‘Last Year at Marienbad’ as mystical film practice

Last year at Marienbad

‘Last Year at Marienbad’ has acquired the reputation of being the quintessential cerebral Art House film that is a far more somber version of the experimentation generally termed the Nouvelle Vague represented by the fragmented Balzacian narrative as represented in the films of Francois Truffaut or the playful genre beating of Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (1959). The film has become a standard for formalism in cinema that is only matched by the even more obscure films of  writers of the Nouveau Romanne movement, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras (who collaborated with Resnais on his first masterwork Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)).

In this essay I will try to emphasize the importance of mystical forms mainly of text, like poetry and the haiku, that Alain Robbe-Grillet has carefully adapted into his conception of the Nouveau Roman allocating equally the breakthroughs in modern literature in the early twentieth century mainly addressed in the writings of Joyce and Beckett; while at the same time equally allocating masterworks in Hollywood film practice as represented by the works of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

In my reading of the film, the unveiling of the mise-en-scene through the baroque corridors and elaborate tracking shots, is a sophisticated reworking of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane particularly in its dealing of the developing temporality of the film across its three dimensions, the past present and the future. In the case of Citizen Kane, the quality of the utterance at the beginning of the film, namely ‘Rosebud’ forms a pure memory-image and therefore in the past (memory), which is then supplemented with investigations in the present leading into the future. In the final sequence, where Kane passes through the alley with reflecting mirrors, the memory image is formed as the present moves into the future. The utterance in this way both triggers and limits the relevance of the visual plane.

Resnais along with Orson Welles and Robert Bresson can be called a truly Deleuzean filmmaker in his privileging of the temporal notions of film practice that obviously violate the sanctity of the denotational and metaphorical visual plane. He is also Deleuzean in the sense that he emphasizes schizoanalysis, or the degree to which the Marxist symptoms of reified capital are split (Capitalisme et Schizophrenie, Deleuze and Guattari, 1972-79) instead of finding a causal Freudian reason to schizophrenia. The split is between time and space, action and space, intention and free will, mind and body, movement and stasis and in the case of Marienbad, between his affected characters the woman A and the man X and their constantly varying relationship with the past, present and the future.

According to this reading the present is split into three dimensions the present of the present, the past-present and the present-future. The present-present is generally made absent so that a constantly repetitious elliptical relationship between the past-present and the present-future create an additional layer of resonance to the already rhythmic tracking shots. The characters are usually still as the camera tracks. According to Mani Kaul in his essay Cinematography: Beyond Surface and Time, “when nothing moves time does.” The tracking shots and the still actors add a layer beyond the denotational aspect of space, which is split between signifier and signified, either in the past-present or present-future but never in the present-present.

Like in most Robbe-Grillet novels, the opening sequences are tracking shots that vividly and geometrically describe the location space. According to the Indian filmmaker Kumar Shahani, the best way to emphasize a Bergsonian elan-vital between matter and memory, time and free will or space and time is through ornamentation. In the case of Marienbad, the baroque architecture serves as ornamentation and creates a signifier, almost the Islamic naming of tension (‘ya Allah’) that serves as the “outside of the inside” (Deleuze in Grosz) of memory i.e. that of the characters.

The schizophrenia of the unfolding of the shot lies between the space of text made present through utterances and their possibility of being completed through utterables (i.e. between meaning and the Deleuzean ‘logic of sensation’) and the location-space of the hotel. According to Resnais, in Cahrier Du Cinema titled Trying to Understand My Own Film published in Films and Filming in February 1962, “ perhaps the hotel is a clinic.” In this way the location-space and its obvious links to the Foucaltian relationship between the jail and the clinic, create a basis for the Nietschzean pathological movement of the present into the future. The pathology is brought out through the obsession with details of the past uttered through a question and the possibility of it being answered in the affirmative.

Resnais in the same interview talks about the “degrees of reality” he was trying to capture instead of a representation of reality, which creates the problematic notion of realism in cinema. Italian neo-realism as best represented by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (1950) creates a single notion of reality, which is brought out by the execution of a concept with non-actors and on-location shooting. However following Bazin’s praise of realism, a school of thought led by Robbe-Grillet in France advocated an emphasis on ‘the real’ as opposed to ‘realism’ privileging the approach of a Kafka who created dissimilar and fragmented notions of the location space through an assemblage which emphasized the differences in a finite setting and the lack of connection between these assemblages. Each setting starts from a fresh beginning and creates a unique sense of time ignorant of the temporality of the previous section.This approach to the work of Kafka is once again mediated by the cinema of Welles. In the words of Gilles Deleuze:

Welles’ succession in relation to Kafka is that he was able to show how spatially distant and chronologically separate regions were in tough with each other, at the bottom of a limitless time which made them contiguous.

