L'Année dernière à Marienbad: The Narration of Narration

Last Year at Marienbad 1961

Last Year at Marienbad 1961

Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's L'Annie derniere a Marienbad is perhaps the most interesting filmic example of how the creative displacement of artistic limits can go suddenly beyond critical theory and bring about an enigmatic opening in our experience of art. We can speak of an opening, since such a work compels the viewer to enter into an open experience that no critical awareness can immediately close off. Our categories for the perception of experience seem to be suspended, and yet, since we can-not deny the fascination of this work it is imperative that we find new theoretical bases that account for the way this film entices our vision. This film is a seduction, then, not only of the unknown woman whom the narrator pursues throughout the film, but also of our vision. Like every seduction, the film draws us into an unknown realm where unfamiliarity is a source of both fear and pleasure, of both exhilaration and insecurity. The immediate effect is to bring about a desire for total possession, a need to grasp fully the film's paradoxical surfaces, to transform its strangeness into familiarity.

Perhaps the best starting point for a theoretical possession of L'Année dernière à Marienbad is to situate it immediately within the context of the postmodern artist's quest to redefine the relationships between art and perception, be-tween the work and the work's understanding of itself, between mimesis and the limits of representation. By postmodern we mean those artists whose works, both novels and films, have since the late fifties broken with the modernist canons of representation. Writers as diverse as Beckett, Borges, Pynchon, filmmakers as diverse as Godard, Robbe-Grillet, and Bergman, all seem united in a common refusal of the modernist belief in art as a form of revelation. They refuse to accept the possibility of mimesis as an unquestioned and unquestionable given; indeed, they seek to redefine the way in which the work can enter into relations with any form of referential reality or with it-self.

Yet most critical commentary on L'Année dernière à Marienbad has attempted to under-stand the film within the canons of modernist theory. And it is more than a little interesting to note that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, especially in their earliest comments on the work, were particularly guilty in this respect. Their comments, in fact, established the categories that most subsequent critics have repeated with little variation. By declaring L'Année dernière à Marienbad to be an extreme experiment in “subjective" cinema, they made of their work an essentially modernist attempt to find the means for dirctly representing some form of psychic reality. In effect, they suggests that the film was another variation on such modernist techniques as stream of consciousness or manipulation of narrative points of view. Seen in this light, L’Annee derniere is a modernist attempt to find filmic epiphany, or the revelation of privileged psychic moments. By placing the emphasis on the film's revelation of immanent experience, rather than on the film's formal structures, the filmmakers as well as a good many later critics were able to take seriously the rather bizarre idea that the film takes place in someone's head.

This point is worth pursuing, for the desire to delimit the locus of mimesis by some privileged space is most characteristic of modernism —and of much of the early criticism to which Robbe-Grillet's work gave rise. In fact, it now appears that it was only because of such critical pressure that Robbe-Grillet theorized about his film in terms of "mental realism” or other modernist categories of "realism." But it is obvious that these categories belong to the theory of literary modernism. and, I believe, they can do little to account for the way we actually experience L'Année dernière à Marienbad.

Our first experience of the film is, in fact, a questioning born of our desire to find the locus of mimesis and to delimit the representational space. The film opens a region of experience and, in one sense, forces us to ask what images are about. Our first answer must be that the status of these images is ambiguous, for they blatantly refuse to obey the laws of verisimilitude and casual relation that we often take to be inherent in the nature of narration itself. This does not mean that they are irrational or that they can only be explained in terms of the kind of subjectivity represented in literature by an interior monologue.

In fact, it seems dubious that images can represent any kind of subjectivity by direct mimesis, for images never take place inside anyone's head. The images we see either occur in the world or, in the case of so-called mental images, occur nonspatially. Thus mental images cannot be in anything. In fact, one might
be tempted to turn the relationship about and say that it is the perception of images that allows us to localize our heads. In any case, critics who resort to the metaphysics of inner and outer, of subjective and objective, to describe what images purport to represent have allowed outmoded philosophical categories to obscure the way in which images create the world they represent. L'Année dernière à Marienbad forces us to ask why we wish to speak in metaphysical terms about images or, equally important, why we wish to think of them in terms of literary categories such as point of view. It is by demonstrating the failure of such categories that the film opens up new possibilities for the experiencing of films.

