Last Year at Marienbad 1961

Last Year at Marienbad. Alain Resnais 1961

Alain Resnais 1961

The basic situation in Marienbad concerns a man (X. played by Giorgio Albertazzi) who is trying to persuade a woman (A, played by Delphine Seyrig) that they met and perhaps had a romance last year at the resort hotel at Marienbad. He insists that she promised to leave M (perhaps her husband, played by Sacha Pitoeff) and go away with him in a year's time (the present of the film). The setting is an enormous baroque hotel, surrounded by formal gardens, where the anonymous idle rich follow the strict patterns of their lives.

One of the most fascinating elements of this film is its attempt to embody concretely the phenomenological concept of the relationship between subject and object. On the one hand. the film is extremely subjective, consisting entirely of images in a consciousness, which may be perceived, remembered, or imagined, which may belong to one or several persons, and which may be expressed in conversation or interior monologue. Yet, on the other hand, the surface of the film is extraordinarily objective; the contents of consciousness are tangible percepts rather than abstract concepts or feelings—specific phrases, people arranged like objects, statues, furniture, ornaments, sounds like running water and crunching gravel. This double quality is expressed in the opening sequence, particularly in the way the narrator, X, is introduced. We hear him describing highly concrete images at the same time that the camera moves through the luxurious corridors of the hotel. Yet the visual images and his description do not coincide. We in the audience experience through both sight and sound a catalogue of fragmented percepts—silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation or woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames.”,[1] The man's rambling monologue and the freely moving camera suggest the unpredictable quality of an individual consciousness, but belonging to someone we have not yet seen. Then the camera moves inside a room where a play is being performed. Although both actors and audience are frozen like statues, the moving camera seems to be linked with the narrator who presumably has just entered the scene. His monologue is interrupted by the voice of a woman while the camera pans the audience. At first we don't know who is talking, but then we realize it is the actress speaking her lines in the play, only for that moment X assumes the role of the actor—the boundary between external conversation and interior monologue breaks down. From the perspective of the entire movie, we realize that this conversation between the actor and actress is a variation of X's interaction with A, whom he is trying to persuade to leave with him at the end of the film and whom we first see in this scene as a member of the frozen audience. When we finally see X for the first time, he is standing in the left foreground and in the right background is a mirror, in which we see at some distance the reflection of a couple talking.

MAN: The others? Who are the others? Don't be so worried about what they are thinking.
WOMAN: You know perfectly well....
MAN: I know you said you would listen to no one but me.
WOMAN: I am listening to you. (p, 30)

Despite the fact that we both see and hear the couple talking, it becomes clear that they are the "others" to X, the man silent beside them who is the subject, the consciousness in which this conversation is taking place. In fact, this conversation (in which a man tries to persuade a woman) is a variation of his interaction with A, whom he is trying to convince he met last year at Marienbad. Throughout the film, the dialogue of the minor characters echoes that of X and A.

Really. that seems incredible....
We've already met, long ago....
I don’t remember very well. It must have been in 28 or 29. (p. 32)

Perhaps this dialogue reflects X's subjective distortion of phenomena around him, or expresses the idea that everything—characters, setting, dialogue—is the creation of his imagination and memory. The unconventional opening establishes the fact that nothing in the film has autonomous existence apart from the perceiving consciousness. The reflective quality of the dialogue suggests that consciousness (where self and other coexist) may be at every moment creating "other" in the image of self.

This fusion of subject and object is exemplified in the statues that are important throughout the film. Fixed and frozen in marble like the characters who often seem frozen in space, the statues also lend themselves to interpretation or recreation by each consciousness that encounters them. As we see a stone grouping of a man, woman, and dog in a sequence of stationary shots taken from a great variety of angles, X tells A of a past encounter:

To say something. I talked about the statue. I told you that the man wanted to keep the young woman from venturing any farther: he had noticed something—no doubt a danger—and he stopped his companion with a gesture of his hand. You answered that it was actually the woman who seemed to have seen something—but something marvelous—in front of them, which she was pointing to. But this was not incompatible: the man and the woman have left their country, journeying on for day. They have just reached the top of a steep cliff. He is holding back his companion so that she doesn't go near the edge, while she points to the sea, at their feet, stretching to the horizon. (p. 63)

Their interpretations of the statues are analogous to their different visions of their own relationship—while X offers her protection and freedom, A fears he is leading her into another form of entrapment. The shifting camera angles, the movement from indirect reportage to direct dialogue, and the changes in their clothing reinforce the fluidity of their interpretations. Later, M, her impassive companion whose subjective consciousness we never penetrate, offers an historical interpretation of the statues, presenting it in a manner that suggests it is the objective truth:

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 classical costumes are purely conventional... , (p. 69)

Both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet deny the fixed, pseudo-objective quality of M's vision and both emphasize the emblematic power of this sequence for the entire film.

