Thursday, August 12, 2010

Marienbad Explained

"It was absurd to suppose that in the novel Jealousy [1957] [...] there existed a clear and unambiguous order of events, one which was not that of the sentences of the book, as if I had diverted myself by mixing up a pre-established calendar the way one shuffles a deck of cards. [...] There existed for me no possible order outside of that of the book."
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Time and Description in Fiction Today," For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (1963): p. 154.

In most (if not all) narrative experiments made in Hollywood, particularly those that play with time, there is the habitual assumption that there exists an objective chronology of events which is different from the order in which the film's sequences unfold. Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), François Ozon's 5x2 (2004), and one episode of Seinfeld all tell linear stories in reverse chronological order, while Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989) and Doug Liman's Go (1999) tell multiple stories which are meant to occur simultaneously, following one set of characters and then moving back in time to follow another over the same period (in both films, a single night). Similarly, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) both show the same event (namely, a robbery) from multiple points of view, creating a layering of perspectives, and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) begins with a botched bank robbery, and then moves back and fourth between the events leading up to it and those which proceeded it. Such films are sometimes referred to as "puzzle movies," the implication being that viewers are given the pieces of the story all in a jumble and are invited to sort them out, reconstructing the chronology of what happened.

Alain Resnais' second feature, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), written by Robbe-Grillet, is something rather different and more radical. The story is about a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), who meets a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), at a ritzy European hotel. He believes they met there the year before and had an affair. She has no recollection of this, and he begins to tell her the story of their affair: how he asked her to come away with him, and she asked him to wait a year. The scenes representing his story are clearly demarcated from the present-tense story in various ways as "flashbacks," although as we shall see, the word is rather imprecise in this context. For instance, a shot of A walking in the hotel garden with one shoe is retroactively identified as a flashback later on, when X describes it to A as part of his story.

Sounds simple, right? What makes the film so unusually challenging is that the present-tense scenes don't follow each other in the way that we're accustomed to from conventional narrative films. Resnais will cut from X and A standing in a salon, the former extending his hand to her (see above), to a shot of the two of them in a in a different part of the hotel, in different clothes, X's hand still extended to her (see below). Yet this is neither a flashback nor a flash forward, words which imply a sequence of events. Here, there is only now. Now they are standing in one place, and now they are somewhere else. Or as Robbe-Grillet himself puts it, "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 narrated story. [...] The entire story of Marienbad happens in neither two years nor in three days but exactly in one hour and a half" (p. 152-53). The scenes representing X's story aren't objective flashbacks, or his memories, or the images they conjure up in A's imagination, but exist only in the mind of the spectator: "In his mind unfolds the whole story, which is precisely imagined by him" (p. 153).

Early in the film, there is a scene where A becomes frightened, and as she backs away from X, bumps into another woman, causing the latter to drop her glass, which shatters on the floor. Later, the film seems to return to this scene to show us what happened next, yet if these two sequences seem to represent two parts of the same continuous action, there is no overall timeline in which the viewer can place them. In a conventional film, like Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), X would meet A to tell her part of his story, and then make another appointment to see her again the next day. Here, they simply run into each other somewhere in the hotel, and the interval of time between each encounter is ambiguous. It could be several hours, days, years. Time has no meaning here; if we take Robbe-Grillet at his word, the interval between each encounter is is duration of the intervening sequences. These are often static tableaus of hotel guests, filmed with an elegantly tracking camera, or idle conversation; scenes of men standing in a shooting gallery, or X playing a game with A's companion, M (Sacha Pitoëff), using matches. M always wins, but from a purely narrative standpoint, the game is of no real consequence. Like Jealousy, the film is essentially the description of a static situation.

Consider the sequence which occurs forty minutes into the film: It begins with a group of people standing in a corridor, making idle conversation about something which may or may not have happened at the hotel the previous summer. They decide to go to the library to verify whether the story is true, and walking away, they reveal that X was standing there the whole time, hidden by another member of the group. He looks as though he's about to follow them when he notices something off-screen right.

A closer view of X reveals A approaching in a mirror. She stops when she sees him; it is evidently a coincidence that they should run into each other here, rather than an arranged rendezvous. (In many meta-narratives, such as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon [1950], the listener is intended as a stand-in for the viewer who wants to see how the story ends, but here it seems that A would rather avoid him.) He explains to her what the group was just discussing, that the previous summer at the hotel it was so cold the lake froze, remarking, "That's surely wrong."

Following a close-up of A, there is a shot of the two of them standing on a balcony overlooking the garden, which is evidently a continuation of a flashback begun earlier in the film. Then there is a cut to a close-up of A in her room, which is virtually identical to the close-up we just saw of her standing in the hallway.

Over the latter shot, X says in voice-over, "One night, I came into your room," identifying this shot as also being a flashback, perhaps following the previous shot chronologically, although A's line on the balcony, "What do you want from me? You know it's impossible," hardly sounds like an invitation. The film cuts to a more distant, full body shot of A standing in her room. Looking offscreen left (presumably at X, as if to maintain the axis established at the beginning of the sequence in the corridor), she says, "Leave me alone, please." Finally, the film cuts back to X and A standing in the hallway, where she repeats the line. He says to her, "You're right, ice would've been quite impossible," as if responding not to what A says, but to what he himself said earlier. The same mirror is visible behind him, and the axis is maintained with X on the left and A on the right. However, while in previous shot in her room, A is wearing the same black dress as at the beginning of the sequence, now she's wearing a white coat, and X is likewise wearing a suit and tie instead of a tuxedo.

Of Jealousy (the third, and in many ways the most audacious of the four novels he published prior to L'Année dernière à Marienbad), Robbe-Grillet writes that the narrative was, "made in such a way that any attempt to reconstruct an external chronology would lead, sooner or later, to a series of contradictions, hence an impasse" (p. 154). In the case of Marienbad, the flashbacks at one point refuse to obey the narration (X insists the door was closed, but we see an open door), and are elsewhere contradicted the present-tense story. In flashback, we see M shoot A with a gun, but here she is alive and well in the present. In the final sequence, we see A and X leaving the hotel together instead of her asking him to wait a year--or is this part of the frame story in the present? If there is no past or future, only now, then last year is this year (and the next, and all others), and the flashbacks are not flashbacks but are happening right now, as if by saying, "One night, I came into your room," X were calling the event into existence. Does that clear things up?

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