Every year in Marienbad or The discipline of uncertainty
Delephine Seyrig 1961.
L'Année dernière à Marienbad has by now produced an amount of critical literature which, collected in volume, would easily outweigh the original script and dialogue. Yet there is no other film about which so little has been said in so many words.
I don't think a single critic has missed recording the now famous difference of interpretation between the two authors, and many of them have used this "difference" to attack the film. Those who gloat over it fail at the same time to emphasise that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have proclaimed their complete agreement about the construction and the style of the film. Moreover, the "gloaters" grossly exaggerate this "difference of interpretation". As so much was made of this trifle, let us reduce it once and for all to its proper dimensions.
Resnais said he was inclined to believe that something really did happen last year in Marienbad (but he never said what!), Robbe-Grillet wrote in his Preface that the Narrator "gives the impression of making it up." (Incidentally, this is slanted in the published English translation, where "on a l’impression" is rendered by "we sense".) As they have carefully constructed a film based on doubt—where the nearest thing to a story is precisely the story of a doubt, where even the character who attempts to persuade the other is not quite sure of every detail—it would be a failure indeed if they had not managed to maintain at least that amount of uncertainty. I am by no means certain that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are absolutely sincere about this so-called difference of interpretation. Even if their guesses, relative to what happened or not, were identical, pretending to differ would still be the best hint they could give of a right approach to their film; and would be sufficiently justified by this consideration. The critics should rather thank them for their courteous refusal to explain any more. Any additional information or explanation would sound like a slap in the face of the critics and an exposure of their emotional and intellectual inadequacy. As it is, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have already said too much.
Another important point to note is that most “anti-Marienbad" reviewers misleadingly state that the film presents three characters, X, A and M — thus betraying that they are not really talking about the film, where these initials arc never spoken, but about the published script, where they are used for the purpose of convenience. Such a lapse explains why so many have failed to let the sensuous impact of the film, both visual and aural, affect their sensibilities. Theirs are literary reactions to a printed film script.
There is not much point in trying to convert those who refuse to be moved or interested. Some of my best friends, and some of the people I most respect, simply state that the film bores them. They are not likely to make the effort to see it again and offer themselves to its strange fascination. The obvious conclusion, if you are bored, is that the film must be "pretentious nonsense".
In another category are those who, in spite of both authors' protests, try to understand what Marienbad symbolises. Their discoveries are stupendous, especially if one takes into account that their excavations are attempted without first examining the object submitted to their investigations. I mean that they start unveiling symbols before they have described and clarified the film's structure. This might be fruitful if it were a conventional film with a conventional story line. It happens to be a very unconventional film where the content can only be discovered by consideration of the structure. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the form and content are totally identical—this would fail to take into account the margin of uncertainty left deliberately in this structure, where interpretations factual, psychological or symbolical, are permitted. However, it can safely be said that Marienbad is probably the first film where, to a very great extent, the content is the form, and would not exist outside this particular form. Any attempt to construct valid interpretations must be postponed until the structure has been studied, described and understood. Only thus can we map the few certainties contained in the film and delineate the shadowy zones left to our imaginations.
I confess that when I saw the film for the first time I was completely defeated by a few apparent inconsequences. I was of course quite prepared (by my own writings on the subject, and my own experience as a film-maker and viewer) to accept a "mental continuity", a continuity of thought, instead of the usual factual-spatial continuity—after all we are familiar with the flashback—but I could not see clearly the line of thought justifying the breaks in continuity. I suspected that a certain number of them might be arbitrary. Yet I could not resist the hypnotic fascination, the visual beauty and dignity of the film, the purity of writing. It induced me to caution.
A second viewing forced me to take sides, convinced me that here was the film I had been waiting for during the last thirty years. A brief glance at my own writings on the cinema reminded me that I had advocated the making of films following a mental process, and shown that it was not only possible but desirable. A number of films indicated the way: Caligari, Sherlock Junior, Peter Ibbetson, Berkeley Square, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, Citizen Kane, La Regle du Jeu and a few others perhaps. But here was a film which carried their lesson to its logical conclusion.
