Precious Bodily Fluids

Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais (1961)

It’s quite enigmatic, quite the quintessential art film, and yet once a window–or better yet, a lens–clarifies what it’s doing, it becomes more-or-less accessible. Also, a second viewing doesn’t hurt. First screened for a seminar on film and architecture, one can’t miss the camera (i.e., the woman’s) fascination with the interior structure of the hotel/chateau that she wanders. Is it pure abstraction, or can we fall into a more stable understanding of how these images are working? The lens of the dream helps, as might also the lens of memory. The upward tilt tracking shots, often slightly twisting as a foreign pedestrian is wont to do, resemble the gaze of the visitor to terra incognita or, perhaps better, a land once seen and nearly forgotten.


Trompe l’oeil is ubiquitous among the mise-en-scene. Frescos, murals, and above all mirrors populate the images, with forced perspectives that momentarily disorient, creating false surroundings and warping one’s experience of space and dimensionality. If mirrors take trompe l’oeil to a phenomenal extreme, then in (or through) Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais reveals the cinema screen itself as a trompe l’oeil. When we refer to it as a window, we deceive ourselves; there is nothing behind it, it is an opaque surface. When we call it a mirror, we may be closer to the truth, but it does not reflect beyond some figurative kind of reflection. The cinema screen is a surface constituted by its fundamental opacity. While opaque, it appears to contain depth and, as Stanley Cavell has argued, a world within itself. Resnais reveals the deceptive nature of the images when, for example, he famously includes a shot of the courtyard with selective shadowing. Only the human figures cast shadows and nothing else. Perhaps this suggests the fundamentally subjective nature of the film, a possibility further supported by Resnais own insistence that this is a dream, not a memory. Dreams are pure subjectivity; nothing is real within them except the self and its projections. In the famous shot, only selves cast shadows, so perhaps only the selves are real.


The film’s final shot contains a similar visual conceit, this time containing a wide-angle shot of the chateau with the structure’s reflection cast on a pond at dusk. But some of the windows light up the “actual” building, the reflection features only darkened windows. Having less directly to do with subjectivity, a break is pictured here between phenomena as we normally experience them in the world. The interior world of the film–again, perhaps as “dream”–breaks down normal phenomenality and envisions shadows and reflections and even colors in oneiric terms. In the final shot, unless my eyes deceive me or my copy of the film is warped, the shrubbery separating the chateau from its reflection is slightly green, not the black/grey/white shades of the rest of the shot and the rest of the film.


Kline’s chapter on the film, “Rebecca’s Bad Dream: Speculations on/in Resnais’s Marienbad,” admits its strongly psychoanalytic approach, and Kline shouldn’t necessarily be faulted for this. Perhaps composed of the stuff of a dream, the film may beg for such an analysis, and Resnais’s own familiarity with and interest in Freud (to which Kline refers) further warrants the approach. Kline further pursues the connection between Marienbad with Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, alluded to in a poster in the film toward the beginning and the end that advertises the play “ROSMER.” Kline traces an impressive lineage from Marienbad, including Resnais’s own background as a thespian who knew Ibsen’s works to the main actress’s (Delphine Seyrig) exposure to Resnais while she acted in an Ibsen play in New York (71). Further still, Kline adeptly unearths the way that, he argues, Resnais used the allusion to Ibsen’s play as a subversive jab at the screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who had apparently hijacked control of the film and rendered Resnais’s own voice largely mute. For doing psychoanalytic criticism, Kline does well to recount the history of the film’s development from screenwriting through post-production. Although Kline describes Resnais’s own take on Marienbad as “certainly a privileged but nevertheless just one of the interpreters of Marienbad,” Kline continues to come back to Resnais as author (or anyway, the structure of the author) of Marienbad. Kline’s argument hinges on Robbe-Rillet as one of the authors of the film but of Resnais as genius-author–in a word, auteur–the author whose ultimate control and artistic intellect makes the film what it primarily, or at least most interestingly, is.

This entry was published on June 29, 2013 at 3:21 pm. It’s filed under 1960s Cinema, Alain Resnais, French Film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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