Categories such as subjectivity and point of view have such surface plausibility that it is difficult not to wish to apply them. Thus Bruce Morrissette, one of the best-known critics of Robbe-Grillet’s work, can unhesitatingly explain his films in the same terms that he uses to describe Robbe-Grillet’s novels:

It is well known that the theory and practice of point of view, in novels as in cinema, are closely tied to the metaphysics of each novelist or scriptwriter. Thus Robbe-Grillet chose at the beginning of his literary career to place himself on the side of Sartre and existentialist metaphysics and declared that every novelistic image must exist or come forth by being grounded in a narrating consciousness.1

Morrissette’s point-of-view analogy annexes film to literary technique without questioning how this can be so. How can a film be grounded in a narrating consciousness when there is nothing in the structure of a projected image that allows it to be assigned to a consciousness? Language, to be sure, in the very process of enunciation, always presupposes a voice that offers the utterance and thus springs from what one can call a narrating (or narrative) consciousness even if it is mediated by a third-person noun. But it is very difficult to see how the process of enunciation can be applied to the projection of images that, by their projection, create their autonomous world.

It is true, of course, that from its beginnings film has tried to grant itself the status of literary work by using various conventions that designate the film as a transcription of a verbal narration. To take popular examples, one need think of the shot of the book and the narrating voice-over that open Red River or, more recently, the presence of the tape recorder at the beginning of Little Big Man. These naive conventions usually add little to the film and, in any case, in no way endow the film with a narrative point of view. More interesting of course are more complex films, such as Citizen Kane and Rashomon. In these works, too, it seems apparent that there is no existential bond between a narrator and the various narratives each film sets forth. Rather, the presence of a narrator serves only to designate each narrative as different from or complementary to the other narratives in the film. The narrator in the film thus serves an epistemological function, for his presence indicates that each individual narrative is a part of the quest for knowledge or truth that the total film undertakes. In Citizen Kane it is especially evident that the filmic world overflows, perhaps inevitably, what a narrator could really narrate from a limited point of view. Each narrative goes well beyond a single memory, not only in terms of remembered detail, but in terms of the very being of the image, its ontological fullness, its presence. Moreover, it is obvious that in this film the various narratives that make up the quest fit neatly together to form a linear chronology that purports, in the modernist sense of recapturing the past, to reveal the essence of a life.

Narration as a form of epistemological quest is central to our understanding of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, for it seems clear that the only narrative point of view present in the film is the one offered by the narrating voice, a first-person narrative that must be considered in juxtaposition to the world of images. However, we must first take into account one other approach to the film that has found a great deal of acceptance, the approach that takes L'Annee derniere to be a dream. It does seem true that film can imitate dream images or, more precisely, that filmmakers have developed a series of conventions that allow as to accept certain kinds of images as a representation of dream. We are not disturbed when the autonomous world of the film is replaced by an oneiric world that, for purposes of narrative coherence, we then usually attribute to one of the characters within the film. Wild Strawberries and 81/2 come readily to mind in this respect, though both Bergman and Fellini have demonstrated in other works that they need not have recourse to dream conventions in order to use irrational images— irrational in terms of the canons of verisimilitude—for narrative purposes. Dream conventions often seem, in fact, a way by which a filmmaker integrates irrational ruptures into his narrative, for few directors are interested in the mimesis of dream for its own sake.

L'Année dernière à Marienbad is characterized by precisely the kind of ruptures that seem to designate the filmic world as a representation of dream. Yet dream convention usually demands that there be a filmic world against which the irrational images stand out as “dream," and this film world is not present in L'Année dernière à Marienbad. There are in effect no indices to designate one image as a "real" image and another, in contrast, as an oneiric image that must be attributed to one of the characters. The conventions objective and subjective, inner and outer, substantial and oneiric, are simply not present, and the film forces us to situate its images in some other space than that demanded by the modernist aesthetics of representation. L'Année dernière à Marienbad is, in fact, one of the seminal works for a definition of postmodern art, and only by turning away from such categories as mental realism and degrees of reality can we begin to understand the film.

