True Fiction (L'Année dernière à Marienbad)

Last Year at Marienbad

This is the famous shot from the film which was widely reprinted in publicity materials. The people are 'there' and 'something'. They cast shadows. The manicured trees and statues are merely 'there'. No shadows.

When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1961, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) created even more of a stir among progressive, educated audiences than had Hiroshima mon amour two years earlier. If Hiroshima was Resnais's debut excursion into the realm of sociopolitical significance, Marienbad took the directly opposite tack: towards pure style.

Interestingly, Resnais's colleagues Truffaut and Godard also began their careers with pairs of films so opposite in style that they served to stake out the limits of their areas of interest. Les Quatre Cents Coups and A Bout de souffle were both essentially realistic, with a sociopolitical tinge, while Tirez sur lepianiste and Une Femme est une femme - like Marienbad - had more to do with movies than with life and were appositely, exercises in style.

It was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of perceptual prestidigitation, and throughout the sixties served as the very model of the modern avant garde in narrative film, an honour it shared with Antonioni's L'Avventura during those years.

The minor revolution in the conventions of film language that both those films signalled so clearly had mainly to do with editing, or montage, and consequently with storytelling on the screen. The established Hollywood style of construction - decoupage classique - had been refined during the thirty- year history of the sound film to the point where it was, in 1960, such an effective set of rules that it was nearly inviolable, which is why experiments like L'Année dernière à Marienbad appeared so strikingly innovative.

A kind of mundane, common-sense logic governs decoupage classique. A sequence begins with an establishing shot, moves quickly to an intermediate shot conveying some useful information about the locale or characters, then concentrates on the triad of master shot, closeup, and reaction shot. The aim is to give the viewer as much information as possible, painlessly. 'Here is where we are,' the construction is saying in effect, 'here is what is happening. Now let's watch the people talk.' The master shot establishes the tight context of a dialogue. The closeup allows us to observe the emotions of the speaker; and the reaction shot serves similarly for the listener. Occasionally, detail shots provide necessary information that can't be communicated verbally. The Hollywood style, with admirable precision, creates a seamless flow of time and story that moves effortlessly through the classic dramatic construction from introduction to elaboration to climax to aftermath to conclusion. The goal is to have the greatest sum effect on audiences, and image is almost always subordinate to dialogue, where, after all, the real story is happening.

Establish, move in, explain, speaker, listener, speaker, listener, speaker. The pattern repeats itself with lulling rhythms to create a great sense of security. As D. W. Griffith himself explained it, this system simply visualized the patterns of attention which had already been established during the great age of the novel in the last century, and this mode of storytelling with its admirable and thoroughly practical clarity is still dominant in both popular literature and film: establish, describe, listen to the dialogue. And then what happened? And then?

But Resnais, like numerous other filmmakers of the early sixties, had lost patience with what seemed to be a mode that was dominant mainly because it was eminently prosaic. Decoupage classique presented reality well enough, but only one kind of it. One of the main problems with the style was tense. Film is: the present tense rules. The past tense (and less often the future) could be communicated by means of the code of the dissolve, but the conditional was considerably more difficult. In decoupage classique, it was nearly impossible to picture what had not happened and, indeed, even the simple past tense usually needed the reinforcement of accompanying narration. The spoken language was necessary to explain in what temporal context the image had to be viewed. Most of the twentieth-century stylistic innovations of the novel were therefore unavailable to decoupage classique: stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, and other formal codes were strictly alien to the dominant mode of film discourse Hollywood had created and established.

What Resnais and the generation of the sixties had to do was to free film discourse from this dependence on dialogue as the governing element of the cinematic formula. The new object was to tell stories in images rather than words and in this respect, the innovators of the sixties often returned to the conventions of the silent film for models. Resnais said of Marienbad,

I wanted to renew a certain style of the silent cinema. The direction and the make-up try to recreate this atmosphere.[1]

He even went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak to supply an old-fashioned filmstock that would 'bloom' or 'halo'. (They couldn't do it.)

What Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet did in Marienbad that appeared so strikingly avant-garde in 1961 was, essentially, to simplify the mode of discourse. The rules of decoupage classique were ignored: each image existed for itself and could be understood in the context of its surrounding images and the general narrative line in a variety of ways. Resnais had experimented cautiously with several of these techniques in Hiroshima, but the innovations there were minimal. (Of Hiroshima, he said: ‘Personally, I thought I had made an "old-fashioned" film, in the style of 1930, with experiments in editing and cutting.’)[2] The opening sequence, in which the love scene is juxtaposed with the documentary footage and the poetic monologue is probably the most adventurous of these experiments, but throughout the film establishing shots are eschewed. Now that we are thoroughly accustomed to this technique it doesn't appear at all remarkable, but it must have seemed more striking to contemporary viewers in 1959.

Marienbad, however, is solidly grounded in the new syntax. It's the basic premise for the film. The classic sequence of establishing and closeup shots appears only by accident in the film. Moreover, any particular shot can be read as either present tense, past tense, conditional or subjunctive, or pure fantasy. This too is realism, but of a quite different sort from the prosaic Hollywood kind. Robbe-Grillet called it 'mental realism', but we understand it most simply as the kind of interior monologue we are used to from contemporary novels. Just to show how cautious this new syntax really is, Robbe-Grillet depends heavily on a spoken narration. We know from the beginning of the film that ‘X’ is telling this story, that it is a kind of stream of consciousness, and that whatever happens must be understood through the filtering persona of X. No one has any trouble with this kind of first person narration in prose. Approached without preconceptions, Marienbad should be just as easily comprehended.

Resnais's innovation in Marienbad involved different levels of tense. In L'Avventura, Antonioni experimented with duration within the present tense, equally important for contemporary cinema. Instead of cutting just after the meaning of the scene had been comprehended, he allowed it to run on into 'dead time' which was thematically meaningful rather than narratively significant. Resnais's experiments were on the vertical axis of film time, Antonioni's along the horizontal axis.

After the success of Hiroshima mon amour Resnais was in demand. In 1959 and early1960 he considered a number of varying projects. According to Roy Armes these included Daniel Anselme's novel La Permission and a script for a film to be called ‘A Suivre a n'en plus finir’, written by Anne-Marie de Villaine, which was to have dealt with the Algerian War in the context of the relationship of a young couple. There was also Jean Cayrol's Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour, the work on which had begun before Resnais even met Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Resnais claims he was unfamiliar with Robbe-Grillet's novels before they began work on the scenario of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, but being conversant with literary trends he certainly must have understood in broad outline what the 'nouveau roman' was up to and how his attitudes and Robbe-Grillet's could coincide. The impetus for the project belonged to the producers, Raymond Froment and Pierre Courau, who brought the author and the auteur together in the early winter of 1960. The work on the script proceeded quickly. Robbe-Grillet, already with plans of his own to direct films, wrote out a lengthy scenario which Resnais changed very little. Of all his films, this one was least an intense collaboration between writer and director. Resnais limited himself to only occasional comments and, once the film began shooting, Robbe-Grillet was busy elsewhere (in Turkey, preparing what was to be his own debut as director, L'Immortelle). In his introduction to the published script, Robbe-Grillet claims that he and Resnais had originally planned to co-sign the film without indicating who had done the writing, who the directing, but in light of the apparent tensions between script and mise en scene, it seems likely that this was more wishful thinking on the part of the scenarist than a solid agreement based on a mutuality of interests. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet's published reactions to the film are unpleasantly snide.

