Last Year At Marienbad


Lawrence Russell

Last Year At Marienbad (L'Annee Derniere Marienbad, 1961) dir. Alain Resnais writ. Alain Robbe-Grillet cine. Sacha Vierny music Francis Seyrig art Jacques Saulnier edt. Henri Colpi star. Delphine Seyrig ("A"), Giorgio Albertazzi ("X"), Sacha Pitoeff ("M")

Fox Lorber

the labyrinth of solitude

Marienbad is the best and the worst of the soliloqy dramas. Severe in style -- some would say uncompromising -- it baffles you with its monochromatic repetitions and labyrithine elegance. What the hell's going on? Who are these people? Are they people? It's civilization as a hallucination, a dream masque of the soul.

"These whisperings, worse than silence, that you're imprisoning me in. These days, worse than death, that we're living through here side by side, you and I, like coffins laid side by side underground in a frozen garden...."

Delphine Seyrig (A) & Giorgio Albertazzi (X): Marienbad

If you strip it down, remove it from the isometrics of its neo-medieval imagery, it's simply a story of a woman who returns to a hotel one year after a previous visit to rendezvous with a lover in compliance with an agreement, or... or it's the story of a seducer who hangs around fashionable German hotel spas like a dyfunctional psychiatrist preying on women, convincing them to relive past sins in order to gain future ecstacies... or it's the story of a gambler -- a sort of avuncular Dostoevsky type -- who frequents this hotel like a figure who steps out of one of the many paintings or statues, wins all his games except the game for the possession of the soul of his wife... who might be a phantom from a statue herself.

Ambiguous in action, yet mathematical in setting. It's a fascinating film -- an anti-film -- which owes its style to gallery consciousness, where movement frame by frame is like moving from picture to picture, gallery to gallery, rather than movement within the frame itself. In this sense, it's typical of the European art film of the time, where image composition and stasis are the filmmaker's natural inclination due to his classical education in the museums and gallerys. Hence Marienbad is a very beautiful, if severe, film to look at.

So, despite its avant-garde complexion, Resnais is working completely within a tradition. The severity comes from the "objectivist" pose of the script writer, Robbe-Grillet. A distrust of metaphor, personification, figures of speech of any sort, anything that suggests an anthropomorphic universe i.e. let us admit that we are ruled by chance and necessity. It's a mechanistic world, not a divine world.

Yet there's a contradiction here. While Resnais and Robbe-Grillet deny it, this film is full of symbolism, even if it's mathematical more than figurative.

Familiar with the drawings of M.C. Escher? Closed-system geometries where people and animals circle within complex labyrinths that lead nowhere? Imagine an old world resort hotel somewhere in France or Germany, a converted estate with elaborate gardens of stone terraces and artificial lakes and statues that cascade from the palace like an avenue to infinity, a vanishing point beyond the horizon. Imagine the guests impeccably attired in modern evening dress (by Chanel, actually), tuxedos for the men, chic dresses for the women, groomed as only the rich can be, casually passing the time in conversation in one of the many lounges or playing cards or dominoes in the gaming room... or firing pistols at dummies in the crypt called "the shooting gallery".

Yet this psycho-drama is full of dummies, human replicants who stand and sit in motionless homage to some unseen object in their personal retinal vanishing points. They are props for X (the stranger/lover), A (the woman), and M (the gambler/husband), who act out their charade as if in a pre-ordained ritual. You see the guests sitting like elegant zombies as they watch the conclusion of a symbolist melodrama, the actors dressed like Victorian parodies of the audience, the stage set cramped, shrunk like a box theatre for puppets.

A clock chimes the hour, and, as her male consort remains frozen, the actress faces the audience, says, "Very well... now I am yours." ("Maintenant... viola, je suis avec vous.")

Once again the agenda has been set for "the play within" and it comes as no surprise when the film climaxes with a similiar scene as A leaves at midnight with X, the Stranger. While Robbe-Grillet admits no connection, the handbill in the corridor outside the theatre announces the play as Rosmer... an intriguing dilution of Ibsen's Rosmersholm. Ibsen's play is another angst-driven internal monologue of the sexes (despite its naturalist affectation) which also climaxes with the chiming of a clock and the departure of the principals -- Rosmer and Rebekka -- in a fated suicide pact impelled by the ghosts of the past, symbolized by the chimeric "white horses".

After the performance, the guests dissemble into small groups to discuss the play. It's here that the Stranger (X) encounters the Woman (A), says, "I believe we've met." Thus begins the seduction -- or is it the resurrection? The woman denies having met the stranger as her "husband" (M) observes the flirtation from across the room.

Stranger: I first saw you in the gardens at Fredericksbad.

Woman: I don't think it was me. You must be mistaken.

Conversational fragments from the guests seem to use the lovers as their subject -- muted, elliptical, telepathic, more directed and illuminating that the background babble it's pretending to be.

Man: Actually, it wasn't so extraordinary after all. He had started the whole thing himself, so he knew all the possibilities in advance.


Others: Oh well then... if that's it... That explains everything! ...Still, it's funny that... etc.

Who is "he"? M, the gambler, the apparent husband of the Woman? It certainly fits the narrative paradigm. The Gambler is the master of the Seven Game, one which he never loses. He quickly engages the Stranger in the Game... and of course the Stranger loses. As an anonymous guest later observes, "The beginner always wins. Simply take an even number... the lowest whole uneven number. It's a logarthmic series. You pick a different row each time, divide by three... seven times seven equals forty-nine."

In the final stanza, the Woman waits for the Gambler (who may or may not be her husband), hoping he will arrive before midnight, the appointed hour of her exit with the Stranger. The Gambler apparently choses to attend the theatre instead. When midnight comes and with it, the Stranger, the Woman's fate is sealed. Whether she goes to Death or Ecstacy with her lover is left ambiguous -- unlike the resolution of Ibsen's Rosmersholm. However, the Gambler arrives a few moments later, and although he had the opportunity to arrive sooner and retain his wife's affections, you get the sense that like the Seven Game he always wins, this is something he has allowed to happen.

II: the labyrinth of similiar itineraries »»»»


© Lawrence Russell 1999

Culture Court 2000