If one of the postmodern tasks is to find a means by which to designate the work's functioning as a fiction, to force the reader or viewer to evaluate critically the mimetic constructs that seek to represent “reality," then it would appear that a work that lays bare its own genesis as a fiction best fulfills that critical task. The postmodern artist thus often strives to go beyond the ironic self-consciousness of the modernist to create a work of metanarration that can account for its own unfolding. Self-reference becomes a means by which the work designates its awareness of itself as a fiction. It is in this sense that we can call L'Année dernière à Marienbad a metanarrative that proposes a series of narrative hypotheses that finally coalesce into a past, a history, a plausible story. It is an exploration of the labyrinth, to use a favored postmodern metaphor, that designates both the quest for fiction and the fiction itself. And the representational space is the space of the labyrinth of the film itself, the space of the narration.

As the metaphor of the labyrinth points out, subject matter and motifs are metaphorical doubles for the metanarration itself. The quest for narration is thus an attempt to narrate a seduction at the same time it is a seduction—both of the woman who hears the tale and of the viewer who seeks to construct the fictional past out of the elements the film offers. The metaphorical equation of seduction-narration is another aspect of self-reference by which the narrative project designates its own functioning and telos. "X," the stranger who is the narrator-seducer, is then, in one sense, a surrogate artist who must seduce both viewer and woman through the creation of a story, through the elaboration of a preterit narrative that represents the creation of a "past of marble" that can authenticate the seduction.

In L'Année dernière à Marienbad Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have, in effect, "deconstructed" the myth of passion. One might well compare the film to the myth of Tristan and Isolde to see how the film uses the archetypical elements of myth to construct the metanarration. In his later works Robbe-Grillet prefers to call upon the popular myths of sex, drug, secret agents, and the like for his narrative deconstruction. In his first film, however, he seems to have chosen the most perdurable of European myths as a basis for the film's motifs. L'Annee derniere metanarration might be likened to the situation in which Tristan must convince Isolde of the reality of their passion by telling her its story, its legend, to as to create a past that can validate his present desire. In the film as in the myth, the passion depends upon a third party for its forbidden existence. The woman's companion, "M"—possibly a mari, possibly a Marc— thus fills the role of the interdictor against whom the narrative is directed. The goal of narration is thus given as a subversion of the order we find in the narration itself and, by analogy, in the hotel's rigid order as well. Our Tristan's task as metanarrator is to lead the object of his passion through the labyrinthine meanderings of his quest, through the halls and gardens, to an acceptance of the new order that he proposes in his narrative. His passion informs his narrative, for ultimately we see that the genesis of fiction is in the service of desire, just as desire or possession is another metaphor for the fiction itself.

The film's final seduction is to draw the viewer into the labyrinth as that he, too, participates in a narration that by laying bare its own genesis, its own functioning, reveals the dangers attendant upon the metaphorical seduction. In this respect Robbe-Grillet's own critical commentary can be useful, for he has always been aware of how the formal possibilities of constructing a representation have conditioned his novelistic or filmic vision. In the creation of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, the idea of negotiating a labyrinth seems to have been in his mind from the very inception of the film:

I began with this idea: a form of itinerary that could be just as well a form of writing [ecriture], a labyrinth, which is to say, a path that always appears to be guided by strict walls, but which nonetheless leads at each moment to impasses that then force one to go back several times over the same places, over greater or lesser distances, to explore a new direction, and to come again upon new impossibilities?2

One might well ask why the labyrinth has become a privileged metaphor for designating the postmodernist creation. It would appear that this metaphor can show the equivalence between the creator's quest and his creation as well as between the act of appropriating the creation and the act of understanding it. The work as a labyrinth is a circle that depends only on its own structures for its coherence; the reader or viewer is detached from all outside frames of reference and must explore the labyrinth in terms of its own presuppositions. And if the labyrinth's paths ultimately go nowhere, perhaps the labyrinth is a metaphor that denounces a naive acceptance of mimesis and warns that one enters only at one's own risk.