Robbe-Grillet, with very little input from Resnais, produced a detailed if eccentrically phrased shooting script which included precise descriptions of shots, editing, even music. At first, Resnais seemed to feel constrained by this rigorous plan, but once shooting began, he says, he discovered an unusual freedom within the imposed discipline of the elaborate script. This is no doubt one of the major reasons he has worked so closely with screenwriters since to produce a meticulous screenplay before shooting and has improvised so little on the set. Marienbad was shot on location in Munich, at Nymphenburg, Schleissheim, and other chateaux, and at Phonosonor studios, Paris, during September, October, and November 1960. When Robbe-Grillet finally saw the finished product he remarked upon both how closely Resnais had realized his own intentions and how utterly different everything was.

The elegant puzzle Robbe-Grillet had designed and Resnais had executed is this: X (Giorgio Albertazzi) is telling us a story.We are at the spa Marienbad. A year ago X had met A (Delphine Seyrig) at Marienbad or at a spa very much like it. A was (and is) with M (Sacha Pitoeff) who may be her husband. X had an affair with her. Now he thinks he has met her again. But she denies the previous meeting. So X spends the course of the film trying to convince her that it existed. Or that it exists. Or that it will exist. Or that it should have or should now or should in the future exist. At the end, the drama begins all over again. Clearly, this happens outside of time, or at least without reference to it. It doesn't matter in the slightest whether X is right (that they did meet) or that A is right (that they didn't), it only matters that X is trying to convince A that his story is the truth.

If Hiroshima was a ‘false documentary’, then Marienbad is a ‘true fiction’. In other words, it is about storytelling. It is X’s job to convince, A’s job to resist: the primal relationship between storyteller and audience. From this point of view, L'Annee derniere is an essay in aesthetics and Marienbad is the ‘House of Fiction’ that was to fascinate Jacques Rivette in films such as Out One and Celine et Julie vont en bateau several years later. In the Pirandellian tradition, the ‘truth’, ‘reality’ is beside the point. There is a material reality to cinema which is irresistible: what you see is what you get. But beyond that practical level, narratives or stories are equally valid and veristic. It is not that all stories are illusions (which is the way Pirandello’s theory is usually simplistically interpreted) but that all stories are truths of a kind. There is simply no way to evaluate one as more or less valid than another.

This startling material truth of cinema is apparently what attracted Robbe-Grillet to the medium in the first place. As a practitioner of the 'nouveau roman' in the fifties he had been involved in an aesthetic struggle to clear away the underbrush of opinion from the landscape of the novel, to give it a greater material validity than it had had in the past. One way to do this was to outlaw differences in tense. Then the truth of memory or fiction (past tense) would be equal to the truth of experience (present tense) which in turn would be equal to the truth of fantasy, logical extrapolation, and invention (future and conditional tenses). This is what would happen to time in the new novel Robbe-Grillet conceived. In For a New Novel (1963) he described what would happen to space:

In this novelistic world of the future, gestures and objects will be 'there' before being 'something'; and they will still be there after, strong, inalterable, present for ever…

In short, the materials of the novel are now subject to the tenets of the philosophy of Materialism. Everything is present. And everything in the present has existence before it has significance. Describing a similar universe in his own films, Jacques Rivette once explained, 'nothing takes place but the place'. This is the world of Marienbad: no differences in degrees of validity between past, present, and future; no meaning without existence. 'A stone is a better pillow than many visions,' Wallace Stevens put it.

Now obviously, this fictional universe intends to be measurably more concrete than its predecessor. Paradoxically, it is experienced however as more abstract. Because it is theoretical, it requires a certain effort on the part of the observer. Or rather it doesn't, but it appears as if it does. Children, no doubt, without the baggage of knowledge of the elaborate conventions of storytelling would be able to comprehend a narrative like Marienbad a lot more quickly than adults who have to struggle at every turn to remind themselves that the old rules, so ingrained in literary and cinematic sensibility, are no longer operative.