RESNAIS: We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of a sculpture which one studies first from one angle, then from another, from near or farther away.[2]

ROBBE-GRILLET: One can think of Marienbad as a documentary about a statue: with “Interpretative" glimpses of gestures and constant returns to the gestures as they endure, "frozen,” by the sculpture. Imagine a documentary which centered on a statue with two people. and succeeded in combining a series of shots, taken from different angles and by various camera-movements, so as to tell a complete story. And in the end realize that we have returned to our starting point, the statue itself.[3]

This sculptured quality is expressed throughout the film in composition, in the omnipresence of marble and plaster statuary and ornament, and in X's comments (particularly significant in the opening and closing) that are repeated throughout the film:

Forever in a marble past, like these statues, this garden carved out of stone, this hotel itself ... its motionless characters ... (p. 95)

Like the statues, the hotel setting and the obsessive efforts of the narrator are fixed in patterns—object and subject mutually reflecting the frozen, trapped quality of consciousness that pervades the film. The labyrinthine nature of X's perceptions, memory, and imagination is reflected in the patterned gardens that appear to be orderly and predictable, but that are slightly altered in different shots. In his final speech, X acknowledges this:

Gravel, stone, marble and straight lines marked out rigid spaces, surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here ... at first glance... down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone (p. 165)

The sense of entrapment is heightened by the physical characteristics of the hotel, and by the fragmented, ritualistic behavior of its inhabitants as perceived by X:

There were always walls—everywhere. around me—smooth, even. glazed, without the slightest relief, there were always walls ... and silence too. I have never heard anyone raise his voice in this hotel—no one.... The conversations developed in the void, as if the sentences meant nothing, were intended to mean nothing in any case. And a sentence, once begun, suddenly remained in suspension, as though frozen by the frost.... But starting over afterwards, no doubt, at the same point. or elsewhere. It didn't matter. It was always the same conversations that recurred, the same absent voices. (pp. 89-86)

Just as we have seen experience frozen within the howl by other forms of art the statues, gardens, maps, paintings). the film also traps consciousness into a circular structure. Marienbed opens with a "Romantic, passionate, violent burst of music, the kind used at the end of films with powerfully emotional climaxes." (p.17). X enters a theater, just as a play is ending:

ACTRESS: This whole story is already over now. It came to an end—a few seconds ... more—it has come to a close.
ACTOR:.., forever —in a past of marble. like these statues, this garden carved out of stone—this hotel itself with its halls deserted now, its motionless, mute servants long since dead no doubt, who still stand guard at the corners of the corridors, along the galleries, in the deserted salons, through which I walked to meet you, as if I were passing between two hedges of motionless faces, frozen, watchful, indifferent, while I was already waiting for you, forever, and while I am still staring at the door to this garden ...
ACTRESS: Very well. Now I am yours.... (pp. 24-26)

The actor's long speech is strikingly similar to the final speech by X already quoted; but the opening and closing sequences offer even more exact parallels.

ACTRESS: We must still wait—a few minutes—more—no more than a minute, a few seconds.
X: A few seconds more, as if you yourself were still hesitating before separating from him . . . from yourself .. . as if his silhouette ... (p 24)

A: A few hours is all I'm asking you for.
X: a few months, a few hours, a few minutes. (A pause) A few seconds more as if you were still hesitating before separating from him ... from yourself ... as if his silhouette... (p. 151)

At the end of the film, as they are waiting to leave, the play from the opening is being performed (again? still?), enclosing the film in an endless circle, implying that they never really escape from the frozen pattern. Whereas in the play it is very clear that the woman has agreed to go off with the man, the ending of the film creates greater ambiguity by returning to the opening. Rejecting the conventional dramatic structure of the well-made play with its beginning, middle. and end, this film adopts a phenomenological structure with a series of successive "nows." Robbe-Grillet acknowledges that we can never be certain of the future:

