In writing about watching Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” again after the elapse of decades, I mentioned that it and “L’année dernière à Marienbad“ (Last Year at Marienbad ), directed by Alain Resnais (who died yesterday at the age of 91), were the favorite films for cineastes of the 1960s and 70s to debate/interpret. (I should have added films Michelangelo Antonioni directed at the beginning and end of the 1960s: ” L’aventurra ” and “Blow Up.”)
I remember being very proud of developing an explanation of “Marienbad” in a 1972 paper I wish I could find, or at least wish I could remember what was my point. Watching it again on the superb print offered in a Criterion Collection edition, I find “Marienbad” fairly irritating, but less opaque than, for instance, subsequent films made by Andrei Tarkovsky, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming-Lang, and David Lynch. (Its influence on Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining and the poor man’s memory refraction film, Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” are obvious.)
I don’t think it is a recasting with a happy ending of Orpheus’s failed retrieval of Eurydice from the Underworld, and can’t really evaluate the extent to which the film derives from Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel, La invención de Morel (The Invention of Morel, recently republished in the New York Review Books series), not having read that book. I own, but have not recently reread, the screenplay. Nouveau roman (the now long-ago “new novel” purged of plot and motivation if not entirely purged of characterization) champion Alain-Robbe Grillet (1922-2008) wrote a very detailed script, including the very repetitious spoken (intoned) evocation of a gloomy baroque palace/hotel (cobbled together from palaces around Munich: Amalienburg, Nymphenburg, and Schleissheim-but not Marienbad, which was inaccessibly behind the Iron Curtain in communist Czechoslovakia in 1960). Though there are also very repetitious shots of interiors, exteriors, and the enigmatic Delphine Seyrig (who also starred in Resnais’s “Muriel” and Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses”), the camerawork of Sacha Vierney (who had also shot “Hiroshima, mon amour” and would later shoot “Belle de jour” and, later still, “The Pillow Book”) and Philippe Brun is very, very fluid. For me, his cinematography, the costumes (by Chanel), and the art direction (Jacques Saulnier’s) are the stars of the film.
The film may contain metaphors of filmmaker process of shooting, (reshooting,) and editing, making X (Italian stage actor Giorgio Albertazzi), who is either trying to remind A (Delphine Seyig) of their previous relationship (last year at Marienbad) or impose his fantasy on her. In the 2008 audio interview included on the disc of bonus features, Resnais says that the one aspect which he refused to accept from Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay was any possible rape by X of A. Resnais also says the screenplay was so detailed that anyone could have shot it and made the same movie (something which is belied by the final story he tells about the Italian print).
When we only had the black-and-white films directed by Resnais (Muriel, La guerre est finie, plus “Providence” which was shot in color, but is black-and-white in my memory) to go on, it seemed that a disjunctive style of trying to remember (or refashion!) the past was his great theme. That surmise and his status as an auteur have been undercut by his more recent musicals shot in color (Same Old Song, Not on the Lips, and the non-musical play adaptations “Life Is a Bed of Roses” and “Private Fear in Public Places.”
In his verbal recollection of the making of “Marienbad” (initially titled more simply “L’année dernière”) he did whip everyone into shape or even have to cajole unity. At least Resnais is very generous in sharing the credit for the collaborative venture, expressing special gratitude for producer Raymond Froment. I thought that Resnais was probably aimed at Robbe-Grillet by nouveau roman writer Marguerite Duras (who wrote “Hiroshima, mon amour”), but Resnais says it was Froment who suggested the two meet. Resnais says he had not read anything by Robbe-Grillet, but that they clicked when they met. Resnais went off and read Robbe-Grillet’s published (anti-) novels, Robbe-Grillet offered to write four one-page treatments for possible movies, and Resnais chose “L’année dernière.”
Resnais also says he asked Oliver Messiaen to write the musical score. Messiaen said he could not compose to the rigid time constraints of movie scenes. The mostly organ soundtrack of the film was written by Francis Seyrig (Delphine’s brother), who had been a student of Messiaen, but does not seem to have been suggested as a substitute by Messiaen himself. Resnais says that multiple composers wrote samples and Seyrig’s was most congenial to him (and that Robbe-Grillet wanted more astringent music, like that of Anton Webern or that of the Pierre Boulez of the 1950s).
And Resnais relates that Robbe-Grillet refused to indicate anything about the emotions or characters of the cyphers (A, M, X), though the actors imagined psychological substance for their roles and did not deliver flat recitation (though the opening invocation by X seems pretty flat to me). Beyond that, it seems that Resnais treated A (Seyrig) more sympathetically than Robbe-Grillet had (not just in saving her from being raped). She resists X’s account of their earlier tryst and his claims that she promised to leave M (the extraordinarily long-faced, high-cheekboned Sacha Pitoeff) with him if he waited until the next year (the now of the film). As Mark Polizzotti wrote in the Criterion booklet, “Robbe-Grillet was taken aback by certain of Resnais’ interpretations, as if once established on the set, the director regained control of the project despite the author’s best efforts to constrain him…. By numerous subtle and not-so-subtle details, the visuals seem to favor the heroine’s point of view, almost defending her against Robbe-Grillet’s identification with X, giving her an autonomy and independence of mind out of register with the author’s objectifying gaze. Robbe-Grillet called Marienbad “the story of a persuasion,’ in which the hero offers the woman “a past, a future, and freedom.” In Resnais’ realization of it, things are not nearly so simple.” (In the 2008 interview, Resnais reiterates that the film is about persuasion, and suggests the most direct inspiration being Hitchock’s “Vertigo,” which he says he and Robbe-Grillet, and the three leads all much admired. He also reports that he screened Pabst’s “Lulu” (Pandora’s Box) for everyone involved. With short hair and speaking very little, Delphine Seyrig brought Louise Brooks to my mind before I head that. Resnais also admires the admiration for André Breton (I’d guess, especially, Nadja) both he and Robbe-Grillet felt.) It does not really matter whether A remembers a previous relationship with X or whether one ever occurred: X is trying to persuade him to leave with him whether he is inventing or recalling an earlier relationship and promise from her
At the risk of ceding writing my review to him, I also want to quote more from Polizzotti:
“though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love…. Seyrig, whether disputing X’s account of their past rendezvous or acquiescing to it, rarely seems to lose her composure, hardly rippling the stuffy atmosphere even when crying out or dropping a glass.”
I definitely do not love (or even like) the film, but between the print and the bonus features have to give the Criterion Collection edition five stars. In addition to the already much-mentioned Polizzotti’s essay (and other stuff in the booklet, including Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the published screenplay) and the 32 minutes of Resnais’s recollections and a five-plus minute original trailer (on the disc with the film), there are also a substantial making-of featurette, a discussion by Ginette Vincendeau of the history of the making and reception of the film (Resnais tells of the clamorous first screening at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion and the demand to dub Albertazzi into unaccented French for the film to be shown at Cannes, which he and Froment refused to do), plus two earlier documentaries Resnais shot: Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) going through the French National Library (the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris) and Le chant du styrène (1958) an ode with a text by Raymond Quneaeu to the manufacture of a plastic bowl (the opening montage of that is quite beautiful, btw).