After a third and fourth viewing I discovered that I was more and more interested each time, my pleasure and fascination increasing with familiarity. I am now quite prepared to claim that Marienbad is the greatest film ever made, and to pity those who cannot see this.
Those who start from the premise that the authors have deliberately, maliciously, arbitrarily, upset the chronology of events, and even those who obligingly try to put it right in their minds, are blinding themselves to the relative simplicity of the film. It is this simplicity that must be perceived before going any further. There never was any chronological order to upset, as there never was any certainty, about any single episode described by the Narrator. The only order is the order in which these events, real or imaginary, remembered or invented, come to his mind. The film is constructed in order to build up the gradual increase of his conviction, which is reflected by a weakening of the girl's resistance to persuasion. From time to time a doubt brings a temporary regression in this process of persuasion, but both the build-up and the setbacks result in an increase of tension between them. I feel in Marienbad a far more riveting suspense than in any Hitchcock thriller.
Let us try to define more precisely what is the architecture of this "story of a persuasion".
First a point on which I think everybody can agree: this film is presented as a process of recollection. Secondly, it has the atmosphere and the form of a dream. The opening droning recitative is obviously intended to put us in the mood and to warn us of what to expect.
Whether it is the dream itself—or a recollection of a dream —or the recollection of actual events presenting themselves in the memory as if they might have been a dream—or even mixed recollections of dreams and actual events—this is at the moment idle speculation: and anyway it is irrelevant, because the narrator is giving us his recollections as they come, and does not appear to be himself in a position to discriminate between these emotional fragments. He does not know himself which are dreams and which are shreds of lived reality. This uncertainty is essentially the subject of the film.
At this point we cannot ignore the possibility that this dream is not his, but hers. While the bulk of the film follows the Narrator's recollections, some sequences follow her mental processes and show events as she imagines them, even confronting their different memories of the same object (is there a painting or a mirror above the mantelpiece?). Sometimes the Narrator's voice seems to be trying to guide or influence her recollections or imaginings, as we see them on the screen. (Her delay in reproducing the posture he describes—her groping along large mirrors—his insistence that she goes to the bed —the door open or shut, etc. ...)
This again does not really affect the general structure. If it is his dream it can include his guesses about what she dreamt or imagined. If it is her dream, it is a dream in which his voice is the main leading thread and she inserts her own dreams or memories or imaginings within his recollections. What is important is that most of the time their dreams or recollections do not coincide, with a few exceptions, when the persuasive voice seems to shatter her insistence upon not remembering, and she sometimes admits glimpses of recollection.
However, the main body of recollections or imaginings takes place in the mind of the narrator. As both hypotheses give finally the same result I shall from now on accept the first as simpler and more convenient for the sake of analysis.
The next point—and it flows from what precedes—is that whoever is dreaming or recollecting, there are several dreams or recollections within the main narrative. This fact amply justifies the sudden changes of costume and breaks in continuity. It only requires a small amount of attention to see that such apparent ruptures of continuity are simply passages to another time, another idea, another recollection, or sometimes, to the same thing as imagined by the other character. The changes of costume, far from being arbitrary, are clearly intended to be of some help to the spectator. How ungrateful of some critics to denounce them as puzzling and gratuitous!
It will be noticed here that I have not yet mentioned the possibility that the film might be describing present events in the large hotel, during which the Narrator, meeting the girl, tries to persuade her that they met last year. I have not done so because, although I originally believed it, I dismissed this belief after seeing the film a second time and after verifying my impression by reference to the script. My reasons for pushing aside this hypothesis are as follows:
(a) The Narrator starts, it is true, in the present tense, but soon abandons it.before any action takes place and speaks in the past tense until the end, except, of course, in the scenes with other characters.
(b) The whole of the end scene, showing the girl finally persuaded to follow him, is equally narrated in the past tense. I do not see how any part of the film could be taken as describing the present when these two sequences, which constitute a frame for the whole film, are both situated in the past. They establish clearly that the entire film is a recollection of past events, dreams or imaginings.
The illusion that some scenes are set in the present comes from what Robbe-Grillet's preface defines in these words: "The essential characteristic of the cinema-image is its present-ness." The same could be said of the dream-image.