It is impossible for the author to reassure a spectator concerned about the fate of the hero after the words “The End.” After the words "The End” nothing at all happens, by definition. The only future which the work can accept is a new identical performance: by putting the reels back in the projection camera.[4]

The repetitive circularity of the film's structure is also manifest in the game played by X and M. Objects are arranged in rows of 7, 5, 3, and 1; the person forced to remove the last object is the loser. According to Resnais:

Apparently it is very ancient; the Chinese played it three thousand years before Jesus Christ. It was the game of Nim, of which Robbe-Grillet has invented a variation without even knowing it existed.... My personal impression is that when Albertazzi [X] loses it is consciously and deliberately. Perhaps through sheer unconcern.)[5]

In the original game, the player who makes the first move must lose; but Robbe-Grillet changes the rules and makes X the loser no matter who moves first. M tells X: "I can lose ... but I always win" (p. 39). Thus the game ironically combines the possibility of freedom with the actuality of entrapment. The symmetrical pattern within the game controls much of the visual imagery throughout the film: we frequently see objects and characters arranged in parallel rows. In one striking shot, two men play checkers in the extreme foreground while the background is devoted to the large squares of a black and white checkered floor, and parallel rows of columns, growing smaller as they recede into the extreme depth of the background. In another shot X and A are seated side by side in the foreground; M walks into the background, forming the point of a triangle, while servants move in and out between them as if to fill in the other rows of the game pattern. In many scenes the manicured hedges of the formal gardens are similarly arranged. In the final image of the film we see the dark expanse of the hotel facade and its reflection in a pool, eight windows, grouped in three rows, are lighted asymmetrically, as if they are objects left on the table in the middle of the game.

Like the statues, the game is emblematic of the whole film and its central situation. Allusions to games and other forms of conventionalized amusement are frequent—checkers, the pistol range, the concert, and the theatre performance—as if suggesting that in the world of Marienbad life is a game involving control, risk, rules, and competition. Resnais sees the game and the film as related in that both require

the necessity of making a decision. Of course, the characters, while playing, may be allowing themselves a few moments' reflection while arriving at their decisions. In any case, the whole thing is possibly a part of the woman's stream of consciousness, as, on the point of deciding what to do, she recalls all the various factors in a few seconds.[6]

The game puts a new perspective on the love triangle. Since the person who is forced to take the last object is the loser, and since the photographs of A are arranged in rows as in the game, we begin to wonder whether this means that whoever winds up with the woman is really the loser. Both X and M constantly tell her it is too late for her to change her mind. In describing their past encounter in her bedroom, X tells A: "Why always try to escape? It's too late.— It was already too late" (p 125). When A urges M, "Don't let me go," he replies simply: "You know it's too late. Tomorrow I'll be alone" (p. 157). At what point in the game or in the love triangle is it determined who will win? Within the game, the usual sign is the situation where three objects are left, each in a separate row. Within the love triangle, there is a shot in which we see three images of A (two of which are reflected in a mirror), like three objects in separate rows: then the film cuts suddenly to the image of broken columns, as if suggesting that the moment of decision has been reached. At the end of the film she is left with X, who, as Resnais suggests, deliberately loses.

The same paradoxical combination of freedom and entrapment can be seen in X's attempts to persuade A that they actually met last year at Marienbad. On the one hand, in much of the film it appears that X is trying to impose his fantasy on A and deny her experience. If last year at Marienbad did not happen, then her uncertainty and vulnerability imply that she has a weak hold on her own experience and is susceptible to entrapment in his consciousness. Robbe-Grillet sees the film in this way:

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?[7]

A makes this point explicit.

You are like a shadow—and you're waiting for me to come closer. —Oh, let me alone ... let we alone! (p. 105)

On the other hand, if last year at Marienbad did take place, then A has forgotten or repressed the experience in some way, which also renders her extremely vulnerable to X's persuasion. But if this were the case, X would actually be offering her a kind of freedom—a repossession of her own experience and the ability to move outside the frozen patterns of her life:

You weren't waiting for anything any more. It was as if you were dead.... That’s not true! You are still alive.... You're on the point of leaving. The door of your room is still open.... (p. 106)

Robbe-Grillet, too, sees X as offering A an important gift: "He offers her a past, a future, and freedom.”[8] The final speech does not resolve the paradox of freedom and entrapment. X tells her that they are already lost within the straight paths and rigid spaces, where getting lost had seemed impossible. On the one hand, being lost might imply freedom from pattern and control: on the other, it might suggest eternal entrapment within the labyrinth.