The reason a discourse on the work of Bresson is indeed necessary while talking of Resnais or Robbe-Grillet or even Godard, is because it predates their attempts at linking the relationship between intention and ‘free will’ to the notion of action in cinema. In Bresson the intentionality is deliberately nullified through the use of retake, the baritone of the actors, the variable pacing of the word to fight in with the mélange of selective sensorial sounds. At the same time the editing is extremely forced. In short the construction begins through deliberations (doubling of intention) and ends with absence of intention (through the ellipse or the accident).  According to Samuel Beckett in his reading of the work of Marcel Proust, this accident creates a second climax and occurs at the meeting point of voluntary and involuntary memory.

As compared to Bresson, the makers suggest that the film is both completely constructed in its mise-en-scene and  at the same time completely needing construction in its reading. This opens up a space for Resnais so that he can be “less interested in the characters than in the play of feelings.” In this way Robbe-Grillet’s “Erotic Dream Machine” is subject for dealing with a suggestive basis of cinema, that overthrows the denotational (character) with the rasa or mood of a whole outside of it.

The film does work at the level of a suspense thriller and this is where Resnais and Robbe-Grillet quote Hitchcock. The use of the MacGuffin, the material clue that dissolves into nothingness found its peak in Hitchcock’s masterwork North by Northwest (1959) where the “pure MacGuffin”, George Kaplan, a random name created the basis for a seemingly causal action-thriller. The clues at every point in Marienbad dissolve only to study the nature of the passing present with the intent of trying to stretch it to produce a desire-affect followed by pleasure.

Recent commentators have pointed out the possibility of the sadomasochistic undercurrent of the text. This could be read as the inevitability of Bergsonian ‘indeterminate action’ found at the limit of the Deleuzean perception-image that forces the character to perform actions (like in the card game) on the space. The nature of this action could either be on the other (the possibility of Oedipal murder like in Robbe-Grillet’s Oedipal text, The Erasers (1958) leading to the Hitchcockian MacGuffin) or acting on the self (self negation, suicide or grace). In this way Marienbad shows the faulty workings of a sophisticated brain.

According to the 8th century aesthete Anandavardhan, the ‘purification of language’ through grammar could only be completed through the practice of using it beyond the denotational and metaphorical dimensions. His masterwork Dhwanyaloka or ‘The Light on Suggestion.” According to Mani Kaul’s reading of Dhwanyaloka the text emphasizes,  “how narrative expands through perceptible sequence that lies between literal meaning and its transformation into suggestion.” The non-denotational aspects of speech are precisely sound so that “the sounds of speech which reach the ear are the sound produced.”

Instead of simply emphasizing the “mechanism of dreams” as in Resnais’ reading of his own film, one can emphasize a quality difference in the “degree of reality” through the use of a number of states present in the Hindu religious texts, the Upanishads such as the waking state, deep sleep state, awake state and dreaming state in all of their permutations and combinations. The “play of feelings” that Resnais is interested in is precisely the arousal of a feminine energy that Indian music talks about through its emphasis on delay and pre-emption. It is precisely this delay and pre-emption, best seen in nature in the successive croaking of frogs,  that creates the elliptical tension through stasis in Ozu and Bresson, and through the use of the trolley in Resnais’ decoupage.

The discourse on intention, action and perception is practiced in Marienbad through the indiscernible split between the utterance and the utterable and its relationship or the lack of it with the unveiling of images in the screening. The mechanism occasionally joins to create false images that precisely contradict the nature of the past or future or contradict the indiscernible utterance-utterable split that over-rides it. In this way the text, image and degree of movement/time that creates a fractal of reality can either be roughly split into a Robbe-Grillet reading of order or disorder. The order-disorder composite arouses “a play of feelings” until it is polarized into pure order as in stasis or pure disorder as in the case of false information provided on screen. The order-disorder composite finds its end in purely motor memory as in the card game or the repetition of editing.

In this way the order disorder forms a rhizomatic spreading across the physiology of the film. However it creates definite realizations through the succession of events in the film,  that bring about the notion of hierarchy. This Deleuzean schizoanalysis between rhizome and tree (hierarchy); also present in the best works of Duras; that is resolved through a probabilistic realization like the game, the possibility of memory, the explicit decoupage and the presence of a profound utterable like ‘perhaps.’

Similar approaches to temporality and spatiality can be found in poetry from Japan ,China and India. I will be exploring 5 cases of poetry from these countries:

  • Basho’s haiku that destroys the representational (‘realist’) framework through mediated action or movement-image and transforms it into time. Example:

Old pond,

Frog jumps,

Sound of splash.

  • A Hindu religious couplet creating a pure time-object of the celestial couple Radha and Krishna. Example:

Without beginning or end,

Radha and Krishna

Have not yet struck and acquaintance.

