Posted by David Kalat on July 21, 2012
When I first encountered Alain Resnais’ famously impenetrable Last Year at Marienbad, roughly fifteen years ago, I watched it out of a sense of obligation. I knew it to be an acknowledged “classic” by an important filmmaker from a pivotal moment in film culture. I sort of had to watch it to maintain my cred. But I went in prejudiced by its reputation as a prickly, off-putting exercise in beautiful but alienating imagery, unconcerned with entertainment or emotion. Boy was I surprised when I found it to be completely engrossing.
Now, regular readers of this blog may already have me sussed out as someone who enjoys long, slow, boring movies. Think again—I suffered through that interminable Days of Heaven nonsense and swore I’d never watch another Terence Malick film again. I don’t enjoy slow for its own sake—I’m just absolutely willing to forgive slow in a film that has everything else working, and needs slowness to keep everything else working.
And Last Year at Marienbad is absolutely cooking. It just happens to be doing something very ill-advised (my son, who shares much but not all of my taste in movies, scoffed at this film, because he’s committed to the principles of rising and falling action. And I’ll admit it, Marienbad opens at one pitch and then plateaus out at that level for the next 90 minutes. There’s no rising or falling action, there’s no action at all.)
In its initial release, Resnais infamously told the press that he wasn’t entirely sure what happened in the film and what was true. To understand why this remark turned into such a touchstone of critical anger, cast your mind back a couple of years to the Lost finale. Audiences had invested a great deal of time and attention into deciphering its mysteries, believing there to be some eventual payout. When they were told that certain questions weren’t going to have answers, a great many felt like chumps for having tried to play the game, and vented that frustration on the showrunners for leading them on. Marienbad invited the same sense of intellectual investment, to make sense of its incoherence, and if its makers admitted there was no answer to the riddle, it made a certain mindset feel cheated.
Marienbad doesn’t make literal sense; it absolutely has to be read symbolically for its pieces to fit together. And the thing of it is, the film defies any straightforward symbolic interpretation, too—no two people are ever going to experience it in the same way.
The best comparison point isn’t Lost, but The Prisoner. That show emerged from much the same era as Marienbad, and has a similar commitment to narrative ambiguity and difficult symbolism.
And I’m citing sci-fi for a reason—I think Marienbad does make a fair bit of sense, if you treat it as sci-fi.
I can’t set the stage any better than just start with the opening scene—in which our protagonist provides some voice-over narration to introduce the setting. He’s never named on screen at all, and discussions of the film generally call him X (played by Giorgio Albertazzi). Let’s hear what he has to say:
I hope you played the whole clip, although I bet not. It got pretty repetitive, if you sat through the whole thing—and that dialogue is repeated several more times throughout the movie, as well. The way it fades in and out, and somehow never seems to go anywhere, immediately introduces the idea that time is looping–that we have no bead on when events start or stop, or what happens in between.
There is a strong suggestion from later scenes that what Resnais has in mind is a critique of this social set whose behavior is so predictable and ossified that they might as well be statues. But that’s as may be, whatever Resnais intended, he went and presented his idea with the aesthetic trappings of a theme park ride. Specifically Disney’s Haunted Mansion—that organ music, the way the camera drifts through the architecture, the voice that comes in and out of focus and keeps saying the same things: this is very much like the experience of riding through the Haunted Mansion. And if this world is like a theme park ride, then not everyone has gotten on the ride at the same time, and some may be riding it a second or third time.
There are other ways in which time is made to appear out of joint. For example, what is presented as if it is a continuous scene involves edits in which Delphine Seyrig’s dress inexplicably alternates between black and white. Either she’s wearing an evening gown made of some space age fabric that changes colors with her mood, or this scene has happened more than once and we’re being shown snippets of those multiple identical conversations.
The central conceit of the movie is that X talks and acts as if he has met this woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), the previous year, and initiated a love affair with her at that time which he now intends to rekindle—while she professes no memory whatsoever of this. Is he a complete nutjob, is this some bizarre attempt at a pickup line, has she genuinely forgotten (or is pretending to have forgotten) him, or—is his “last year” the same as her “this year”?
That latter possibility simplifies a lot of what’s otherwise messy. These events have happened before, but only from his perspective.
I have been surprised to find that, even though this film actually functions within a SF aesthetic and set of genre conventions perfectly well, it has rarely been discussed as a silence fiction film. It may not have been intended by its makers as a time travel story, but it can be read as one nonetheless.
First, a couple of words of time travel movies in general.
Depending on when a given time travel story is set, there are narrative complications that screenwriters have to deal with. For a story set in the future–that is, a story in which characters travel through time to the future–there is no fundamental narrative distinction from a story set on another planet.
The Planet of the Apes conflated space travel and time travel together most famously. Other films that didn’t go quite that far might as well have done–is there any reason The Time Machine has to be set on Earth? (Doctor Who’s The Daleks is in many ways a remake of The Time Machine set on another planet).
The point is, stories set in the future have some freedom in that the audience and the characters can confront the situation without any baggage or preconceived notions.
By contrast, stories set in the past have a dilemma. If you wanted for example to tell a story about time travelers who journey back to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, you have an audience who comes into the story knowing that Lincoln was assassinated in the real world, and therefore presume that your characters will fail.