This paradox applies not only to A, who has been subjected to X's consciousness. but also to the audience, who has gotten lost within the labyrinthine structure of the film. Throughout Marienbad, A functions like an audience for X (we first see her in the audience at the play). He is telling a story and trying to make her believe it has actually happened. He accepts the phenomenological assumption that his story will come to life only if she participates by lending her consciousness to its creation. This is precisely what must happen between a film-maker and his viewers:

The only important “character” is the spectator; in his mind unfolds the whole story, which is precisely imagined by him.[9]

Like A, the spectator has the choice of how to interpret the film's mode of reality:

Two attitudes are then possible: either the spectator will try to reconstitute some ''Cartesian" schema—the most linear, the most rational he can devise and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult, if not incomprehensible: or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him, by the actors' voices, by the sound track, by the music, by the rhythm of the cutting, by the passion of the characters … and to this spectator the film will seem the "easiest" he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling. The story told will seem the most realistic, the truest, the one that best corresponds to his daily emotional life, as soon as he agrees to abandon ready-made ideas, psychological analysis, more or less clumsy systems of interpretation which machine-made fiction or films grind out for him ad nauseam, and which are the worst kinds of abstractions.[10]

Marienbad has consistently evoked questions of the first type, in which the spectator examines data as if they will yield logical structures of meaning. As Robbe-Grillet complains, frequently these questions try to establish what has happened in-itself.

The questions most often asked were: Have this man and this woman really met before, Did they love each other last year at Marmienbad, Does the young woman remember and is she only pretending not to recognize the handsome stranger? Or has she really forgotten everything that has happened between them? etc. Matters must be put clearly: such questions have no meaning.[11]

Even if the spectator is unable to determine whether the encounter at Marienbad had existence apart from a perceiving consciousness, “last year" dominates everything.

At first we think that Marienbad did not exist, only to realise that we have been there from the beginning. The event which the girl repudiates has, by the end of the film, contaminated everything. So much so that she has never ceased to struggle against it, to believe that she was winning, since she has always rejected everything, and, in the end, she realizes it is all too late, she has, after all, accepted everything. As if everything were true although probably it isn't. But true or false have been emptied of meaning.[12]

It is equally impossible to answer the related question: through whose consciousness do we perceive the phenomena? Resnais asserts:

We never really know if the scenes are occurring in the man's mind or the woman's. There is a perpetual oscillation between the two. You could even maintain that everything is told from her viewpoint.[13]

The bedroom sequence effectively illustrates the techniques by which Resnais and Robbe-Grillet insist that reality has no autonomous definition. Shots of the bar and bedroom alternate with each other perhaps a dozen times until the various versions of what happened in the bedroom come to dominate the cross-cutting. Within these shots, there are many variations: A is dressed in black, she is dressed in white, she is raped, she is murdered: she welcomes X, she rejects him. Scenes are shot from every possible angle and at different exposures; at least one version contains a loop. Frequently, the images on the screen do not match X's verbal description, reinforcing the suggestion that some of the scenes are seen through A's consciousness (memory or imagination?). In one version as X describes walking along a mirror toward a closed door, we in the audience see that the door is open. Even X's confidence is undermined as the various discrepancies appear and A accuses him of madness. He finally says:

He had come in.... You had been surprised by his visit.... He referred to the concerto!' the night before, I think ... or else it was you who began talking first ... No... No ... I don't remember any more. Don't remember any more myself. I don't remember any more. (p. 130)

Thus, X, A, and the audience are forced to choose among various alternatives, reaffirming what may be an uncomfortable freedom. In the bedroom sequences, as in the entire film, there is also a fusion of many tenses: past, present, future, conditional. One can try to sort out these layers of time, using the changes of costume and setting as clues, or even try to reconstruct the film in chronological order, as Resnais insists is possible:

In the editing, this scene follows such and such a scene, but, in actual chronology it follows another scene, which will appear much later in the film. I frequently recorded a fragment of the preceding scene, so as to work from the continuity rather than from the cue. This chronological chart was drawn up after the scenario was finished. Obviously, all the changes of costume correspond to different “layers" of time. That isn't the "key" to the film, assuming there is one. But one could edit the the film so as to restore the chronological order of the scenes. One might see the film as extending over a week, or with all that is shown in the present tense as taking place from Sunday to Sunday inclusive. This doesn't stop Robbe-Grillet from saying: "Maybe it all happens in five minutes.”[14]

