L’année Dernière À Marienbad (1961) (aka Last Year At Marienbad)
“The grounds of that mansion were rather in the French style, without trees, flowers, or any plants at all. Gravel, stone, marble, rectilinear, formal, devoid of mystery. At first glance, it seemed impossible to get lost in them, along the straight paths, between the immutable statues, granite slabs, where you were, even now, losing yourself forever, in the still night, alone with me.“
Right from its title, Last Year at Marienbad (1961) spells ambiguity. Neither does the film refer to a place called Marienbad, nor is it sure if the events that the protagonists, X the man (Giorgio Albertazzi) and A the lady (Delphine Sevrig), talk about took place the previous year. Last Year at Marienbad takes place in an ornate French chateau and unfolds as a conversation between X and A – a very repetitive one at that (at least, that is how it looks like!). X insists that he had met A last year when she promised that they would elope if only he waited for a year. But that’s about all the information that the film provides us. We hear X and A carrying on the same conversation, in one tone or the other, for the rest of the film. We see them moving about the chateau, gazing at the mannequin-like guests who seem to be able to speak and shut up according to the whims of X and A. Resnais superimposes every possible permutation of the characters’ forms, – past, present, memories, fantasies and possibilities – appearances – in black, in white – and locations – the chateau, the garden, the room and the bar – to produce a one-of-a-kind work that turns the very tenets of narrative cinema that is builds on.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough for Last Year at Marienbad is that it obviates the need for reality to make a film. A film, however surreal or convoluted, unravels from the viewpoint of an objective and omniscient narrator, presenting its details as truths and situating its characters in a fixed place and time. Even if it tries to dig into the psyche or the subconsciousness of its protagonists, it first establishes them as real entities in the real world and then dissolves into the other. On the other hand, Last Year at Marienbad is a cinematic materialization of the process of reminiscence. It takes place entirely in the minds of its protagonist. Any attempt from our side to bind the protagonists that we see to a tangible and unchanging reality invariably fails. That’s because what we see aren’t the protagonists, but their perception of themselves. If they wear black, it’s because that’s how they see themselves at that particular time and place. If they irrationally switch to white dresses, it is just in order to piece together fragments of their memory in a more convincing manner. In fact, we never even see the man and woman in the first place. The beautiful actors we see on the screen may just be what the characters want to project themselves as – much like our relationship with our movie stars.
Last Year at Marienbad is a study of how the human memory works. Resnais presents memory as a tool to retrieve the past. The fainter it becomes, the more possibilities it presents. When we are forced to confront it, we try to synthesize the remaining bits and pieces, blending what was with what would have been, into a coherent experience with unmarred chronology and logic. More painful that past is, more comfortable is the version synthesized – A version that is sore enough to recall those dreadful incidents, but safe enough to repudiate their consequences. The authoritative man in Marienbad consistently forces the lady to confront her past. She cooks up a rendering that eschews responsibilities. He intrudes into her edition to thrust his own. Resnais’ eternal breaking of basic editing rules here turns out to be more than a gimmick or a Brechtian technique (which is achieved because of the nature of the film itself). Because what we see on screen is a juxtaposition of two perceptions, they do not share the same cinematic space and, consequently, need not necessarily obey the rules of continuity and eye-line matches.
Resnais accentuates his film with images of mirrors – at times distorted – throughout. He supplements this practice by making Marienbad self-referential at times. The guests at the chateau try to guess out the mechanism behind the card game, which is as logic-defying as the film itself. X delivers monologues that could well be about the film itself (“Conversation flowed in a void, apparently meaningless, or at any rate, not meant to mean anything. A phrase hung in midair, as though frozen, though doubtless taken up again later. No matter. The same conversations were always repeated, by the same colorless voices.”, for one). What Resnais achieves through this combination is a series of mise-en-abymes – both literal and visual – that mirror the very nature of the human percept. Being stuck in this abysmal fractal, both the characters and the audience try to break out of it. The lady tries to evade this “forced recollection” and hence escape her past. On the other hand, we, the audience, instinctively attempt to piece together the decidedly subjective elements into some form of “truth”. This is one reason why Marienbad is a very unique film. Where, in the other films, we try to get into the mind of the characters, in Last Year at Marienbad, we try to come out of it. In other words, “conventional” cinema locates its characters in space and time and asks us to derive and construct their world around them. Marienbad presents us their world in totality and just asks us to locate the characters.
One thing that is conclusive is that Resnais uses the chateau as a visual manifestation of the human memory. He uses parallel, rigid and clearly defined structures for the interiors of the chateau. The hedgerows in the garden are pruned to perfection and show symmetry and clarity of position and shape. Resnais’ geometry spells determination and factuality and is anything but ambiguous, like the black and white of the film. The man, who persuades the woman to walk with him through the ominous corridors and staircases of the each other’s memories, mentions at one point: “At first glance, it seemed impossible to get lost in them along the straight paths”. Unfortunately, it is only the inanimate that are static. The humans in the chateau, their relation to their surroundings, their actions, their mentality and their appearances keep changing. Like an attempt at the recollection of a distant memory, the mise-en-scene of a sequence regularly changes, filtering out the unnecessary, checking out possibilities, trying to get the perfect match of image, sound and sensation. Perhaps the term “stream of consciousness” suits Marienbad more than any other film.
To borrow a quote from the Kubrick page at Senses of Cinema: “Rare is the artist who can suffuse his work with so much ambiguity and still intrigue”. Resnais bows. Marienbad is a complex film, probably as complex as they get. It plays around with the character’s perceptions of themselves, the audience’s perception of their film stars, their perception of cinema and cinema’s perception of itself. Loads could be written about the film from very many angles and with very many theories. I’m sure there are a thousand “readings” of the film about what exactly happened, but I feel such interpretative exercises would just go against the purpose of the film. Rather than raising the obvious question “why is this film like this?”, Last Year at Marienbad proposes another: “Why were films not like this?”. This is one film that one can safely call meaningless, because Marienbad is not a document bound by the rules of the physical world, but a sensory experience that transcends temporal and spatial barriers. And experiences needn’t always have a meaning.