If you send your characters back in time in order to assassinate Lincoln, because they grew up in a calamitous world whose troubles they trace back to the 1860s, the same problem exists in reverse. Either way, even before you’ve written a single line of your script or filmed a single scene, the audience has a distinct attitude about what will happen at the end, and every aspect of your storytelling has to take that into account.
Stories set in the present day, in which time travelers come to visit us, are freed of this limitation because unlike past-travel stories the audience won’t have any prejudices about what is “supposed” to happen, and unlike future-travel stories can engage more directly in the real world of the audience.
Whereas time travelers who voyage to the future or the past may be visiting out of a sense of adventure or curiosity, time travelers tend to come to the present on a mission. Something bad happened in the here and now—robots developed sentience, a supercomputer initiated a rush towards nuclear war, a loved one died—and the traveler is here to fix it.
For some reason, though, a significant number of such stories involve the characters unwittingly causing the very events they are there to unmake. It’s as if the default understanding of time travel is that it is technologically possible but theoretically irrational (which is odd, because I tend to think the reverse position is easier to swallow: I think of time travel as being theoretically unproblematic but probably technologically out of our reach).
And this brings us to Last Year at Marienbad. Technology plays no role here–the characters don’t even mention time travel, much less how it might have been achieved. But the structure fits: here is a man who seems to know this woman, even love her, and hold distinct memories of a past with her that she does not share. From her perspective they have just met, and his “memories” merely auger events that come later in the film. We are not far out of the territory covered in The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Genre conventions would have it that X has made this journey through time to unmake a tragedy—and it would appear that the tragedy to be averted is when M shoots A in a jealous rage (M is the other man, played by Sascha Pitoeff). Admittedly the movie never quite says this explicitly… in fact, the movie gets cagey even when trying to pin down what relationship M even has with A. But, just because the movie doesn’t say something literally doesn’t mean it isn’t signaling it in other ways.
For example, shock cuts to scenes of M firing a pistol—the movie has a diegetic explanation for this, in that the men of the group do some target practice for fun, but there’s no reason to show us that image here and now if not to bring up the idea of jealous violence. Throughout the film there are hints that create the idea that A is doomed.
X for example shouts at A that his stories directly concern her life, and later voices his fear that he needs her to come out of this alive. The filmmakers may not commit to an interpretation by which X is a time traveler attempting to undo a past tragedy, but the storytelling is consistent with that genre nonetheless.
As an opponent, M is dangerous in other ways beyond his gunmanship. Early on, he introduces a game that apparently M never loses. The game is a real one, with an ancient history, called Nim.
Throughout the film, X and the other guests try to puzzle out how to defy M’s winning streak. X is almost obsessed with it—he knows there has to be a trick. He never hits on the real trick: in the real world, there are strict mathematical rules that govern how to play, and if you know the secret you can pretty much ensure your wins just as M seems to do. But that’s not what matters here—because the reason M always wins is itself a fixed fact, an act of fate, of predestination. Defying that isn’t so much about understanding math, it’s about symbolically defying predestination—about changing the future.
And also, well, yeah, there’s a trick. The trick is, M is an actor in a movie and so is X, and their actions have been predetermined by a screenwriter. M always wins because the scenes are written in that way, and the only way for X to win would be to do something outside his prescribed role.
The notion that the world of Marienbad is the way it is because it’s a fictional construct surfaces elsewhere. For example, X’s descriptions of “last year” seem to conjure those events into being. His so-called memories don’t necessarily seem to describe the past so much as they describe the present, or anticipate the future. And because he keeps talking about them, and then they happen, it’s at times as if he is a movie director barking directions to actors—and chastising them when they get it wrong.
At times his narration drops out of synch and contradicts the on-screen events (to which he starts to object, a narrator complaining that the movie he’s narrating is getting it wrong). And this leads back to his concern that if the story isn’t told the right way, A won’t make it out alive.
The emphasis that both X and A place on describing architecture and furniture as a way of recalling memories was probably meant as a swipe by Resnais, a critique of a soulless kind of life more fixated on things than people. But whether he meant it or not, Resnais has accurately depicted the technique used by memory champions, as described in the recent bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein. The theory holds that people have a special in-built facility for remembering geography and spatial relationships. And since that memory comes naturally, whereas the ability to memorize numbers or dry facts does not, memory specialists peg the things they wish to remember to visualizations of familiar places, called Memory Palaces. For example, you might visualize your commute to work, and then in your imagination place a series of mnemonic clues along that remembered path so you can retrieve them in order as you trace the route in your mind. Correctly remembering what happened last year involves first remembering what the place looked like.
I had a conversation with a French film scholar earlier today, following a screening of a documentary he had made about the relationship between American and French audiences to Godzilla movies, in which he articulated that French film culture is so committed to realism that little space is left for the fantastic or the imaginary. It’s a shame that the country that gave us Melies has so little desire to follow in his example, but I think that there’s something to the fact that the French are not inclined to make sci-fi head-scratchers—and as such, maybe the world isn’t attuned to see them when they do.
I don’t argue that Marienbad can only be understood as a time travel film–the more I’ve watched it the less committed I become to that interpretation. Like The Prisoner, this is a work of art whose mysteries cannot be unlocked with any single key. But I do find it interesting that this film that is so famously impenetrable can be seen as almost a cliche when viewed through a certain genre lens.
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