How clearly I recall standing in the rain outside the Co-Ed
Theater near the campus of the University of Illinois, waiting to see “Last
Year at Marienbad.” On those lonely sidewalks, in that endless night, how long
did we wait there? And was it the first time we waited in that line, to enter
the old theater with its columns, its aisles, its rows of seats--or did we see
the same film here last year?
Yes, it's easy to smile at Alain Resnais' 1961 film, which
inspired so much satire and yet made such a lasting impression. Incredible to
think that students actually did stand in the rain to be baffled by it, and
then to argue for hours about its meaning--even though the director claimed it
had none. I hadn't seen “Marienbad” in years, and when I saw the new digitized
video disc edition in a video store, I reached out automatically: I wanted to
see it again, to see if it was silly or profound, and perhaps even to recapture
an earlier self--a 19-year-old who hoped Truth could be found in Art.
Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral
experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not
prepared for was the voluptuous quality of “Marienbad,” its command of tone and
mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual
beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters
themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery.
Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep
on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end
that no story can evade.
The film takes place in an elegant chateau, one with ornate
ceilings, vast drawing rooms, enormous mirrors and paintings, endless corridors
and grounds in which shrubbery has been tortured into geometric shapes and
patterns. In this chateau are many guests--elegant, expensively dressed,
impassive. We are concerned with three of them: “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a
beautiful woman. “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), with movie-idol good looks, who
insists they met last year and arranged to meet again this year. And “M”
(Sascha Pitoeff), who may be A's husband or lover, but certainly exercises
authority over her. He has a striking appearance, with his sunken triangular
face, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and subtle vampirish overbite.
The film is narrated by X. The others have a few lines of
dialogue here and there. On the soundtrack is disturbing music by Francis
Seyrig, mostly performed on an organ--Gothic, liturgical, like a requiem. X
tells A they met last year. He reminds her of the moments they shared. Their
conversations. Their plans to meet in her bedroom while M was at the gaming
tables. Her plea that he delay his demands for one year. Her promise to meet
him again next summer.
A does not remember. She entreats X, unconvincingly, to leave
her alone. He presses on with his memories. He speaks mostly in the second
person: “You told me ... you said ... you begged me ... .” It is a narrative he
is constructing for her, a story he is telling her about herself. It may be
true. We cannot tell. Resnais said that as the co-writer of the story he did
not believe it, but as the director, he did. The narrative presses on. The
insistent, persuasive X recalls a shooting, a death. No--he corrects himself.
It did not happen that way. It must have happened this way, instead ... .
We see her in white, in black. Dead, alive. The film,
photographed in black and white by Sacha Vierny, is in widescreen. The extreme
width allows Resnais to create compositions in which X, A and M seem to occupy
different planes, even different states of being. (The DVD is letterboxed; to
see this film panned-and-scanned would be pointless.) The camera travels
sinuously; the characters usually move in a slow and formal way, so that any
sudden movement is a shock (when A stumbles on a gravel walk and X steadies
her, it is like a sudden breath of reality).
The men play a game. It has been proposed by M. It involves
setting out several rows of matchsticks (or cards, or anything). Two players
take turns removing matchsticks, as many as they want, but only from one row at
a time. The player who is left with the last matchstick loses. M always wins.
On the soundtrack, we hear theories: “The one who starts first wins ... the one
who goes second wins ... you must take only one stick at a time ... you must
know when to ... .” The theories are not helpful, because M always wins anyway.
The characters analyzing the stick game are like viewers analyzing the movie:
You can say anything you want about it, and it makes no difference.
“I'll explain it all for you,” promised Gunther Marx, a
professor of German at the U. of I. We were sitting over coffee in the student
union, late on that rainy night in Urbana. (He would die young; his son
Frederick would be one of the makers of “Hoop Dreams.”) “It is a working out of
the anthropological archetypes of Claude Levi-Strauss. You have the lover, the
loved one and the authority figure. The movie proposes that the lovers had an
affair, that they didn't, that they met before, that they didn't, that the
authority figure knew it, that he didn't, that he killed her, that he didn't.
I sipped my coffee and nodded thoughtfully. This was deep. I
never subsequently read a single word by Levi-Strauss, but you see I have not
forgotten the name. I have no idea if Marx was right. The idea, I think, is
that life is like this movie: No matter how many theories you apply to it, life
presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking
questions. Answers are a form of defeat.
It is possible, I realize, to grow impatient with “Last Year at
Marienbad.” To find it affected and insufferable. It doesn't hurtle through its
story like today's hits--it's not a narrative pinball machine. It is a
deliberate, artificial artistic construction. I watched it with a pleasure so
intense I was surprised. I knew to begin with there would be no solution. That
the three characters would move forever through their dance of desire and
denial, and that their clothing and the elegant architecture of the chateau was
as real as the bedroom at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey”--in other words, simply a setting
in which human behavior could be observed.
There is one other way to regard the movie. Consider the
narration. X tells A this, and then he tells her that. M behaves as X says he
does--discovering them together, not discovering them, firing a pistol, not
firing it. A remembers nothing, but acts as if she cares. She thinks she hasn't
met X before, and yet in some scenes they appear to be lovers.
Can it be that X is the artist--the author, the director? That
when he speaks in the second person (“You asked me to come to your room ... “)
he is speaking to his characters, creating their story? That first he has M
fire a pistol, but that when he doesn't like that and changes his mind, M
obediently reflects his desires? Isn't this how writers work? Creating
characters out of thin air and then ordering them around? Of course even if X
is the artist, he seems quite involved in the story. He desperately wants to
believe he met A last year at Marienbad, and that she gave him hope--asked him
to meet her again this year. That is why writers create characters: to be able
to order them around, and to be loved by them. Of course, sometimes characters
have wills of their own. And there is always the problem of M.