Last Year At Marienbad



the labyrinth of similiar itineraries

The relationship between M and X -- the Gambler and the Stranger -- is mathematically linked by the alphabetic ratio of the letter M to the letter X. "M" is 13, which makes it the meridian of the alphabet... and "X" is 24, which is the solar clock. That X departs with A at midnight is appropriate, as this is the meridian that he and Death recognize... while the Gambler, M, arrives late as his meridian is 13.

This number mysticism is interesting as part of the general symmetry, and begs the question: are M and X one and the same? A doppelganger? If the script was by Ibsen, then you would suspect a ghost... and certainly the elliptic chorus of Guests suggests just such a possibility. This possibility extends into the mutability of A as well -- she could also be dead, another phantom from the statues or the history of the Hotel. At one point she's shot by the Gambler in her identity as a feathered flashback figure from another era (another "play within") but X intervenes, says, "No, that ending is not right. I need you alive."

This is what the script writer, Robbe-Grillet, would call "the labyrinth of similiar itineraries".

Confused? While the possibilities of this narrative seem to be more than seven times seven, the symmetry of it remains more or less flawless. It's a transcendental mystery, Life against Death, a psycho-drama in this chambered, four dimensional reality. You're always aware of the spacial dimensions -- corridors intersected by corridors, avenues aligned with the sun, terraces ascending and descending, statues made of stone, statues made of flesh -- but it's the use of Time as the fourth dimension that engages memory and consciousness.

When you're reliving a memory, the past becomes the present -- this, essentially, is the narrative method of Last Year At Marienbad.

Marienbad: statues"We were near some stone figures on a plinth... a man and a woman in the classical style... whose suspended gestures... seemed to hold some significance. You asked me who they were. I said I didn't know. You began to guess, and I said... it could as well be you and I...."

As X confronts A in various locations within the hotel and outside in the stone garden, tries to convince her of the reality of their affair, his monologue is recreated in high contrast flashbacks. They're together on a terrace, discuss the possible meaning of the statue of a man and a woman... the present and the past seem to merge, exchange identities. You recognize the shift because the past is filtered, the images in high contrast, as if the definition of memory has been faded by Time.

Eventually M appears, explains the meaning of the statues in perfunctory way, like an item from a Guide Book. X repeatedly pursues A, comes upon her beside a mirror. "You're like a shadow, waiting for me to come closer," she says. They study a picture of the hotel and the grounds, an engraving in the period style of when the place was built. Later the picture is replaced by a contemporary drawing of exactly the same view -- a dream vision by a surrealist.

Meanwhile the Guests discuss the peculiar phenomena of the frozen lakes back in the summer of '28 or '29. The symbolism here is obvious: whatever happened then has been fixed eternally. It's a sinister detail, a signal of the paranormal -- just like the white horses in Rosmersholm. Just as art freezes the past, suspends it in Time, the hotel at Marienbad is a monument to past human expression. Is it madness? In this baroque crypt with its sculptured portals and glittering chandeliers, mirrors that multiply and corridors whose intersections lead to chance encounters, you realize this is a machine whose real function is yet to be discovered.

The entire film is like a Chinese box, sometimes so oblique you wonder if the algebra is faulty. There's the shooting incident, for example, which could be in 1928 -- the year synchronous sound came to film -- or in 1922 judging by the feathered flapper costume worn by A when she is shot on her bed by M. The entire sequence is in the style of silent film, yet how it fits with "last year" at this hotel is difficult to reconcile. It plays to those who would say the characters are ghosts merely reenacting their destinies on a solar calendar.

"This story is already over. A few seconds more and it will finally be frozen... forever, a past in marble... like the garden carved in stone...."

While X -- the Stranger -- appears to be the protagonist, his voice-over narration apparently omnisicient, it could be argued that the real point-of-view comes from the fourth principal character -- the "Guests". The Guests -- who are nearly always seen as mannikins, clothing dummies frozen in mid-gesture or in contemplation of some private vanishing point -- always deliver the real clues to this mystery. Their actions always resolve in stasis. They become silent witnesses to the drama between the Woman and the two men. It's a fascinating technique, one which is psychologically accurate if physiologically suspect. We are somnabulists, imprisoned by our dreams, unable to move in the real world.

the frozen music of Time

This spatial fixing -- where humans become statues and statues become humans -- gives this film a beautiful photographic allure. The imagery in general is fantastic. So often cinematography is merely landscape rather than psychology that you confuse documentary effect with art. Marienbad is art, make no mistake about it. It's the geometry of dream, the architecture of consciousness. Madame de Stael once described music to Lord Byron as "frozen architecture". You could say that Marienbad is frozen music.

What's bad about this film? The elitism? It's certainly academic, but because it forces you to think doesn't mean it's esoteric. The story-line is late medieval, early Renaissance, a morality play with the morality removed... the sort of thing Edgar Allan Poe excelled in. But it lacks the emotional intensity of Poe, of course. You can't blame Resnais for that, as the method comes from Robbe-Grillet's objectivist style. Too much algebra, not enough humanity? The brilliance isn't in the anal-retention, it's in the execution of Time, the sense of deja vu, the recurring verb of our existence.

© LR 15/6/99

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