Despite all this, much of Marienbad is crystal clear and in fact can be understood in the old way. An experiment it may be, but it is a conservative one. For the most part, it doesn't matter whether we understand Robbe-Grillet's theories or not. The image of Marienbad: ornate, baroque, stylized, is interesting for itself as pure setting. Moreover, there is a plot, contrary to popular belief. The relationship between X and M, for example, if examined in isolation, is no different from what we might expect in an ambitious Hollywood film.They play a macho game that is nevertheless civilized (in the sense of utilizing upper-class manners). The struggle for A's affections takes place here and now and the main metaphor for it is the match game which M and X engage in several times during the course of the film. In addition, the M-X-A relationships are set in the context of the large group of other guests,none of whom has to deal with the persuasions of the main narrative. They are hazily outlined, but they know a battle is going on between X and M (and X and A) and they react to it the same way we might expect them to. X M A is a minor scandal at a dull resort and therefore one of the main entertainments.

In case we miss the point, Robbe-Grillet begins the film and ends it with quick scenes in the resort theatre. The inference is unmistakable: the play's the thing, whether we watch it on the little stage, or on the dance floor, in the lounges or in the gardens of Marienbad.

This petit drame is communicated to us on several levels of discourse: the materialism of the film is perhaps primary, but at various times during the film we also have to comprehend the story in terms of basic human drama (as the other guests do), as an essay on the new novel and the new film, as a study of persuasion (which relates both to the essay and the drama), as a mathematical game (the abstract personal pronouns of Hiroshima have been reduced to the algebraic quantities A, M, and X), and, finally, as a straight sexual fantasy of the type that Robbe-Grillet soon was to become obsessed with in the films he directed himself.

The quality which more than anything else sets Marienbad apart is its materialism. Robbe-Grillet writes that what attracted him to Resnais's work was 'the uncompromising rigour of its composition'.

In it I recognized my own efforts toward a some what 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.[3]

Marienbad is a magnificently tactile film: an opera of statues. The key image here is the one reproduced which became the chief advertising image for the film: the people are sculptural volumes, masses, to be manipulated like the statues which populate the endless gardens. The first sequence of the film begins the lengthy catalogue of architectural details which provides the main trope of the film and which continues through innumerable doors, mirrors, pillars, stairs, halls, rooms, gardens, pictures, lamps, balustrades, bannisters, tables, chairs, posts, chandeliers, draperies, paintings, and even an occasional window.

Here is X's monologue which accompanies the majestic tracking shots in the first sequence:

Once again - I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure - of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel - where corridors succeed endless corridors - silent, deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, mouldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings - sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries - transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls where the sound of advancing footsteps is absorbed by carpets so thick and heavy that nothing can be heard, as if the ear of the man walking on once again, down these corridors - through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel.[4]

This reptilian sentence continues for another dozen or fourteen lines in the same manner but even in this translation one can see that Robbe-Grillet is fabricating an order of prose that is peculiarly French (and doesn't really work all that well in English). Orotund, heavily periodic, looming, lugubrious itself, it mocks the basic style of the film and announces immediately that there is an element of irony that cannot be discounted. Because it comes across so poorly in English (especially in subtitles that have space to translate so little of it) I think English-speaking audiences were relatively immune to this important aspect of L'Année dernière à Marienbad. Both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet take distinct pleasure in this 'ritual deliberation', this 'hieratic quality 'which verges perilously close to camp. It may be of a fineness that is not quickly appreciated, but there is honest humour here.

The humour -a droll irony - is redoubled in the images, not only in this sequence, but throughout the film. The tone of the images might not be so apparent in shots of the architecture, decor, and landscaping, but it is obvious in the stylized poses of the close-ups and group shots. A number of them are trompe I'oeil effects (see image). Always, the people of L'Annee derniere pose, rather than simply stand, talk, or look. The exaggerated quality is reminiscent of the silent film style Resnais means to evoke, and it makes it clear that the people are material of composition just as the elements of decors are, but the posing also has sociological roots - in the theory of sprezzatura that was so popular in the Renaissance: a mode of posing that is particularly associated with ruling-class behaviour.