Yet such an attempt to create a linear structure reflects the very attitude that Robbe-Grillet has rejected:

The universe in which the entire film occurs is, characteristically, that of a perpetual present which makes all recourse to memory impossible. This is a world without a past, a world which is self-sufficient at every moment and which obliterates itself as it proceeds. . . . The duration of the modern work is in no way a summary, a condensed version, of a more extended and more “real" duration which would be that of the anecdote, of the mutated story. There is, on the contrary, an absolute identity between the two durations. The entire story of Marienbad happens neither in two years nor in three days, but exactly in one hour and a half.[15]

The experience of the film supports Robbe-Grillet's approach more effectively than Resnais'. Frequently, X describes an event that presumably took place in the past (such as A breaking the heel of her shoe), and the visuals show us either a different action or later reveal the same action with A dressed in clothes from the "present." Thus it is impossible for the spectator to determine whether these scenes take place in the past, present, or imagination. Just as the images and events are created for us by both X and A, the film itself grows out of a collaboration between Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. Some critics have emphasized the differences between their conceptions of the film. Stoltzfus goes so far as to assert:

The meaning of this film is almost diametrically opposed to the meaning of Robbe-Grillet's script. What comes through most forcefully in the film is a sense of A's final liberation. This coincides not only with Resnais' idea that the two had met the year before but with his interpretation of the script and consequently its filming. For Resnais, A is a young woman imprisoned among the bored guests of a luxurious hotel. She is like a fairy princess caught in an enchanted castle. The young man X rescues her and leads her to something unknown in an alive outside world. The final lines of the script, however, negate this liberation and Resnais, to be consistent, should have left them out. These lines are a capsule summary of Robbe-Grillet’s philosophic purpose. Marienbad like his previous novels, is a demonstration, an example of what can happen to those who humanize the world about them.[16]

Yet such an attempt to create a linear structure reflects the very attitude that Robbe-Grillet has rejected:

The universe in which the entire film occurs is, characteristically, that of a perpetual present which makes all recourse to memory impossible. This is a world without a past, a world which is self-sufficient at every moment and which obliterates itself as it proceeds. . . . The duration of the modern work is in no way a summary, a condensed version, of a more extended and more “real" duration which would be that of the anecdote, of the mutated story. There is, on the contrary, an absolute identity between the two durations. The entire story of Marienbad happens neither in two years nor in three days, but exactly in one hour and a half.[15]

In order to reach such a conclusion, Stoltzfus is forced to rigidify their respective attitudes and to define a single purpose or message for each. Yet one difference is essential: Resnais assumes that the past meeting was real while Robbe-Grillet says it probably was not. Nevertheless, their collaboration achieved an amazing degree of harmony that allowed room for their differences:

When Resnais and I had our first discussion, we found we had both conceived a cinematic “form" of the same kind. I knew that all my ideas on the Cinema would somehow suit whatever Resnais would set out to achieve from then on. It so happened that he wanted to make the kind of film I had been thinking of.... That doesn't stop us from having different ideas about all his films or my novels. But we do seem so have a world in common, which we can both inhabit. There was never any question of compromise between Resnais and myself, but of a common “form" which functioned in the same way for us both, although it's not certain that we both give the same importance to the details.... It is quite possible that Marienbad isn't exactly the same film for Resnais as it is for me. We must see the world around as rather different, although it's the same world.[17]

From a phenomenological perspective, these different perceptions, far from weakening the film, actually enrich it. Like A's and X's interpretations of the statues, Resnais' and Robbe-Grillet's perceptions of the film ("a documentary about a statue") are different "but not incompatible." The spectator, as creative perceiver, is also involved in the collaboration with the filmmakers. Our discussion of this creative interplay of consciousness is further complicated since it too is a collaboration, recreating some elements of our individual experiences of the film in the medium of verbal criticism.