Robbe-Grillet also remarks in this preface: "There is no last year, and Marienbad is no longer to be found on any map. This past too has no reality beyond the moment it is evoked with sufficient force; and when it finally triumphs it has merely become the present, as if it had never ceased to be so." The contradiction with what I have just said is only apparent. In the realm of dreams and imaginings we necessarily observe time from above. One might as well consider some of the episodes of Marienbad as happening in the future. Perhaps some of the action takes place next year? We are outside the flow of time and the usual notion of time has become meaningless.
This will help me to go a step further. I had up to now considered simultaneously several possibilities:
I. Recollections of actual facts.
2. Recollections of dreams or day-dreams.
3. Invention on the spur of the moment.
4. A blend of the three.
5. A possible difference of nature between: (a) scenes illustrating these recollections or inventions, representing the past; and (b) scenes of persuasion representing the present.
We can now dismiss the last distinction. If he was just inventing it now, he would not conclude in the past. How could she have already eloped with him before having been persuaded?
There is not much point either in maintaining any longer the distinction between recollected dreams or reality. Whatever it is that the Narrator recollects—real facts, imaginings or dreams—the mental process is the same. The hint is conceived as a clinical report of such a mental process, and carefully avoids establishing whether any of the events recollected are real or imagined, past, present or future. This is perfectly legitimate. When we try to remember certain events, especially of an emotional nature, we sometimes find it difficult to be sure that they really happened, that we did not dream them. Perhaps we only dreamt them. Perhaps we also dreamt them. The reverse is true in any attempt to remember a dream: we sometimes introduce some memory of a real event into our memory of a dream.
We can therefore consider Marienbad one way or the other. I shall from now on talk about it as if it were a dream. There are enough mentions of dreams in Robbe-Grillet's preface and in Resnais' various statements to justify such a choice. Furthermore it is easy to recognise in Marienbad all the familiar mechanisms of the dream: disguise, displacement, condensation, dramatisation. What follows will add further justification.
There is a category of dreams which are more likely to induce in our minds the kind of confusion with real events I was referring to previously. Such are recurring dreams. After we have dreamt the same event several times, it is only natural that we should begin to believe the last dream was inspired by some real happening and not only by some previous dream or series of dreams. This is further complicated by the well-known phenomenon of false recognition, by which, whether in dream or in our daily life, we have the fallacious impression of having been here before, or of having seen before what is happening now.
In one of the best articles published about Marienbad (in Postif No. 44, March 1962) Robert Benayoun. suggesting the explanation of a meeting in a dream. attributes to this phenomenon the Narrator's illusion of having met the girl before. This hypothesis fits quite well with the assumption that the “present" scenes in the film are really supposed to show what is happening now, but I have more or less rejected this idea, and furthermore I do not see how the phenomenon of instant fallacious recollection can help in analysing the structure of the film. On the other hand the recurring dream pattern seems to fit better. Before accepting this, however, let us see what reasons I have for suggesting it.
The idea occurred to me the second time I saw the film. While the credit titles are unfolding, we hear the Narrator's voice, sometimes near, sometimes fading away, repeating the same ideas and the same words like a repeating groove, or loop, but not quite the same, since each time they reapear in a slightly different grouping: "Once again—I walk on, once again, down these corridors ... I was already waiting for you…”
Not only are these words "once again" stressed here by repetition, but they crop up later in the film. In conjunction with the repeating groove cum variations, this suggested to me not only the dream, but the recurring dream. The hint was so convincing that I could not help seeing the rest of the film as if it were a recurring dream. Instead of being puzzled, as I had been the first time, by a suspicion of the arbitrary, everything now looked clear, simple and not only legitimate but strictly necessary. When I heard “And once again I was walking on down these same corridors, walking for days, for months, for years, to meet you ..." (italics are mine) I was definitely convinced. The various people to whom I suggested this explanation do not seem to have experienced any difficulty in following the continuity of Marienbad when they saw it for the first time; and this shows that there is at least one approach to the film which eliminates the apparent inconsistencies in continuity.