The film thus portrays the struggle that the narrating voice undertakes as it contends with the manifold hypotheses and possibilities its narration evokes. This struggle is mirrored in the relationship between the voice—the work—and the images. The images sometimes duplicate the narrative that the voice proposes as though they were offering a confirmation in an experiential world of the narrative hypothesis. At other times they serve as a framework that offers the narrating voice a concrete locus from which to speak. But they can also contradict the narrating voice and reject the narrative order that the voice would impose. The autonomous world of filmic space provides the arena in which the narrative voice must confront its desires as it seeks to negotiate the labyrinth.

The film’s opening tracking-shot, accompanied by the sonorous voice repeating that once again the narrator is advancing through these halls, brings the viewer into the metaphorical labyrinth at the same time it sets forth the struggle in which the narrative voice will attempt to master the image. The plastic tensions and irrational patterns of the baroque decor are another analogy for an experiential world that the narrator must order. This order would seem to find an analogical presence in the various images presenting the formal, French gardens whose Cartesian rationality stands in opposition to the baroque profusion. The quest for narration might then be seen as the effort to suppress this labyrinthine exuberance and to create the seemingly ordered space of rational representation. Yet as the film's end, set in the geometric gardens, seems to show, such a rational order is also a maze. Indeed, the end is given in the beginning when we see the play-within-a-play, or the theatrical performance, that sets forth the film's denouement. The play-within-a-play here takes place in a Cartesian decor that points to the circularity of the representational order. The end is given in the beginning, so that every beginning is already a form of conclusion. Cartesian order turns in upon itself as another labyrinth that offers only an illusory openness onto some other referential realm.

The opening sequence is especially important, too, for establishing how every element in the film stands in analogical relation to every other element in this self-contained quest. In structuralist terms, the work self-consciously proclaims that all relations derive their meaning only from each other, for every element mirrors every other, as we see in the mirrors that line the walls and in which we often see the film's characters reflected. In this respect one is struck by the way the hotel's inhabitants are first presented in rigid poses, recalling the statues in the film that in turn double the characters themselves. One might also consider again the pictures that present the French gardens; they seem to point to an order beyond this baroque palace but in effect are but another image of the maze that designates the filmic world.

In the first part of the film, the various posed groups and couples also offer various bits of anecdotes that are doubles for the metanarration itself. One couple speaks of freedom; another group speaks of last year's weather; others speak of a certain "Frank" who the year before had apparently entered a woman's room and attempted to seduce her. All of these doubling fragments stand in analogical relation to the narrative quest, though the references to a certain "Frank" seem to allude to narration in an even larger sense. Through the paronomasia Frank-Franz, Robbe-Grillet appears here to be invoking, as he does more explicitly in his later film L'Homme qui ment, the patron saint of all postmodernists, Franz Kafka. (The inventor of the Castle, it should be noted, once vacationed in Marienbad with his fiancee.) Here we may again seem another mirror image that refers to the narrative quest. In The Castle, Kafka's "K." loses himself in a proliferating sensuality that never allows him to reach the Castle or the narrative to reach an end. Robbe-Grillet's Frank, a double for his own narrator, may have reached the castle, but narrative proliferation continues, and there appears to be no narrative finality that can vouchsafe the past that can guarantee there was an entrance into the woman's room, that there was a last year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet's narrator must therefore negotiate the various hypotheses that the narration generates much as K. must deal with the texts, suppositions, and hypotheses that emanate from the Castle's bureaucratic order, an order that is as problematic in its existence as is Marienbad's past. Let us consider in this respect how certain sequences function. Take, for example, the shooting gallery in which the men fire their pistols with such accuracy. These images are unaccompanied either by spoken text or by dialogue and thus seem to emerge as an unconnected possibility that bears little relation to the various hypotheses about “last year.” On reflection, however, it is apparent that these images of men shooting methodically at targets show the controlled violence, that underlies the order of this rigid world. Moreover, these images clearly foreshadow one of the major narrative hypotheses: that the passion the narrator feels for the woman could result in her death or in his. The eros that informs the narrative quest could bring about destruction. These images are thus related thematically to a hypothesis that could, if realized, destroy the entire search for a past and the authentication of desire.

