais’ second feature has been lavishly praised and royally slammed; awarded the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar, but also branded an “aimless disaster” by Pauline Kael; lauded by some as a great leap forward in the battle against linear storytelling and a worthy successor to Hoffmann, Proust, and Borges, dismissed by others as hopelessly old-fashioned.
The ambivalence is understandable. Marienbad blatantly toys with our expectations regarding plotline, character development, continuity, conflict, resolution—all those elements we’ve come to expect from a satisfying motion picture. Like its nameless hero, the film relentlessly pursues us with a barrage of assertions while giving us little to hold on to as convincingly true, until in the end, we, like Delphine Seyrig’s equally nameless heroine, have only two choices: remain steadfast in our resistance to the seduction or just plain submit.
The plot is disarmingly simple: At a retreat for the Other Half located somewhere in Europe, a man (referred to in the screenplay as X, and played by Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (A, Seyrig’s character) that they had fallen in love the previous summer, “in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon.” In his telling, the putative couple had planned to run away together, but she had asked him to wait one year. The woman at first refutes X’s claim but is gradually swayed by his insistence. After several episodes of muted sparring between X and A’s cooler-than-thou husband-guardian, M (Sacha Pitoëff), mainly over hands of the game Nim that M always wins, A finally agrees to leave with X.
So far, it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and bragging rights. The devil, as always, lurks in the details. Indeed, the more evidence X provides as proof of veracity, the more discrepancies emerge, and the more the enigma thickens. As the film progresses, the image on-screen appears almost willfully to clash with X’s voice-over description, sometimes prompting him to shout at it like an exasperated director with an especially temperamental star. Incidents and settings frequently repeat, but their details change disconcertingly between one iteration and the next: A’s remembered bedroom veers from bare to baroque; the hotel gardens sometimes boast a maze of shrubbery, sometimes grand alleys as stiff and straight as the gentlemen’s tuxedos. (Resnais obtained this effect by shooting at three different palaces—none actually located in Marienbad.) Added to the narrator’s stalkerlike pursuit of the reticent heroine, these inconsistencies imbue the film with an atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and threat.
We might say that the ambivalence that greeted the film, and that so shapes its content, also extends to its two main creators, ideal interlocutors ultimately speaking at cross-purposes. At the time of their meeting in 1960, they would have appeared the perfect match: Alain Resnais had just shaken up the film world, and cinematic convention, with his feature debut, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), while Alain Robbe-Grillet’s four novels to date (The Erasers, The Voyeur, Jealousy, In the Labyrinth) had outraged scores of critics and established him as spokesperson for the nouveau roman, a brand of fiction in which plot is implied through objective description rather than divulged through in-depth character analysis. Introduced by Resnais’ producers, the director and the scenarist quickly found much common ground between them, including a shared fascination with form over story line. “The question of defining an anecdote was something for later: the important thing was in the telling,” Robbe-Grillet commented in an interview about their collaboration. “As long as the kinds of form were agreed on, we’d be able to think up the subject.” They also shared a taste for imbricating invention and reality: Robbe-Grillet had been trained as an engineer, and his novels often dwell on minute details of buildings and landscape; Resnais had spent the decade before Hiroshima making documentaries with the emotional range of fiction, including lyrical meditations on van Gogh and Guernica, and the much acclaimed Night and Fog (1955), a nightmare tour of the Nazi concentration camps scripted by the novelist and holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol. Mirroring Robbe-Grillet’s passion for architecture, another of Resnais’ documentaries, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), snakes through the labyrinth of the Bibliothèque nationale, both celebrating the library’s recesses and providing a nonfiction pendant to Marienbad’s numerous tracking shots of palace corridors. After an inspiring first conversation, Robbe-Grillet drafted four proposals for Resnais; the director selected the most “sentimental and austere” as the best vehicle for their formal concerns.
On the one hand, Marienbad draws quite naturally on its cocreators’ prior accomplishments. Like Hiroshima, it weaves a hypnotic network of repeated phrases and recurrent visual, musical, and narrative motifs. And like Hiroshima, it stages a prolonged tug-of-war between two unnamed protagonists, he wooing her from a rival love interest with a psychoanalyst’s perseverance, she caught between resistance and surrender—both films culminating in a virtual “transfer of affect.” Like Robbe-Grillet’s novels, meanwhile, Marienbad offers only the elements of a story, leaving the viewer the responsibility of piecing them together. And like the novels—Jealousy (1957) being a prime example—it introduces into the mix distinct undertows of murder and violence, as well as telling variants that constantly upend whatever certainties we think we’ve gained. Jealousy, moreover, rehearses the triangular dynamic of Marienbad, including the watchful husband and the use of the initial A to designate the heroine.
At the same time, the film betrays some significant divergences between the two men’s visions, perhaps accounting in part for the ineffable tension between the protagonists on-screen, as well as between what we see and what we hear. Robbe-Grillet later stressed how the writing of Marienbad benefited from some stimulating disagreements; yet at first it was mainly he who carried the day, while Resnais’ suggestions—such as introducing the outside world via references to current events, or making Seyrig’s character pregnant—were generally discarded. Robbe-Grillet then delivered a screenplay so detailed, down to indications of soundtrack and camera movement, that the director confessed to feeling like a mere “robot” in the first weeks of shooting. In the end, however (as intimated in his introduction to the published screenplay, and more explicitly aired in later comments), Robbe-Grillet was taken aback by certain of Resnais’ interpretations, as if once established on the set, the director regained control of the project despite the author’s best efforts to constrain him.