The fact that, in the Narrator's recollection, several successive dreams are sometimes combined to reconstruct a single sequence of events, is of course sufficient to explain some sudden changes of light and unexpected changes of costume. They always signal the passage from one dream to another. But this is not the strongest argument in favour of my hypothesis, as anyway these changes would be acceptable in an ordinary dream, although they could, with some reason, be considered as relatively gratuitous.
The fact that the characters of the film appear first in the early scenes in frozen attitudes, as photographs in a family holiday album, suggests that these scenes—which might be taken for the present reality, framing as it were the dream recollection—are in fact already dream scenes remembered. The identity of situation in the play being performed and between the characters of the film—to such an extent that in the dialogue on the stage, the Narrator and the male partner of the play can relay each other—is another pointer hinting that we are already in a dream. What the actors on the stage are playing is the final scene of the film. Most of the snatches of conversation overheard in the various lounges of the hotel are in some way pre-echoes of episodes which we shall see later (the couples discussing problems similar to the Narrator's and the girl's situation—the broken heel—the mysterious Frank who was "a friend of her father's and had come to keep an eye on her," etc…).
This does not supply any conclusive interpretation. They can be taken as the rough material from which the Narrator constructs his dream or day-dream or invention. On the other hand he may have picked them out simply because they have a more or less direct bearing on his own situation. They could also be a disguise for his obsessive preoccupations, as it often happens in dreams (and especially in recurring dreams) where the same material can give birth to different dramatisations. In any case, if they do not specifically confirm the recurring dream hypothesis, they fit easily in its pattern.
There are, however, several oddities in the film which nobody has tried to explain, and which I believe cannot be satisfactorily explained by any other hypothesis. First there is the fact that some recollections of the same event are presented in several different ways, none being more certain than the others. The most blatant case is that of the several different endings, including the murder of the woman by the man who may be her husband. The Narrator rejects the endings he does not like, especially the murder one which is incompatible with taking her away ("No, this is not the right ending ... I must have you alive ..."), and only accepts the final one, which represents his burning wish. He does not even want to have raped her. He wants her to follow him. But the only possible origin of the various twists in his story is in a series of dreams (or day-dreams) which did not always turn the same way. It has become difficult for him, now, to remember which was, or should have been, the right one. It may be objected that these various endings might all have been part of a single dream, and that they may be dreams within a dream. (Some of them may even be her contribution to the dream.) This is possible, but less likely, and does not tally so satisfactorily with the words "once again". Let us not forget that the Narrator seems to think that his waiting quest has already lasted "for years".
We shall find further proof and confirmation in an analysis of the most disturbing discrepancies in chronology. There are at least two very puzzling cases—that is, puzzling unless my hypothesis is accepted.
For clarity I shall henceforth number the years. The time of persuasion, which we are tempted to call the present, will be Year Zero; and last year will be Year Minus One.
Let us remember the scene where the Narrator says: "What proof do you still need? I had also kept a photograph of you taken in the park ... but when I gave it to you, you answered again, that it proved nothing ..." So he has not given the photograph to her just now. When then? Let us assume it was a few days before the Year Zero scene shown at the moment. It must therefore have been taken last year in Marienbad or elsewhere. He then goes on evoking their meetings the year before (Year Minus One), in the park, in her bedroom, and, on a certain evening, a visit of the supposed husband to her bedroom, during which the photograph in question is already in her possession (which gives rise to questions from the so-called husband: "Who took it? When was it taken?”).
From the wording of the Narration, one seems to be justified in assuming that this whole sequence is an evocation of the preceding year (Minus One), which would mean that the photograph was not taken last year (Minus One) but two years ago (Year Minus Two) or even before (Year Minus Three), and given to her last Year (Minus One), in a previous attempt at persuasion. However in the hypothesis of a recurring dream, an apparent discrepancy becomes perfectly natural.
There was another similar instance (although less noticeable because no prop was involved) in a previous scene. The Narrator and the woman are sitting in a hotel lounge. The other guests have left them. She sits on a small sofa on the right of the frame. He sits on a chair at a table on the left. This scene obviously takes place in what one is tempted to call the "present", that is Year Zero. He says, talking to her about the preceding year:
"You never seemed to be waiting for me but we kept meeting at every turn of the paths, behind every bush, at the foot of each statue, near every pond ... we were talking about anything at all ... or else we weren't talking at all ..."
