Alain Resnais’ classic Last Year at Marienbad, which had been at the bottom of my Netflix queue for years, finally became available in June. It is a film that has both fascinated and infuriated viewers and critics since it first played in the art houses back in the '60s. And improbable as it seems, it is more than likely that those very aspects of the film that infuriate some movie goers are the ones that fascinate the others. Count me as one of the fascinated.
Here is an idea of the problem. I had seen the film at least twice when it was shown in theaters in Manhattan in the '60s, and at least once at a film festival in Boston. Sometime around the late '70s, I was team teaching a class in film studies for a communications program at what is now California University of Pennsylvania. Along with the likes of The Bicycle Thief, The Magician, and Blow Up, we decided to show Last Year at Marienbad. This was in the days of the three-reeler and the 16 millimeter projector. Since we only had one projector, after we watched the first reel, the lights had to be put on while the projectionist changed reels. The lights went out again, and we settled in to watch the second reel. Perhaps ten minutes later, the door to the room opened, the lights went on, and a red-faced projectionist announced from the back of the auditorium that he had loaded the third reel by mistake. The reels were changed, and we went back to the film. Now here’s the point of this story: by this time I had already seen this film at least three times. It was a film I liked and thought I remembered very well. Yet here I sat watching it again, and I hadn’t the least clue that the reels were being played out of sequence.
Last Year at Marienbad is, to say the least, an enigmatic film. It is not a chronological narrative. Reviewers who attempt to summarize anything that might be called plot must either over-simplify and ignore those things that seem to make little sense or give up in disgust. Take a look at some of the admirable attempts made on Blogcritics by writers Pat Padua and Mark Kalriess.
The problem is that viewers understandably want to find some kind of meaning in what they are watching. They expect a film to make some kind of sense in the context of the world, to mirror in some recognizable way the world they see around them. They expect it to reflect some kind of reality, naturalistic, psychological, or symbolic. While such expectations are normal — after all that is what most cinema does — they are the wrong expectations for this film. This is a film that deliberately eschews the aesthetics of art as mimesis.
The film’s screenwriter was the French novelist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who is most famous , if not infamous, for his experimentation with the genre and is usually associated with what is called the ‘New Novel.’ Even a cursory examination of his work, especially his later work, reveals that much of it offers the same kind of frustrations for the reader with traditional expectations as the film does for movie audiences with traditional ideas. There is never any constant against which to measure the events of the story. What appears to be happening turns out to be a description of a painting. Characters morph from photos into action. Sequences of events are repeated with slight changes sometimes, significant changes at other times. Time is fractured. For Robbe-Grillet, realistic representation of the world is the one thing to be avoided at all costs. The key statement of his aesthetic is a little book of essays called For a New Novel. What he has to say about the novel in this book would seem to explain as well what he and Resnais were trying to do in their collaboration on Last Year at Marienbad.
The central point of an essay called “A Future for the Novel” is the insistence that it is a mistake to look for meaning in the new novel. The novelist creates things that are, not things that mean. Here for example is Robbe-Grillet:
Instead of this universe of ‘signification’ (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanatory theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, Freudian, or metaphysical.
What is true for the future of the novel envisioned by Robbe-Grillet is no less true for the screenplay he wrote for his collaboration with Resnais. They have created a ‘presence.’
In an introduction he wrote for the Grove Press edition of the screenplay, he suggests that the only people who will have trouble understanding the film will be those who try to find some kind of rational explanation for what they are seeing. “This spectator,” he writes, "will certainly find the film difficult, if not incomprehensible…" The spectator, on the other hand, who “lets himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him, by the actor’s voices, by the sound track, by the music, by the rhythm of the cutting, by the passion of the characters… to this spectator the film will seem the ‘easiest’ he has ever seen….” It is a film, in this sense, that is not meant to be experienced rationally. It is a film that is meant to be experienced, period. It does not mean something. It is something. To paraphrase the poet: a movie should not mean; a movie must be.
Perhaps, one needs to speak of Last Year at Marienbad in the same way one speaks about a string quartet. Don’t ask what it means. Experience what it is.