These images of violence are related in turn to the various hypotheses concerning the woman's chamber—the locus of desire—and the kind of reception the narrator might have received there. The narrator first introduces the image of the woman's chamber by telling her that he came there one night. We then see the chamber in a series of flash frames that many spectators might take to be a flashback (as Resnais probably did) or perhaps as a flash forward, since this is the way these kinds of ruptures are usually coded. But, as later images of the room show, there is no single fixed image of the chamber, nor is there a fixed "past” chamber about which one of the characters might be thinking. Rather, there are the multiple rooms, with their varying decors, that offer themselves as hypothetical possibilities in the narrative construction of the past. The various chambers illustrate how difficult it is for the narrator to control the multiple experiential possibilities that besiege him, for each one forces him to modify his approach, to weigh other possibilities, and to struggle to maintain the inner coherence that will create the verisimilitude necessary for persuasion.

The first room, for example, is rather plain. In it we see a pile of shoes and a glass. These objects find their doubles in other parts of the narrative space and ambiguously relate the room to other aspects of the experiential world that the images propose. A second chamber contains no shoes, though it does contain a glass, while a third presents a more baroque decor in which a mirror reveals the woman’s image as a kind of double to the other mirror images Another chamber presents a painting, another image of the ironic double that recurs throughout the film, while the woman in these shots holds herself against the baroque mirrors that line the wall. This room in particular shows how the proliferation of possibilities risks destroying the narrative project. The narrator here insists that the rooms door was closed and that the woman returned to the bed. The image shows quire clearly that the woman stays by the mirror and that the door is open. The room baffles the narrator, and his story seems unable to account for these plausible developments. And so the narrator breaks down, saying that he cannot remember any more. The room is thus the locus upon which the narrative quest is centered, for it is here that the full range of hypotheses are developed, ranging from rejection to death to joyous acceptance.

The various contradictory hypotheses represent what we might call the comedy of narration or, from another point of view, narration as a ludic function. The woman’s multiple poses when she is dead, for example, seem to be a farcical aggression against the need for a single, coherent order. One readily thinks of Beckett in this respect, for these various hypotheses call to mind the epistemological games that Beckett's narrators plug in Watt and Molloy. For Beckett's narrators the rules of the narrative game are given by the now-impossible metaphysics that once guaranteed knowledge. and narration now becomes a series of epistemological impasses in which one wonders if one can even know that one knows nothing can be told. Though Robbe-Grillet uses this same kind of speculation in his novel Le Labyrinthe, it would seem that L'Année dernière à Marienbad may well be the first film to have integrated into its structure this postmodern refusal of the certainty that traditional narration has been founded on. The systematic undermining of the various hypotheses that could make up a narration reflects the postmodern suspiciousness of fictions. Yet this destruction of narrative certainty goes beyond mere skepticism. It would seem that in the ease of Robbe-Grillet it aims perhaps at the creation of an uncertainty principle that might become a new way of defining and representing experience.

In any case, the central figure in this constellation of uncertainties is the stone couple, the statue that stands in an analogical relation with the film's couple. The analogy is immediately established when the narrator invokes the statue for the woman as a form of evidence that might verify their common past:

Remember quite near us there was a group of stone figures on a rather high base, a man and a woman in classical dress, whose frozen gestures seemed to represent some specific scene. You asked me who these characters were. I answered that I didn't know. You made several suppositions, and I said that it could just as well he you and I.3.

As is the case with the very presence of the couple in the vacation palace, the camera offers images of the statue as a present hic et nunc that can support innumerable suppositions that might explain its existence. Every hypothesis is the beginning of a new narration about the past that can culminate in the present moment, for present identity —be it that of Pyrrhus and Andromache, Helen and Agamemnon, or of two strangers that a dog happens to meet—demands the creation of the narration whose causal chain will guarantee the existence of a substantial self through time. The need for an identity is, then, a generator of fictions, or at least of narratives, and in this respect the stone couple stands in a metaphorical relationship not only with the living couple, but with the entire narrative quest.