From these words we are led to expect an evocation of these meetings, and true, it comes in a series of shots of them in the park. In the last shot of this sequence (which we assume represents another meeting of Year Minus One) he says: "But you always stayed at a certain distance ..." In the past tense! So it appears that last year, Year Minus One, he was already trying to remind her of previous meetings having taken place the year before: Year Minus Two or Year Minus Three ... who knows?
If you insist on regarding Marienbad as a series of arbitrary inconsistencies, you will no doubt conclude that this is just another gratuitous whim of the editor or the director (or indeed the scriptwriter, as this follows the published script). I happen to believe that such a carefully polished work is not likely to be unnecessarily arbitrary. The possibility must be considered, of course, that this is part of a deliberate ambiguity: that the authors have just reverted without warning to Year Zero at the end of a sequence which appeared to take place in Year Minus One, and that they do so again in the sequence about the photograph. I am more inclined to believe that within this ambiguity, there is a rule, a "rule of ambiguity" as it were, and that this rule is so chosen that it allows a certain kind of logic to be respected without dispelling the ambiguity necessary to the style and mood or the film.
A last example for good measure: the recollection of the meeting at the foot of the ambiguous statue occurs twice. The first time the Narrator recalls it: "Remember: quite near us there was a group of stone ..." and he continues: "The others around us had come closer. Someone gave the statue's name ..." So they were not alone. But we do not see the scene. The second time we see the meeting, including their discussion about the meaning of the statue, but this time the Narrator and the woman are alone.
It is clear that this scene would not have happened twice, but could have been dreamt or imagined twice, in different circumstances. Such a difference cannot possibly be a failure of memory. If you remember such a striking episode in your relationship with a girl, in such detail as to be able to recall the conversation, you also remember if there were other people around. It is again typical of a recurrent dream.
I had reached this point in my reflections, and was already convinced that such an hypothesis was the only one to account totally for the film's structure and for the various statements made by the authors, when I read by chance (I had given up reading about this film) the interview given by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet to Claude Ollier. There suddenly appeared confirmation by Robbe-Grillet himself of the preceding deductions.
“It is possible that past episodes, like present ones, may be partially or even completely imagined, or dreamed, or re-constructed askew. There may have been several stories in the past which the hero confuses and tangles up. There may never have been anything but a desire which takes shape little by little under the influence of words, by persuasion and suggestion. But this does not exclude the possibility, after all, that there was indeed a meeting, last year at Marienbad." (So much for the famous difference with Resnais!)
The words recurring dream are not pronounced, but the hint is clear. It will be noticed that in my series of observations I have never definitely stated that Marienbad is a recurring dream. My purpose was to show that the recurring dream pattern is the most convenient image to describe the structure of the film and to facilitate its understanding. All apparent discrepancies become natural in such a pattern, where the dreamer (or day-dreamer) is more or less aware of his previous dreams, in which he already remembered some anterior dreams, and so on, as in a mental corridor of mirrors.
In the article quoted above, Robert Benayoun came very close to a description of this structure when he compared Marienbad to Raymond Roussel's Nouvelles Impressions d'Afrique, which is written in a series of parenthesis within parenthesis within parenthesis, and so on, like Chinese boxes. This is a different image to denote the same structure. Resnais' allusion to "degrees of reality" is another.
Of course this interpretation leaves a number of ambiguities and uncertainties. They are precisely characteristic of such a tale. They are the stuff dreams are made of. They also appeal in recollections of deep emotional crises, where the boundaries between facts and fancies, actions and desires, become blurred. They are necessary, indispensable in this film.
Resnais has asked several times for the spectator "not to reconstruct a story coldly from the outside, but to live it at the some time as the characters, and from the inside." Indeed the authors of this film never adopt the god-like omniscient attitude, usual among authors who know everything about their characters. They have put themselves in exactly the same position as their main character. As for us spectators, we can identify ourselves completely with the Narrator, because we know what he knows, what he remembers, never more or less. We can also identify ourselves with the girl, because it might after all be her dream and because the Narrator sometimes identifies himself with her. So do we in dreams where we can be ourselves or someone else, where we can be ourselves and at the same time see ourselves from outside.
