Formal Organisation: L'Année dernière à Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad 1961

Last Year at Marienbad 1961

Alain Robbe-Grillet had already developed a film project of his own by 1960 which he put aside to write the script ofL'Année dernière à Marienbad for Alain Resnais, who had just achieved world fame—after eleven years of very distinguished work in the documentary—with Hiroshima mon amour (1959). This latter had been scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras, and the producers Raymond Froment and Pierre Courau were no doubt hoping to emulate this success when they brought together Resnais and Robbe-Grillet in the winter of 1959–60. The film was produced in the manner customary at the time: a cluster of small French film companies coming together to collaborate with an Italian company, in this case Cineriz, with the coproduction status marked by the inclusion of an Italian player, Giorgio Albertazzi, in one of the key roles. Robbe-Grillet's film work, like his career as a novelist, thus begins in the mainstream of production. The producers of L'Année dernière à Marienbad had a relationship to the major production companies not dissimilar to that of Les Editions de Minuit to the giant publishing firms. Though small, these companies were part of the customary producer-distributor-exhibitor structure and involved with films which, though often original, were made in accordance with standard production norms: ninety-minute narrative films using professional actors often with stage experience, a frequent separation of the roles of director and writer, an insistence on full shooting scripts and costing breakdowns, and a hierarchal crewing of production.

At the time of their first meeting, Resnais had not read any of Robbe-Grillet's novels. But the latter was familiar with Resnais's films, and the tone of his account of them in the preface to the cine-roman shows the extent to which he identified himself with Resnais's conceptions of subjective realism:

I knew Resnais' work and admired the uncompromising rigor of its composition. In it I recognized my own efforts toward a somewhat ritual deliberation, a certain slowness, a sense of the theatrical, even that occasional rigidity of attitude, that hieratic quality in gesture, word and setting which suggests both a statue and an opera. Lastly, I saw Resnais' work as an attempt to construct a purely mental space and time—those of dreams, perhaps, or of memory, those of any affective life—without worrying too much about the traditional relations of cause and effect, or about an absolute time sequence in the narrative.

Je connaissais l’oeuvre de Resnais, j'y admirals une composition extremement volontaire et concertee, rigoureuse, sans excessif souci de plaire. J'y reconnaissais mes propres efforts vers une solidite un peu ceremonieuse, une certaine lenteur, un sens du "theatral," meme parfois cette fixite des attitudes, cette rigidite des gestes, des paroles, du decor, qui faisaient en meme temps songer a une statue et a une opera. Enfin j'y retrouvais la tentative de construire un espace et un temps purement mentaux—ceux du rave peutretre, ou de la memoire, crux de toute vie affective—sans trop s'occuper des encharnements traditionnels de causalite, ni d'une chronologie absolue de l'anecdote.[1]

Alain Resnais has explained the nature of this first meeting of the two men:

We had a preliminary conversation, and a few days later Robbe-Grillet brought me four subjects. Each of the scenarios was a quasi-scientific illustration of the content of our interview. We chose the one I found the most sentimental and the most austere.

Nous avons eu une conversation preliminaire, et quelques jours plus tard Robbe-Grillet m'apportait quatre sujets. Chacun des scenarios illustrait de manière quasi-scientifique le contenu de notre entretien. Nous avons choisi celui que je trouvais le plus sentimental et le plus austere.[2]

The early discussions were essentially about cinematographic forms, as Robbe-Grillet explains:

For example, we asked ourselves if it would be possible to extend the system of "flashback" or that of the hypothesis, so common in police films, to a generalization of the mental image, an image presented as realists and in fact, what happens inside a person, or between two people.

Par example, nous nous etions demands s'il serait possible d'etendre le systeme du "flashback" ou celui de l'hypothese, si frequent dans les films policiers, a une generalisation de l'image mentale, une image presentee comme realists et figurant, en realite, soit ce qui se passe a l'interieur d'une personne, soit entre deux personnes.[3]

Robbe-Grillet was the only one of Resnais's early scriptwriters to compose a scenario without submitting it for constant discussion and alteration and without writing supplementary notes on the characters, the locations, and so forth. The initial text published as the cine-roman is entirely Robbe-Grillet's, and Resnais, by his own admission, had little influence on it. It is well known that Resnais never changes so much as a comma in the script without consulting the writer, so it is also fair to assume that any changes in the commentary or dialogue from this published text to the finished film are also the work of Robbe-Grillet. These changes are, however, comparatively few: the substitution of the photograph for a bracele[,[4] the omission of a reference to "une promenade en voiture,"[5] and an explicit confession of rape ("enfin... je vous ai prise, a moitid de force…)[6] and, by far the most significant, the inclusion of a new passage of dialogue alluding directly to the death of the heroine. The original dialogue:

A: "Pourquoi? Que voulez-vous? Q'aver-vous d'autte a m'offrir?"