The relationship is perhaps made clearest in visual terms through one of the important changes that Resnais made in the script. By adding the suggestion that the couple had stopped before the sea, he was then able to add a tracking shot up and over the statue. The shot isolates a portion of a pond in such a way that the statue does seem to be standing before a vast expanse of water that could fill the entire visual field. The camera thus converts the narrative hypothesis into a visual reality that we know in a conventional sense to be false, for it is merely the change in perspective that has created the "sea." Yet in terms of pure perception the image has validated the hypothesis, and that the narrative possibility is upheld as one that could apply to the statue. The autonomy of the image is of course responsible for the seeming truth of the shot, but by revealing how the image can change narration merely by the change in perspective, the camera undermines its own credibility in the game of narrative hypotheses. It can seemingly substantiate any supposition the narrator offers.

The alternative to this trickery seems to be given when the woman's companion appears and offers an explanation of the statue, an image of which the couple is contemplating in an engraving:

Excuse me, sir. I think I can supply you with some more precise information: this statue represents Charles III and his wife, but it does not date from that period, of course. The scene is that of the oath before the Diet, at the moment of the trial for treason. The classic costumes are purely conventional.4

The introduction of a "historical" past, one based on dates and a publicly accepted chronology, is comic in its precision and yet as baffling in its dispersion in time as any other form of explanation. Temporal layers overlap in a proliferation of dates and periods, and the statue's identity seems to dissolve into a series of pasts that can scarcely provide the unique series of events that will offer a necessary narrative order.

This is a film about last year, however, and in some sense one should be able to speak of the past. Robbe-Grillet has claimed, among other things, that the film takes place in the present and that it lasts exactly the time that it takes to see it.5 In other words, there is no symbolic representation of time. We might say, then, that the film's time is the duration of the metanarration. The drama of narration lasts only as long as the narrator is undertaking the narrative quest. It takes place in a virtual present that is generated every time the film a projected.

In a sense, however, every narrative is a present act that aims, in phenomenological terms, at a past it seeks to reconstruct. One might even say that the past exists only as a present project that attempts to seize it. With this understanding in mind, one can turn then to the conclusion of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, where we find that the narration ends in the past tense, which seems to endow the entire film with a preterit dimension. It would seem that when the metanarration reaches its goal, one has effectively created or seized a past that exists in function of the present narrative project. In a sense, the metanarration is then sublimated into a "pastness” that is the aim of its quest. Once the woman-viewer has been seduced and led into the labyrinth of narration, then we can say that the story was at it is told. As Robbe-Grillet suggested, one is at Marienbad throughout the film, at the only Marienbad that can exist, which, however, is the one sought in the present by the narrative consciousness as it undertakes the quest to order a past.

From the moment the narrative voice shifts to the past tense, we know, as does the woman’s companion, M, that she has accepted the seduction and that the stranger has created the past into which she will enter. All the elements of the myth of passion fall into place to create the mythic past that validates passion. The myth of passion and narration are one and the same in their metaphorical identity, for it is the narration that has created the legendary past, just as it is passion that has informed the narrative quest. And just . the other side of passion, according to the myth, is death, so the acceptance of a fixed past is entrance into the maze that can lead only to death. To fix a past, to order it as a finality, is to offer a death, since it is only as death that a past can be finally given. As Lucien Goldman has pointed out, the film’s final images are those of a cemetery.6

When we turn from a consideration of the film's motifs and their metaphorical relations, we may feel inclined to ask why Robbe-Grillet and Resnais should have taken so much effort to construct a convoluted work that ultimately designates only itself and its self-representing function. One might even claim that such a work should be branded a form of intellectual narcissism. Such a view would not be entirely beside the point, for any work that points out how it works to seduce the spectator, or the spectator's metaphorical surrogate, is a work that reveals itself as an erotic project. In the case of such a circular work, of a film that aims at itself in its narrative project, narcissism would be another term for the erotic circularity that animates the work. Yet this self-conscious narcissism is also another sign that the critical intelligence at work in a film like L'Année dernière à Marienbad is attempting to lay bare the mechanisms that realistic works seek to hide so that they do not destroy the illusion of representation. By revealing its narcissism L'Annee derniere denounces in effect the seductions of mimetic conventions that hide their persuasion behind a metaphysics of substantial reality. By proclaiming its tentative hypotheses to be only forms of seduction, by revealing its codes, the construction of its myth, and its narcissistic gratuity, L'Annee derniere Marienbad forces us to evaluate all our responses to the guiles of mimesis.