Marienbad is frequently accused of being a cold film, which fails to evoke an emotional response in its audience. This raises a variety of questions. Does the film intend to arouse such a response? If not, what does it offer instead? What aesthetic or emotional values does it sacrifice, and what new ones does it develop? The film emphasizes not the possibility of emotional identification, but a sharing of consciousness itself. Marienbad focuses on perception of objects and events as the primary source of information about states of being; it does not imbue them with qualities analogous to the emotions of the perceiver. But frequently, the unimpassioned and sometimes puzzled witnesses to the film find they experience a belated reaction. The film itself offers an example of this delayed emotionality. In the opening sequence, we see a frozen, impassive audience watching the play. As it ends (when the shared process of creating the play is over), the audience suddenly rises and applauds, the only time in the film when anyone other than A and X displays any emotion whatsoever. The clapping is highly conventional behavior, but the audience uses it to express enthusiasm and approval, and at that moment, they seem to come alive. If this delayed reaction exists (as Robbe-Grillet has asserted and audiences have agreed), and it depends on creative perception, rather than identification, there still must be sources of emotion in the film to give rise to these effects. Robbe-Grillet sees emotionality as the center of the film, however difficult of access:

The theme is of a passionate love affair and it is precisely these relationships which comprise the highest proportion of inconsistencies, doubts, and phantasms. Marienbad is as opaque as the moments we live through in the climaxes of our feeling, in our loves, in our whole emotional life. So to reproach the film for its lack of clarity is really to reproach human feelings for their obscurity.[18]

As the film develops, we understand that like the protagonists of Robbe-Grillet's novels, X is obsessed with last year's encounter and with his need to convince A that it actually took place. He is willing to do violence to her memory and perception to serve his obsession. Robbe-Grillet describes his protagonist as:

The least neutral, the least impartial of men: always engaged, on the contrary, in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delerium.[19]

X's emotionality is most apparent when he is trying to construct the bedroom sequence, desperately clinging to the details of his vision, and urgently requiring A's agreement:

A: I'm sure you're making it up ...I've never had a white robe. You can see it must be someone else. ... (with a kind of terror): No! Be still. Please. You're completely mad. (A short silence) X: (Gently) No, no, please ... I hear your voice the way it sounded then. You were afraid. You were already afraid. . . . You've always been afraid. But I loved your fear that evening. (Without losing its softness, his tone gradually becomes more excited.) I watched you, letting you struggle a little ... I loved you. There was something in your eyes, you were alive.., finally ... I took you. half by force. (p. 115)

This intensity is heightened by the visuals in the bedroom sequence. The camera suddenly pulls back very rapidly and the image of A and X in the bedroom becomes a small rectangle surrounded by blackness, as if reduced to a still photograph. Then there is a sudden cut to a long, deserted corridor in a strange over exeaposed white lighting; the camera races down the hallway as we hear loud, emotional organ music and X's voice desperately pleading: "No, no, no! (violently): That's wrong.... (calmer): It wasn't by force ..." (p. 147). The camera cuts to an over-exposed shot of A, in her white peignoir, smiling and opening her arms to welcome X who is not visible; this shot is repeated over and over, each time accelerating in pace and drawing closer to her face. Throughout the film the repetition of images in both the visuals and the dialogue (e.g., the garden, the broken shoe, the crunching gravel) convey the obsessive quality of his agitated state.

If the mind is forced to return over and over again like this to the same mental image, then it must eventually become apparent that this image is of a different epistemological order from the explanations provided for it. Robbe-Grillet's heroes keep on having to return to facts, which will come to transmit a more and more potent emotional charge as the (work/ proceeds. Thus the successive appearances of a particular object or image constitute a barometer, a consultation of which allows the reader to measure off the intensity of the imaginative efforts which the narrator is making to finalize his fiction to his own satisfaction.[20]

A's emotional condition is expressed in her impassive voice and gestures: she reveals her agitation through her behavior, such as breaking the glass in the bar. Certain objects become "contaminated" analogues for the breaking down of her emotional control and resistance to X's pressure—the shattered glass, the broken shoe, and the disintegrating columns. The strongest displays of emotion take place when she is trying to resist X's story and finds herself involved. In one scene, as he says, "I loved you, I loved you," she walks backwards toward him, as if his words have a magical power to draw them together. The emotional force is so intense that she staggers and almost falls, but suddenly walks away and then runs forward, the camera racing ahead as if eager to restore her serenity by reaching the peaceful view of the orderly garden.