Seen from this point of view Marienbad is no longer obscure or mysterious. At least there is no longer any mystery at the level of the film's shape. There is no more need to look for deep symbolism in order to enjoy the film with a small high brow minority. It can be enjoyed, and immensely enjoyed, for what it is, once you see clearly what it is.
The mystery and the symbols, if you insist, must now be excavated from a deeper stratum. Before indulging in such exercises, however, I contend that a closer examination of the characters of the film is indispensable. It has been said that they behave like puppets, or androids, or robots. I am not so sure of that. They are certainly withdrawn, secretive, but inhuman—no. They only appear so because we do not know all their motives. In everyday life we are often in the same position of being puzzled by our best friends' behaviour when we are not in their total confidence.
As I have taken great pains to show that the so-called differences of interpretation between Resnais and Robb-Grillet were nothing of the sort, I hope I will not be accused of perversity if I bring to light a really important difference, a major departure in Resnais' film from Robbe-Grillet’s script. (There are not many really significant ones.)
I was saying earlier that I find it easy to identify myself with the Narrator. With the elusive character played by Sacha Pitoeff I feel no immediate identification at all. With the girl, I suppose a female spectator can find identification possible. I find it difficult as a man, of course, but mainly because If I were she, I should know who is this enigmatic character referred to as "Your husband, perhaps." To which she never answers.
Now, is he her husband? I do not think the hero believes he is, or he would not put it that way. Living in the same hotel, and claiming as he does to have met them last year, and being so obsessively in love with her, he must have enquired discreetly, of the other guests, of the porter, the receptionist, the chambermaids, even bribed them to discover more. (You will notice that I am now talking as of a real story, but once having admitted the particular shape of the story as happening in the mind, I see no reason now not to treat it as any other story, which also happened in the mind' of its author.)
The Narrator has not discovered the real status of the girl's companion or their exact relationship. Why is it so secret? Why is she so non-committal? Would the explanation be that this relationship is uncommon, unconventional, perhaps reprehensible or likely to call for reprobation? Personally I never thought he behaved like a husband, but he does not even behave like a lover or a suitor, at least not like an ordinary lover or suitor. What is he then? Would he be like the Frank who appears only in people's conversations: "Frank had convinced her he was a friend of her father's and had come to keep an eye on her. It was a funny kind of eye, of course ..."
To me he behaved much more like a brother. I was so puzzled that I thought of looking up the script to find his description, at his first appearance. And it reads: "A man of about fifty (tall, grey-haired) with a good deal of style ..." Everyone will agree that Sacha Pitoef, who has a good deal of style, is not grey-haired and does not look fifty—not even a well-preserved fifty.
So Robbe-Grillet originally intended this character to look like an ageing husband, lover, or suitor, or guardian, old enough to be her father. He took further care to preserve a wry odd suspicion about their relationship, a suspicion which was even bound to imply that he might be her own father. Written as it was, the suggestion of possible incest was unmistakable. I am surprised that no reader or critic has yet noticed it.
In the film this suggestion is modified by the choice of a younger actor to play the part. Is this pre-censorship of a scabrous situation by the producers? Or forced upon them by submission of the script to the censorship committee? What-ever it is, it has obviously been accepted by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet let us see what they made of it.
I have already said that Pitoeff's acting suggested to me a brother rather than a husband. This was probably a devious way of finding a substitute for the original ambiguity in the situation. But that is not all. There is a detail in the film which was not specified in the script. (A surprising thing when one thinks of the meticulous descriptions in which Robbe-Grillet indulges.) When the camera, twice in the film, arrives near the room where the theatricals take place, the script describes: "Lastly a framed theatre poster for a play with a foreign, meaningless title." In the film, this poster is seen twice: the title of the play is foreign, but not meaningless. It is ROSMER.
Rosmer ... Rebecca West Dr. West ... Kroll ...