Among the more notable changes is the score, which the scenarist prescribed as music “to set one’s teeth on edge . . . with percussive elements [such as] footsteps, isolated notes, shouts,” but which in the film is dominated by a gravid, liturgical pipe organ heavily indebted to Wagner and the symphonies of Louis Vierne. (The composer was Delphine Seyrig’s brother Francis, Resnais’ last-minute choice after Messiaen turned him down, and in the event a wise move.) Nor did Robbe-Grillet appreciate the cast, finding Seyrig in particular unsuited for the character he fantasized. Perhaps most drastically, Resnais attenuates the screenplay’s clear indication that X is rescuing A from a comfortable but stifling existence. By numerous subtle and not-so-subtle details, the visuals seem to favor the heroine’s point of view, almost defending her against Robbe-Grillet’s identification with X, giving her an autonomy and independence of mind out of register with the author’s objectifying gaze. Robbe-Grillet called Marienbad “the story of a persuasion,” in which the hero offers the woman “a past, a future, and freedom.” In Resnais’ realization of it, things are not nearly so simple.
No doubt Robbe-Grillet also objected to the level of stylization. While both men had envisioned a film characterized by “ritual deliberation, a certain slowness, a sense of the theatrical,” one senses that Resnais took this further than Robbe-Grillet had expected. Did the novelist share, for instance, the director’s love of Louis Feuillade’s serial melodramas, his desire to capture in Marienbad “a certain style of the silent cinema [and] re-create that atmosphere”? One thing that can’t have pleased Robbe-Grillet much, given his avowed penchant for S&M, is Resnais’ use of silent-film conventions to deflate what had been scripted as a brutal rape fantasy into something both comically and appealingly mannered. Resnais had even tried to obtain old-fashioned film stock to get the “halo” effect typical of silents, and his use of overexposure and exaggerated gestures is no doubt a way of compensating for its unavailability. (For the sharp-eyed observer, Resnais throws in another bit of cinema tradition: a ghostly profile of Alfred Hitchcock, incongruously appearing at screen right at about eleven minutes and thirty seconds—a nod to the master of suspense and his famous cameos, as well as a hint that Marienbad is, at bottom, a mystery.) The protagonists, too, seem in higher relief on-screen than in the author’s visualization. While Albertazzi is comparatively bland, handsome in a disposable sort of way, the viewer’s memory is indelibly marked by Seyrig with her strict black bob, so distinct from the bleached perm she sports in most films, and by Pitoëff—described in the screenplay simply as “tall, gray-haired, very elegant”—with his Nosferatu stare and face so gaunt it might have been caught in a trouser press. Sacha Vierny’s photography contributes equally to the sense of artificiality, glazing the visuals with a patina of hieratic stillness, much like the fashion photos of Helmut Newton or Philippe Halsman in vogue at the time—and perfectly in sync with A’s over-the-top Chanel and Evein robes.
Indeed, though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love. For a seducer, at times he seems patently cruel, his face betraying a kind of predatory hardness. Seyrig, whether disputing X’s account of their past rendezvous or acquiescing to it, rarely seems to lose her composure, hardly rippling the stuffy atmosphere even when crying out or dropping a glass. Oddly, it is the preternaturally self-possessed Pitoëff who provides the film’s one moment of actual tenderness, when he recognizes—perhaps even before she does—that A is about to leave him, bearing out the adage about those who are lucky at cards.
Like most art, Marienbad is ultimately about its own experience, the true dialogue occurring not between characters but between maker and audience. Robbe-Grillet’s well-known comment that the “entire story of Marienbad happens neither in two years nor in three days, but exactly in one hour and a half”—the duration of the film—could in this regard be said of any cinematic work. But whereas most movies give at least the illusion of progress and resolution, here the story line is unapologetically elliptical, the spa and its guests hermetically sealed in “a perpetual present.” The midnight chime we hear at the beginning of the film is quite literally the same as the one that ends the stage- and screenplay, in an eternal loop that brings the story back to its starting point and leaves us, like the seduced (and abandoned?) A, “losing our way forever in the stillness of night.”
It is this constant dance of seduction and evasion that makes Last Year at Marienbad so challenging, engaging, and contemporary some fifty years after the fact. On the one hand, the film constantly thwarts our efforts at rational interpretation, even as it dares us to keep trying. But at the same time, both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have repeatedly stressed the very simple key to understanding and enjoying the work: just watch it. Let yourself be carried along by the music, the rhythms of Albertazzi’s slightly stagy voice-over, the sinuosity of the tracking shots down the grand hotel corridors. Marienbad appears “difficult” if we try to impose a traditionally logical and chrono-logical structure on the flow of sounds and images (though perhaps less difficult now that so many films have taken their cue from it—Chris Marker’s La Jetée , Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining , Christopher Nolan’s Memento , and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky  immediately come to mind). But boiled down to its essence, nothing could be more self-evident, or more personal. “I don’t think of [Marienbad] as an enigma,” Resnais once told an interviewer. “Each spectator can find his own solution. But it won’t be the same solution for everyone.” Against a stiffly regulated backdrop located in a purely fabricated space, Resnais ushers us through the unpredictable and manifold corridors of human memory and desire.