Note, too, that the elaborate poses of Marienbad are very much a function of X's narrative. Giorgio Albertazzi is clearly the most natural and unaffected of the trio, as befits a man seen from his own point of view, while Sacha Pitoeff cuts a lugubrious figure which is by turns comical and vicious. It reminds us that vampire psychology underlies the film.

Most of the poses, however, are lavished on Delphine Seyrig. As an actress, she is perfectly capable of naturalistic style, as evidenced by her first film, Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy (1958) and one of her most recent, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quaidu Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). But throughout most of her career she has been haunted by the stylization of Marienbad, her first major role. She is, as David Thomson has noted, 'a Proustian actress in the way she is able to invest small gestures with an enormous imaginary train'.[5] She is essential to the iconography of L'Année dernière à Marienbad.

Through most of the film , what we see on the screen is simply an illustration of X's narration. The break into human drama which comes near the end when M confronts A in their room about X is thus all the more striking, like coming out of the dream into waking for the first time.

The seed for the confrontation is a photograph of A taken last year.

M: Oh? (pause) Who took it
A: I don't know ...Frank, perhaps ...
M: Last year, Frank wasn't here ...

(Frank, by the way, is X's name within the story X is telling. It most often comes out in talk about last year by the other characters.)

X took the picture. It is X's best proof that the story he tells is the truth. Pictures, including moving ones, don't lie. This is Robbe-Grillet's axiom:

No doubt the cinema is the preordained means of expression for a story of this kind. The essential characteristic of the image is its presentness. Where as literature has a whole gamut of grammatical tenses which make it possible to narrate events in relation to each other, one might say that on the screen verbs are always in the present tense by its nature, what we see on the screen is in the act of happening, we are given the gesture itself, not an account of it.[6]

The human drama is the most minor element of the total equation for L'Année dernière à Marienbad. This scene, the most naturalistically dramatic in the film, segues quickly into a commentary on the new narrative form. When compared with similar films, it is even more apparent that the drama here is obligatory rather than felt. Take Bergman's The Silence, made three years later. It is also a harsh, dreamlike narrative set in a hotel with intricate networks of corridors, but never once in The Silence, despite the similarities of setting and mood, does the attention stray from psychological drama.

As a narrative game with mathematical proportions, Marienbad excites some interest. Many commentators have attempted to solve the equation Robbe-Grillet has taken such pains to construct and much of what has been written about the film deals with it in this chosen metaphor.

Gaston Bounoure, for example, uses the calculus, and introduces differentials. For Bounoure, dA = a patient (in support he offers Resnais's suggestion that 'perhaps this hotel isn't anything but a clinic'.), d X = death (he suggests that we go back to Breton myths to understand the structure of the film. In those myths, death often comes searching for victims after having permitted them a year's grace.), and dM =a fairy king, who has kept the princess imprisoned waiting for her Prince Charming. There are also the mathematical possibilities that A+X+M = 1and A+X+M =0, that is that each of the characters is a facet of the same personality, or that none of them exist at all. But most of this sort of analysis is specious. It focuses on the characters, as if they were central to the film, and they are not.

There are two aspects to Marienbad, nevertheless, which have to do with very human qualities even if they are not expressed in character, but rather in style. For Robbe-Grillet:

The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a persuasion: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words. And if his persistence, his secret conviction, finally prevail, they do so among a perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures, and repetitions![7]

Marienbad is a love story of sorts, a seduction, but not primarily of one character by another. The author of In the Labyrinth is alluding in the passage above to his own attempted seduction of us. His own personal fantasies, if we are to judge from the films he has made, verge on the sadomasochistic, and there are elements of that here. A, near the end of the film, fantasizes rape, murder, and suicide never in as explicit detailas Robbe-Grillet will later apply in his own films, but there nevertheless, and audiences may respond.