"Rien. le n'ai rien d vous offrir. Et je ne vous ai rien promis",

is replaced with a new speech by X in the film:

"Il ne s'agit pas d'une autre vie. II s'agit de la votre, enfin."

Inevitably there is a strong sense of continuity with Robbe-Grillet's literary style as apparent in the four novels of the 1950s. The material itself, for example, uses archetypal patterns, as Resnais explained at the time of the film's appearance:

We wanted to try. . . to appeal to a collective unconscious taking conventional and known themes. These classic themes are found in popular novels and fairy tales. We can say that it is about the quest of the other or of a prince charming arriving at the castle to awake his sleeping "beauty", or a messenger of Death who comes to seek his victim a year after or simply a woman who has had an affair and hesitates between her husband and her lover.

Nous avons voulu essayer . . . de faire appel a un inconscient collectif en reprenant des themes conventionnels et connus. Ces themes—classiques—on les retrouve dans les romans populaires et les contes de fees. On peut dire ainsi qu'il s'agit de la quete de l'autre ou d'un prince charmant arrivant au chateau pour reveiller sa "belle" endormie, d'un envoye de la Mort qui vient chercher sa victime un an apres ou simplement d'une femme qui a eu une aventure et hesite entre son mari et son amant.[7]

The basic structure of a void or hole which invades the entire text is also one which is used in the early novels. Its functioning here has been elaborated very lucidly by Robbe-Grillet:

In Marienbad, the important phenomenon is always like a hollow at the heart of this reality. What in Marienbad is hollow is "last year." What happens - if something has happened before - constantly produces a kind of void in the story. As the main character of The Jealousy is only a hollow, as the main act, the murder, is hollow in The Voyeur. Everything is told before the hole, then again after the hole, and we try to bring the two edges closer to remove this embarrassing void. But the opposite is true: it is the emptiness that permeates, that fills everything. In Marienbad, it is first thought that there has been no last year and then we can see that last year has invaded: that we are there. Similarly, it is believed that there was no Marienbad and we can see that we have been there since the beginning. The event that the young woman refused, at the end, everything is contaminated.

Dans Marienbad, le phenomene important est toujours comme a l'etat de creux au coeur de cette realite. Ce qui, dans Marienbad, est en creux, c'est "l'annee derniere." Ce qui c'est passe—s'il s'est passe quelque chose autrefois—produit constamment une sorte de manque dans le recit. Comme le personnage principal de La Jalousie n'est qu'un creux, comme l'acte principal, le meurtre, est en creux dans Le Voyeur. Tout est raconte avant le trou, puis de nouveau apres le trou, et on essaie de rapprocher les deux bords pour faire disparaitre ce vide genant. Mais c'est tout le contraire qui se produit: c'est le vide qui envahit, qui remplit tout. Dans Marienbad, on croit d'abord qu'il n'y a pas eu d'annee derniere et on s'apergoit ensuite que l'annee derniere a tout envahi: qu'on y est bel et bien. De meme on croit qu'il n'y a pas eu de Marienbad et on s'apergoit qu'on y est depuis le debut. L'evenement que refusait la jeune femme a, a la fin, tout contamine.[8]

Equally typical is the role of the narrator, with X conforming to the new conception sketched out in "Du realisme a la realite":

A new kind of narrator is there: he is not only a man who describes the things he sees, but at the same time who invents things around him and sees the things he invents. As soon as these hero-narrators begin to look like "characters", they are immediately liars, schizophrenics or hallucinatory (or even writers, who create their own story)

Une nouvelle sorte de narrateur y est ne: ce n'est plus seulement un homme qui decrit les choses qu'il voit, mais en meme temps celui qui invente les choses autour de lui et qui voit les choses qu'il invente. Des que ces heros-narrateurs commencent un tant soit peu a ressembler a des "personnages," ce sont aussitot des menteurs, des schizophrenes ou des hallucines (ou meme des ecrivains, qui creent leur propre histoire)[.9]

This latter point is taken up by Jean Thibaudeau in a very apt comment on the cine-roman:

The book just published by the Editions de Minuit is, in a certain way, the extraordinary novel of a man who invents a film, as there was a narrator-inventor hiding from In the Labyrinth.