It is not the usual title of Ibsen's play Rosmersholm, but it could easily be. One recalls instantly the most intriguing scene of the play when Kroll, brother of the late Mrs. Rosmer, reveals to Rebecca West that her adoptive father Dr. West, the man who took care of her after her mother's death might have been her own father. Rebecca seems upset far beyond her alleged concern not to be an illegitimate daughter. She never admits any clear motive for her torment, but the spectator cannot help remembering that Rebecca, on the threshold of triumph, has unexpectedly turned down Rosmer's offer to marry her, and in her last scene with Rosmer she refers to "her past" to convince him that marriage is impossible. There are several allusions to this mysterious event in her past, strongly suggesting that she has been Dr. West's mistress. There is never in the play any open assertion of incest, but Ibsen's intention of planting it indirectly in our minds is obvious enough. Several commentators have noted it, and Freud, following Otto Rank, has tried to relate it to the father-daughter relationship between Rebecca and Rosmer—but this is another story.
I feel absolutely unable to accept such a coincidence as fortuitous. Only Resnais could tell us whether the choice of the title Rosmer was unconscious or deliberate, but the fact that Robbe-Grillet's suggestion of incest is replaced by another hint to the same effect cannot be attributed to chance. We must therefore take it as significant slightly more recondite, but nevertheless detectable. The brother-sister incestuous relationship is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the father-daughter one, in this case where the general attitude of the "brother" is more that of a guardian than that of a lover. It is even more satisfactory, as it avoids the age discrepancy which could be visually repellent to some spectators. The girl's fear of love, her hesitation until the last minute, become much clearer. The last scene on the bed between her and her guardian, which was moving but obscure, becomes far more upsetting. We understand better why she still loves him as a brother, while she does not love him any more as a "husband", and is already prepared to leave him. The whole relationship, oddly distant and yet intimate, now makes sense.
Another peculiarity of the film has been pointed out by several critics: the disturbing contrast between the frozen atmosphere of the setting and postures, and the latent hysteria perceptible under the restrained dialogue in the convulsive attitudes of Delphine Seyrig. This is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of Marienbad, but it remained also one of the most intriguing. If, as I believe, the relationship between the three main characters is derived from such an incestuous situation, the mood of artificially stilted emotion becomes not only understandable but fitting and necessary.
The game of matches, cards or dominoes, not only echoes the triangle situation (like the trees and alleys of the park) but it also parallels the guardian's position. He always wins, but at the same time he loses, and the game expresses his forebodings; his adversary always takes the last match, as he will in the end take the girl away.
Does all this preclude other interpretations of Last Year in Marienbad? I don't think so. I only mean that any valid interpretation must take into account the relative amount of certainty contained in the preceding pages. My only purpose was to eliminate the apparently gratuitous, and to push back uncertainties as far as possible into their last entrenchments. There and only there, not before, begins the realm of shadow where speculations are permitted. Many have been suggested which do not necessarily clash with my theory. The "incestuous" theory may even lead to another interpretation according to which the character played by Pitoeff could be the Narrator himself under another dream-disguise (perhaps his Super Fgo!)
I shall not venture into symbolic interpretations myself, although I would welcome some more. But do we really need them? When we have exhausted all the possible interpretations that are at the moment only faint gleams in our minds, we shall be tempted to dismiss Marienbad and forget about it. I still enjoy being haunted by this film as I never was by any film; I still hope to see it many times and preserve its polyvalent ambiguities. They are the ambiguities of life itself.
1 Richard Massingham's And so to Work, less known, must be mentioned separately. Massingham’s own notion of film-continuity was almost exactly that of Resnais, who probably knew his films through the Cinimatheque Francaise.
2 Although this film could rightly be called "anti-narrative", does not give us a story in the conventional sense, that is rationalise a posteriori, I shall persist in calling the man "The Narrator", because to narrate is exactly what he is trying to do, even if to a large extent the film is devoted to his failure to do so. Alain Resnais pointed out that Albertazzi's Italian accent in French is meant to show that his narration is not an interior monologue.
3 Since I wrote the above, I see that Mr. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has reached a similar hypothesis, although the other way round, starting from a Freudian interpretation (New Left Review No. 13-14). It should have prevented him from stating that "there is no meaning in the images". A multiplicity of meanings is indeed very different from no meaning"