This leads us to a discussion of the ethics of the New Cinema, of which L'Année dernière à Marienbad is an early and important example. Since tense doesn't apply in this film neither does memory. It is not about what X remembers, what A remembers, what M recalls, but about what one Alain tells us through the mouth of X, and what the other Alain does to shape what the first tells us. The operating axis is not character-character, but author-spectator.

Resnais himself seems not to have been entirely pleased with Robbe-Grillet's sexual/technical/narrative fantasy. 'There was a time during the preparation of Marienbad' he says,

when I would arrive with my little black notebook and propose to Robbe-Grillet, for example, making the real world intervene in the form of conversations about a political problem that seemed insoluble, at least to those having the conversations.

None of those solutions worked in the context of the film, and Resnais gradually came around to the point of view that

it was the spectators themselves who, when they saw the film, would naturally represent the real world and that it was therefore impossible to include them in advance inside the film.[8]

There's something a little self-serving about this conclusion. At this stage of the 'New Film' there was no reason not to include the reality of the spectator inside the film and to do so would have made it more immediately perceivable if less profitably mysterious. Yet, it's undoubtedly true that Marienbad's most important accomplishment is its shift of attention from the character axis to the author-observer axis. This implies that the observer has to work to complete the film. He must be an active participant. It is the strongest contradiction of Hollywood's decoupage classique, in which it was taken for granted that the sole aim of cinema was to do as much as possible for the observer. Interestingly, it is in such a dreamplay as Marienbad that the viewer is freed from having his dreams provided for him by the film makers.

The ethical ramifications of this are eventually profoundly important in terms of the politics of film, as Jean-Luc Godard would demonstrate later in the sixties. If Hollywood (or Paris or Cinecitta) dreams for us we can't dream for ourselves. If we can't dream for ourselves we have no ideal to oppose to the reality that surrounds us and the function of culture becomes reinforcement rather than criticism of the established order.

Resnais, I think, had a strong feeling for this ethic. I'm not sure Robbe- Grillet did. From everything he has written about his experience with L'Année dernière à Marienbad it seems as if this new axis was valuable to him solely for its aesthetic possibilities rather than for what it meant in terms of renewing relationships between the producers of culture and the consumers.

In general, it may have been a mistake for Resnais to shoot his first two feature films from scripts by avant-garde novelists. As an art form, the novel was past middle-age, well into its nonage. Such aesthetic experimentation had become almost a necessity,at least for those artists who wanted a place in the history of the form. But film was still just past adolescence. Resnais's own concerns which parallel those of Duras and Robbe-Grillet might well have been better expressed in films which had a fresher, more naive, less heavily theoretical provenance. The early work of Godard and Truffaut comes to mind. 'False documentary', true fiction', the process of narrative, the materialism of the image, the function of memory, even the self-consciousness of an art which had become self-conscious about itself because it had developed a sense of its own history and an active intelligence about its own theory were just as well covered in such films as A bout de souffle, Les Quatre Cents Coups, La Femme mariee, and Tirez sur le pianiste as in the more lugubrious films with which Resnais began. Paradoxically, it was this artificial seriousness which assured his place in the new pantheon of film - not to the good, I think.

Resnais himself seems to have had misgivings about this. 'Yes, L'Année dernière à Marienbad is totally dreamlike,’ he admitted shortly after it had been completed. ‘It's a musical comedy, without songs, that tries to deepen the forces of revery.’[9]

In his next film, he'd add the songs.

James Monaco


1   Quoted in Armes, p. 105.

2   Quoted in Armes, p. 75.

3   Introduction to Last Year at Marienbad.

4   All citations from the script are from Richard Howard's translation, published by Grove Press.

5   A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema.

6   Introduction to Last Year at Marienbad.

7   Introduction to Last Year at Marienbad.

8   Quoted in Armes, p. 92.

9   Quoted in Bounoure, p. 68.