A Controversial Work

Delphine Seyrig 1961

Delphine Seyrig 1961

At the time of its release L'Année dernière à Marienbad had its fierce critics as well as its staunch supporters. Among the former was Michel Mourlet: 'No notion of acting, no grasp of the rudiments of decor, no feeling for narrative, nothing but pathetic little intellectual games which solemnly play at being cinema.’[1] Years later this text would echo in Jacques Lourcelles's dictionary entry, where it states that Resnais's film, 'one of the most insane the cinema has ever produced', is not of 'notable' interest, which is tantamount to saying that it has none.[2]

In the other camp, Jacques Brunius wrote in 1962 in Sight and Sound that L'Année dernière à Marienbad was 'the film I had been waiting for during the last thirty years', adding: 'I am now quite prepared to claim that Marienbad is the greatest film ever made, and to pity those who cannot see this'[3] In 1963 the magazine Artsept published a collection of writings on the film, which opened with an extract from the letter an 'incredibly moved and dazzled' Michel Leiris had written to Alain Resnais on 20 May 1961:

Subdued by the images and imbued by all the words he hears, the viewer willingly enters into the film (or allows himself to be penetrated by it!) and finds himself transfixed by an endless stream of prodigious tableaux akin (in their eternal fixity of purpose and their power of fascination) to those that memories and desires can offer him at the most intense moments of his daily life — something very close, in short, to what Sartre describes as 'privileged situations’.[4]

Philosophers in particular were instantly enamoured of Resnais's film. In 1963 Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, an expert on Descartes and Malebranche, published a text called 'Mirror of My Thought' which ends with a superlative analysis of the long 'bleached-out' tracking shot:

An absolutely cinematic language is elaborated here which reaches the intellect only when it has first passed through the senses, as the philosophers would say. This is the paroxysm of desire, the vertigo of amour fou, an invention particular to Resnais, rather than the unacceptable fantasy of rape described in the screenplay. ... Is this not, indeed, the blinding spark which ultimately links the poles X and A?[5]

In 1968 Gilles Deleuze alluded in Difference et repetition to Resnais's film as 'bearing witness to the particular techniques of repetition which the cinema employs, or invents’.[6] Fifteen years later this analysis was extended and widened in the already classic pages of L'Image-temps devoted to 'undecidable alternatives between layers of the past’.[7]

If Resnais's film has today entered history it is still by no means a familiar work. Furthermore, traces remain of the old rivalries between cinema lovers of a generation which, with every passing day, becomes more distanced in time: these rivalries are a sign of the passions cinema excited, of the immaturity of certain 'commentators', and the blindness which can strike spectators otherwise endowed with sensibility.

The names in the L'Année dernière à Marienbad credits are presented in relief letters on a grey background, as on certain visiting or invitation cards. We are being summoned to a ceremony, or to a soiree: the characters are dressed accordingly, they will express themselves in rather formal language; we are invited to adopt this posture in advance, 'out of pure convention'. There are works created which lean towards the formal, and some may find them boring and academic.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of film-maker: Eisenstein or Sternberg on the one hand, Rossellini or Cassavetes on the other. Apropos of Alain Resnais's film Claude Oilier wrote:

As to the interdictions pronounced in the name of 'naturalness' and `spontaneity', they have absolutely no meaning. The only thing that counts is the rigour (hence the strength of conviction, hence the truth) with which the materials are organised, whatever their origin and the degree of artifice binding them together. ... It is by pushing the 'artificial' to the extreme that Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet have managed to create an exemplarily true work.[8]

Added to which, humour is not absent from Resnais's film. The person who perhaps best defined the effect this film was capable of producing (and which it perhaps still produces) is Robert Benyon when he wrote: 'Slipperily hieratic, coldly dishevelled, starchily fluid, playfully lugubrious, casually deliberate, glacially frenetic', adding:

This work-shy work, at once constructed and deconstructed, in which all was meticulously foreseen save the essential, namely the breeze that whisks it away, the grace that suffuses it, the inestimable and timeless charm it exudes, this work of which we mainly retain the frame, whatever we might do with this, one of the high points of the imaginary of our time, largely lives through the presence of the beings who populate it: they cast a shadow in places (those famous yews lopped into pyramids) where no shadow is cast.[9]

For the novelist Jean-Louis Bory L'Année dernière à Marienbad was a disturbing, obsessive and difficult film. Disturbing because it repeatedly calls psychological realism, and its corollaries causality and linearity, into question. Obsessive because it's necessary to see it many times and to allow one's admiration to gradually give way to emotion. Difficult because it requires the spectator to make an effort to engage with it. Obsessive, it surely is. Difficult depends on the viewer. As for disturbing, the word seems excessive: if we grant to a film the possibility of having a poetic rather than traditionally fictional ambition, if we do not take the cinema to be a mechanism meant exclusively for telling stories, if we accept that a work might surprise us and propose something different to what we're accustomed to, then this film is no more disturbing than it is obscure, something it has often been reproached for being. In L'Année dernière à Marienbad a game is made of the rules. There are pieces on a checker or chessboard, some cards, with a traditional Western setting: a chateau and a garden. The film's deviations are as complex as those of the human heart. L'Année dernière à Marienbad demands that it be submitted to the 'reasons' of the heart.

Jean-Louis Leutrat


1   Michel Mourlet, La Mise en seine comme langage (Paris: Henri Veyrier, 1987), p. 87. See, in the same book, the text entitled 'Il y a trente ans a Marienbad'.

2   Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du Cinema (Paris: Robert Laffont/Bouquins, 1992), p. 1617.

3   Jacques-Bernard Brunius, 'Every Year in Marienbad or The Discipline of Uncertainty', Sight and Sound vol. 31 no. 3, Summer 1962, p. 123.

4   Artsept no. I, January—March 1963, p. 104.

5   Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, 'Miroir de ma pensee', in Regards sur l'art (Paris: Beauchesne, 1993), pp. 216-17.

6   Gilles Deleuze, Difference et repetition (Paris: PUF, 1968), p. 376.

7   Gilles Deleuze, L'Image-temps (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985), p. 153.

8   Claude Oilier, 'Ce soir a Marienbad', NRF no. 106, I October 1961.

9   Robert Benayoun, Alain Resnais, arpenteur de l’imaginaire (Paris: Ramsay Poche Cinema, 1986 [first edition, 19801), pp. 81-2.