Le livre que viennent de publier les Editions de Minuit est, d'une certaine facon, l'extraordinaire roman d'un homme qui invente un film, comme il y avait un narrateur-inventeur cache de Dans le labyrinthe.[10]

While Robbe-Grillet wrote the film on his own, with very little intervention from Resnais, the latter directed it in his absence. For the director there was a considerable continuity between Hiroshima mon amour and L'Année dernière à Marienbad, and it was perhaps inevitable that he should find here the some themes of time and memory, dream and reality, as in the earlier work. Physically he was supported by the same key collaborators: the director of photography Sacha Vierny, assistant Jean Leon, script-girl Sylvette Baudrot (a team joined for this film by another long-term collaborator, the cameraman Phillippe Brun). Again the editing was entrusted to Henri Colpi and Jasmine Chesney. Apart from Sylvette Baudrot, none of these worked subsequently with Robbe-Grillet. At the time of the film's release both writer and director constantly expressed their surprise and delight at how perfect the collaboration had been. In the introduction to the cine-roman, for example, Robbe-Grillet writes:

Alain Resnais and I were able to collaborate only because we saw the film in the same way from the start; and not just in the some general way, but exactly, in the construction of the least detail as in its total architecture. What I wrote might have been what was already in his mind; what he added during the shooting was what I might have written.

L'accord n'a pu se faire, entre Alain Resnais et moi, que parce que nous avons des le debut vu le film de la meme maniere; et non pas en gros de la meme maniere, mais exactement, dans son architecture d'ensemble comme dans la construction du moindre detail. Ce que j'ecrivais, c'est comme s'il l'avait eu déjà en tete; ce qu'il ajoutait au tournage, c'etait encore ce que j'aurais pu inventer.[11]

Yet this perfect accord can be seen in retrospect to be a myth or at best an illusion. In virtually all his major decisions Resnais's approach was quite opposed to that of Robbe-Grillet. The organ music of Francis Seyrig, for example, could hardly be further removed from that proposed in the text. Judging from his subsequent films, the choice of the central trio of actors—Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoeff, and Giorgio Albertazzi—is not one which Robbe-Grillet would have made. He admitted later, with respect to the role of A:

I had imagined someone less intelligent, more carnal, I thought of an actress like Kim Novak, if you want, who is much less expressive than Delphine Seyrig, and who would have been a kind of incomprehensible statue of flesh for other reasons, not reasons for problems, but reasons for opacity.

J'avais imagine quelqu'un de moins intelligent, de plus charnel, j'avais pense a une actrice comme Kim Novak, si vous voulez, qui est beaucoup moins expressive que Delphine Seyrig, et qui aurait ete une sorte de statue de chair incomprehensible pour d'autres raisons, non pas des raisons de problematique, mais des raisons d'opacite.[12]

The film's intellectual coldness comes solely from Resnais, who also refused point-blank to shoot the rape scene described by Robbe-Grillet in the script. Often, where Robbe-Grillet's script defines a specific set of shots or editing devices, Resnais adopts his own procedures. Several strikingly edited passages are clearly his and in some senses out of keeping with the pattern of the rest of the film. Ultimately one might argue that Resnais's enormous skill as a director—like Robbe-Grillet's own presentation of the film to the public—works against the text precisely in those areas in which it is most revolutionary.

Where Robbe-Grillet writes a film in the present tense, Resnais directs it as "a film about the greater or lesser degrees of reality..”[13] Where Robbe-Grillet defines figures without a name, without a password, without any link between them than those they created by their own gestures and their own voices, their own presence, their own imagination.[14]

Resnais strives with his actors to create coherent characters. In fact his direction is based on a conception of "depth" and “reality" which even Robbe-Grillet at the height of his belief in subjective realism could not have espoused, as the following exchange in Cahiers du Cinema makes clear:

Cahiers: "We can also see the film as if it were real, that there is a kind of refusal by the woman, and that the man plays a little the role of a psychoanalyst who forces the woman to take the part of remonstrating with him.”