In this film there is no intense emotional identification as in Red Desert, which creates in us a sympathetic attitude toward Giuliano and her perceptual distortions. As a component of the work of art, she becomes a kind of contaminated object for the viewer, who imbues her with his own pain in the same way that the attitude of tragic humanism anthropomorphizes objects. In contrast, Marienbad's focus on perception rather than emotion enables us to share the consciousness of the protagonists while maintaining a distance that allows us to be aware of their distortions. Thus, while relinquishing certain customary sources of aesthetic power, it offers a different kind of possibility for audience interest and, indeed, for self development. At the heart of the difference between these aesthetic approaches lies the concept of tragedy, which is the mode Antonioni adopts in Red Desert, and which is consciously rejected by Robbe-Grillet, who defines it as:

An attempt to "recover" the distance which exists between man and things as a new value: it would be then a test, an ordeal in which victory would consist in being vanquished. Tragedy therefore appears as the last invention of humanism to permit nothing to escape: since the correspondence between man and things has finally been denounced, the humanist saves his empire by immediately instituting a new form of solidarity, the divorce itself becoming a major path to redemption.[21]

Like Skinner, Robbe-Grillet sees tragedy as a dangerous reactionary tendency that prevents man from progressing toward a better life.

Wherever there is distance, separation, doubling, cleavage, there is the possibility of experiencing them as suffering, then of raising this suffering to the height of a sublime necessity. A path toward a metaphysical Beyond, this pseudo-necessity is at the same time the closed door to a realistic future. Tragedy, if it consoles us today. forbids any solider conquest tomorrow. Under the appearance of a perpetual motion, it actually petrifies the universe in a sonorous malediction. There can no longer be any question of seeking some remedy for our misfortune, once tragedy convinces us to love it.[22]

Robbe-Grillet locates the potential for development, not in science of behavior or political reform, but in the free play of individual consciousness (especially the formal experimentation of the artist). But one question persists—are we really able to escape tragedy?

Today its rule extends to all my feelings and all my thoughts, it conditions me utterly. My body can be satisfied, any heart content, my conciousness remains unhappy. I assert this unhappiness is situated in space and time, like every unhappiness, like everything in this world. I assert that man, some day, will free himself from it But of this 'muse I possess no proof.... This struggle, I shall be told, is precisely the tragic illusion par excellence: if I seek to combat the idea of tragedy. I have already succumbed to it: and it is so natural to take objects as a refuge... perhaps. But perhaps not.[23]

While it is clear that Marienbad does not exhibit the tragic world view of Red Desert (which laments the passing of old values), we also realize that X and A do not escape the contamination of a "neo-tragic complicity." With X trapped in his need to affirm the existence and significance of "reality," Marienbad manifests the phenomenological struggle toward freedom of consciousness.

Does reality have a meaning? The contemporary artist cannot answer this question: he knows nothing about it. All he can say is that this reality will perhaps have a meaning after he has existed, that is, once the work is brought to its conclusion. Why regard this as a pessimism? In any case, it is the contrary of a reunuciation. We no longer believe in the fixed signification, the ready-made meanings which afforded man the old divine order And subsequently the rationalist order of the nineteenth century, but we project onto man all our hopes: it is the forms man creates which can attach signification to the world.[24]

Beverle Houston & Marsha Kinder


1   Robbe-Grillet, Last Year as Marienbad, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p.18. Subsequent references so this screenplay will appear in the text.

2   Alain Resnais, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 157.

3   Alain Robbe-Grillet, Film Makers on Film Making, pp 172-173.

4   Time and Description," p. 154. ,

5   Resnais, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 155.

6   Resnais, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 156.

7   "Introduction," Marienbad, p. 10.

8   "Introduction," Marienbad, p. II.

9   "Time and Description," p. 153.

10   "Introduction," Marienbad, p. 14.

11   "Time and Description," p. 152.

12   Robbe-Griller, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 173. 27. Resnais, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 159.

13   Resnais, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 162.

14   "Time and Description," pp. 152-153.

15   Ben F. Stoltzfus, Alain Robbe-Grillet: And the New French Novel (Carbondale: So. Illinois University Press, 1964), p. 107.

16   Robbe-Grillet, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 169.

17   Robbe-Grillet, Film Makers on Film Making, p. 167.

18   "New Novel, New Man," p. 138.

19   John Sturrock, The French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 217.

20   "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy," p. 59.

21   "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy," p. 61.

22   "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy," p. 75.

23   "New Novel, New Man," p. 141.

24   Robbe-Grillet, "Samuel Beckett, or Presence on the Stage," in For a New Novel, p. 121.