In more positive theoretical terms, L'Annee derniere points to Robbe-Grillet's more recent thought concerning the function of art. We have already said that the film springs from a series of epistemological games, and it is in fact this ludic aspect of art that has come increasingly to dominate Robbe-Grillet's theoretical views on his work, as it has dominated postmodern works in general. In retrospect, it seems clear that L'Année dernière à Marienbad is quite close to such works by Robbe-Grillet as Projet pour une Revolution a New York or Eden et apres. All spring from a view of art as a closed game space in which certain combinative rules allow the genesis of fictions. The ludic functioning of art, as Robbe-Grillet now sees it, is another aspect of the postmodern rejection of various bourgeois forms of mimesis. He has, in fact, become quite explicit about how the "ideology of play" aims at the creation of new modes of representation that will liberate us from the repressive modes that characterize realistic art and what he sees as its concomitant bourgeois ideology:

Often I have thought that the disappearance of the old myths of depth [profondeur] has created a determining vacuum [vide]. What people call seriousness, that is, that which is underwritten by such values as work, honor, discipline, and so forth, belongs in reality to a vast code, one well situated and dated, outside of which the idea of profundity has no meaning. Seriousness supposes that there is something behind our gestures: a soul, a god, values, bourgeois order ... whereas behind play there is nothing.7

Declaring that it is play that defines the field of our liberty in such a world, Robbe-Grillet goes on to say, "In short, play [le jeu] is for us the only possible way of intervening in a world that is henceforth deprived of all profundity.”8

Already in L'Année dernière à Marienbad we find in the film's central ludic image a metaphor that is a double of the metanarration. The enigmatic game of nim, at which the stranger loses several times to M, sets forth an analogy with the narrative game of hypotheses. The stranger must defeat M in order to win the woman, and each failure at the game seems to be a metaphor for the narration's failure to carry out the persuasion. Moreover, the game stands as an analogy for the narrative quest in that the viewer can no more decipher the rules of the game than he can fix a past for the couple. The game's enigma designates the narrative's uncertainty, as narrative and game coincide in their drawing the viewer into a ludic space where the rules of the game must be worked out in the course of play itself.

The game's enigma also seems to designate the enigmatic opening in our experience of art that L'Année dernière à Marienbad has brought about. Robbe-Grillet's ideology of play may well be the basis for new modes of artistic experience. Certainly his and Resnais's work in film is among the most important postmodern work in this respect. By designating the conventions of realistic mimesis as myth—conventions such as causal necessity, depth or substantiality of character, psychological continuity, and so forth—and by using these conventions as he sees fit in his various combinative games, Robbe-Grillet in particular has displaced the perimeters of the space of mimesis. Perhaps most interestingly, he has also forced us to see that it is not only the subject and conventions of narration that are mythic, but also the narration itself. The myth of narration, which in France has become the dominant postmodern myth today, stands as one limit to the expansion of mimetic space, for the myth stands there as the self-conscious limit of every narrative project.

Allen Thiher


1. Bruce Morrissette, Les Romans de Robbe—Grillet, p. 226. (All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.)

2. Quoted in Gaston Bounoure, Alain Resnais (Paris: Seghers, 1962), pp. 79-80.

3. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad, trans Richard Howard, pp. 51-52.

4. Ibid., p.69.

5. Ibid., p.13.

6. Lucien Goldmann, Pour une Sociologie du Roman, p. 323.

7. Quoted in Nouveau Roman: Hier, Aujourd'hui, 1:127-28.

8. Ibid.