  • A third example for a primary function of Otherness between subject and object by Chuang-Tzu:

Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.

  • In Dhwanyaloka the emphasis on the material of suggestion produces the suggestion of counter argument followed by Zeno-like paradox:

The fierce lion is the forest has killed the worrying dog. You may go straight. The road is fraught with danger because although the worrying dog is killed, the more dangerous lion is alive.

According to Deleuze’s reading of Bergson in his text Le Bergsonisme (1987), Bergson is trying to constitute that portion that occurs before thought: an origin of thought The origin of thought is schizophrenic between its realization as text and location. In this way the utterance leads to a split between textual spaces and their outside as the architectural whole that houses thought. Robbe-Grillet would develop these thoughts until in his landmark novel Topology of a Phantom City (1971) he would overcome the tension between text and image through settling for a description of the location in becoming i.e. the ‘phantom city’ through both movement of becoming and trajectory (topology).

The case of Bresson becomes important also because of the political leanings of the film. In Bresson, the image is deliberately nullified by the body fragment along with the materiality of the carefully selected soundtrack is functions antagonistically with the (non) actor’s face. Ritwik Ghatak, the Indian film master pronounced Marienbad a secret code for neo-Fascism. Perhaps he may have thought so because of the film’s heavy reliance on the face. The face and its often centralized positioning as opposed to the liquefied decentered framings of bodies in the corridor create a resonance of meaning in an otherwise rarefied even opaque text.In addition to this Resnais showed a terrible enthusiasm for Weine’s Das Kabinett Der Doctor Caligari (1920) which deliberately misconstrued Carl Mayer’s revolutionary story for a ultra-right wing ending where the masses  as represented by Cesare are correctly being possessed by the nationalist leader represented by Caligari.

In his paper Order and Disorder in Film and Narrative, Robbe-Grillet invokes Wilhelm Reich in his approach to difference in ideology and it’s being the defined categorization that separates the audience from one another, as opposed to the Eisensteinian notion of class being the defining factor. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet instead attempt to create a Deleuzean desire machine where the succession of memory-images produces ideas that are either left or right wing. These ideologies could be either Oedipal, i.e. with a cause in the past, or without a cause or opposing the idea of cause with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the Anti-Oedipus. The film evokes Kafka in its dissolution of the “Grand Narrative” in the classical Greek tradition, where instead “ a liberated consciousness absolves itself of this responsibility (i.e. the provisional status of all given configurations in the ‘inventory’ of nature) by destroying natural reality and scrambling the fragments.

If the hotel is a mental laboratory, its chief objective is to perform experiments that unveil the nature of the sensory experiments by accident instead of by planning. According to Beckett, Memory itself in Proust functions as “a clinical laboratory stocked with poison and remedy, stimulant and sedative.” Each room in the laboratory is disjointed from the next like a Cubist painting and evokes Deleuze’s reading of the link between Welles and Kafka in their ability to draw upon disfigured spaces each of which is different from the other.  In this way a motion in thought is constantly contrasted with its becoming in the map diagram of the hotel its interiors and exteriors, the inside and the Deleuzean “inside of an outside.”

The film evokes the writing of Sigfried Krauceur both in its stylized use of Expressionistic forms ranging from Caligari to the films of   F.W. Murnau as well as its treatment of actors which instead of being worked upon like Bressonian models evoking Cezanne, are used as Kraucerian “mass ornaments.” According to Krauceur:

The Ratio that gives rise to the ornament is strong enough to invoke the mass and to expunge all life from the figures constituting it. But Ratio that gives rise to the ornament is strong enough to invoke the mass and to expunge all life from the figures constituting it…..Because the Ratio flees from reason and takes refuge in the abstract, uncontrolled nature proliferates under the guise of rational expression and uses abstract signs to display itself….It is the rational and empty form of the cult, devoid of any explicit meaning, that appears in the mass ornament.

A Kraucerean reading of Marienbad must take into account the exterior geometric shots and their link to a “mythology of order” that is cut off from reason produced in line with the differential temporality of Marxist Capital.

Like in the works of Yasujiro Ozu the intentionality of the shot with reference to its sensory spirit and material spaces, keeps reducing until a 0 intention shot brings about a contradiction in the Deleuzean utterance on the soundtrack and its other ‘utterable’ on the visual track. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais are more interested in the machinations of the abstraction than their referents in narrative and form. At the point where the 0 intention shot does take place they must call upon Sahridya, the narrator of Dhwanyaloka to evoke the relationship between the artist, his intention and how different it is from the work he has produced.


Film essays

Devdutt Trivedi is a cinephile who lectures on classical film theory and works at Osian’s. His research indicates an interest in combining philosophical concepts with film praxis.


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