Resnais: "In any case in this sense that I designed the staging. There is also the use of psychoanalytic themes introduced consciously: for example, rooms too large that indicate a tendency to narcissism."[15]

The question of how far one can talk of L'Année dernière à Marienbad as a Robbe-Grillet work is therefore a very real one–Andre Gardies, for example, ignores the film totally in his study written for the Cinema d'aujourdhui series. Certainly the particular rhythms and interplay of voice, sound, and music, the style of performance and pace of the cutting, as well as the whole tone of the film (with its "real" and "unreal" sequences) belong more to the director than to the writer, and it is futile to attempt to relate these to Robbe-Grillet's own work as a director. At the same time, once one has seen the film, it is quite impossible to read the cini-roman without finding Robbe-Grillet's imaginary film invaded by Resnais's seductive sounds and images. Yet the film is too important simply to be ignored, and Robbe-Grillet's decision to abandon the shooting of a film of his own in order to script it is surely highly significant. Seen retrospectively in the overall context of Robbe-Grillet's work, L'Année dernière à Marienbad is a transitional work, bridging the gap between the 1950s novels and the 1960s films. It was conceived and written as an imaginary film, complete with gestures, sounds, music, and shot changes, but all its mechanisms are verbal rather than visual, and one appreciates the enormous step forward which L’mmortelle represents far better if one takes this into account. L'Année dernière à Marienbad is, as Robbe-Grillet explains in his introduction, the story of a persuading. X's tools of persuasion are his words, and all the initial fragments from which the narrative is derived are verbal: the play text, X's descriptions of the statue and the groupings of figures, the disjoined initial conversations, the allusions to a broken heel or an extraordinary event, the story of Frank, and so on. The importance of the spoken text means that much that is Robbe-Grillet's remains in the film and, simply because the rhythmical texture of the film is not his, L'Année dernière à Marienbad offers a perfect opportunity to see the working of his sense of construction.

One of the major requirements of fiction is the working out of a preestablished pattern. There is, as Robert Scholes points out, a clear distinction between the experience of a sequence of events as narrated in a novel or film and the effect of a similar series of events lived through at day-to-day level, a distinction which derives from the order which the narration establishes from the beginning:

The end of fiction casts a long shadow before it. This teleological continuity is in fact a major attribute of narrative and a primary source of satisfaction for the reader. On finishing no matter what fiction we can say that what was intended has come to pass.[16]

ln L'Année dernière à Marienbad, as in Robbe-Grillet's other films of the 1960s, our sense of order comes from the pattern of symmetrical repetitions and inversions. Beyond the obvious balance of beginning and ending we may not be consciously aware of the tightly worked out schema of development, but it serves the same function as the logic of cause and effect in a conventional movie: giving the film a satisfying sense of order and providing a firm, controlled base for the shifts and permutations of the narrative elements, images, and sounds. Like so many other aspects of the nouveau roman, this particular development of the literal dimension of fiction at the expense of the referential–the internalisation into the texture of the work of a logic customarily held to be external–requires a radical rethinking of the theory of both the novel and the film. But it is surely appropriate to retain the term "narrative" since so many of the characteristics of conventional narrative have their exact parallel in the work of the nouveaux romanciers. The symmetry we find in Robbe-Grillet's work, for example, is precisely akin to that of the minimal story as defined by Gerald Prince,” the inversion an equivalent to the transformation which most theorists have seen as essential to all narrative, and the balance of beginning and end a perfect illustration of the truth of Tzvetan Todorov's assertion that "The complete minimal plot consists in the transition from one equilibrium to another."[17]. Despite the surface ambiguities, there is nothing random in the unfolding of the narrative in L'Année dernière à Marienbad. This year and last year may be fused into a single timespan, death may be reversable, and effects precede causes, but from the moment of their walk together in the garden, the fate of A and X is sealed. The latter half of the film can only proceed according to the pattern established in the first half. If the story is pieced together from a number of sources–the play, the statue, the story of Frank–it must have a number of potential endings. As the narrative selects some aspects of the generative material for development and ignores others, so too these possible endings can be tried out and discarded at will. A's decision, however, is already fixed in the opening play sequence, and X, having emerged from nowhere at the beginning of the film, must teturn to the void at the end.

Roy Armes


1   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

2   Alain Resnais interview with Yvonne Baby, Le Monde, 29 Aug. 1961.

3   Alain Robbe-Grillet interview with Pierre Billard, Cinema 61 (Nov/Dec. 1961).

4   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

5   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

6   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

7   Alain Resnais, ed Bernard Pingaud.

8   Robbe-Grillet, Cahiers interview.

9   Robbe-Grillet, Pour un nouveau roman.

10   Alain Resnais, ed Bernard Pingaud.

11   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

12   Alain Robbe-Grillet interview with Roger Regent, Art et Essai, 6 Nov. 1965.

13   Alain Resnais interview Cahiers 123 (Sept. 1961)

14   Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad.

15   Alain Resnais interview Cahiers.

16   Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature (1974).

17   Tzvetan Todorov, “Le Grammaire du récit”, Langages, No 12 (1968).