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Memory is imagination pinned down
on March 1, 2005
Last Year at Marienbad is a "love story," although not a "story" in the conventional narrative sense, since the fragmented images cannot be scanned chronologically. The "story" is not told rather it is described using a juxtaposition of physical images, through memories and associations, projected through a space-time continuum, which destroys both linear chronology and fixity. Resnais built a captivating puzzle-like film, a labyrinth, which at time resembles the optical illusions of Escher or the surreal world of Magritte. Any attempt to provide a satisfying chronology for the film would contradict the assumptions upon which it was built, as well as the manner in which it is presented.
Marienbad is a cine-roman, a cinematic novel, that is, a particular way to tell a story, which by definition involves space and time. It is not simultaneously a novel and a film, but it uses certain techniques of the novel and of the cinema. Resnais uses a variety of cinematographic techniques: the use of "atmosphere," or mise-en-scene, to provoke an emotional response on the audience's part; the use of "dream" sequences, flashbacks and flash forwards as they relate to imagistic or observational characterizations of a character's imagination; the use of visual and audio montages to disrupt the chronological time and replace the temporal and linear narration by his mise-en-scene's spaces. As a result, it is necessary to view each Resnais film completely in order to understand its structure and discourse. This is especially true for Marienbad, where a second and even a third viewing are necessary to fully appreciate the structure and the details.
Marienbad is lyrical, but by its framings, has the precision of a documentary, undermining the cinematographic writing and heralding the future films of Duras, Robbe-Grillet, or Jean-Luc Godard. Resnais uses extremely short scenes, with purposely too dark or over-exposed shots, obscure image flashes, shot with reframing that allow for the intrusion of characters. Certain scenes are repeated several times, with variants. At times, the actors' clothing changes in the same scene, resulting in blurring the distinctions between past, present, and future, reality and fantasy The fluid camera moves everywhere with unrestricted freedom, a character unto itself. The dialogues are in the form of leitmotifs. The secondary characters utter disjointed, repetitive bits of conversations, and have a strange tendency to freeze in mid-sentence, or even to speak without making a sound. All of these effects are mesmerizing, and contribute to destabilizing the viewer. The mystery is further sustained by the names of the characters, which are only initials.
Everything contributes to destroying chronology and setting an ambiguous mood. The music at the film's "beginning" is typically "end of film" music. Using staggered sound tracks of the narrator's (X's) voice after the music further enhances this impression. Through most of the film, the sound of a single organ, playing an excruciating music score mostly in a minor key which seems to have come from a horror film, accompanies the action. Minor keys conjure melancholy and insecurity. X and A, dancing a slow waltz whose music, instead of being joyful and exuberant, recalls Sibelius' Valse Triste, does not contribute in any way to lighten the mood.
Games are pervasive in this film, symbolizing destiny (dominoes), and also the domination of M (who plays poker with determination and coldness, successfully bluffing his adversaries). But the most notable game shown in the film is a variation of the game of Nim, which from the release of the film on became known as "the game of Marienbad." M haughtily announces "I could lose, but I always win." In this particular version of Nim, which is based on binary representation of the number of items in the game at any give time, the one who first starts the game cannot win against an experienced player, such as M. And M, who proposes the contests, always manages, under the cover of courtesy, to make his adversary begin the game.
The first theme of Marienbad is love, which does not require much explanation. X is or was in love with A (or was it with A? If not, then A will do), and A, as befits any beautiful woman, plays hard-to-get (or maybe she is not attracted by a bore such as X).
The second theme is Resnais' favorite: the elusiveness and subjectivity of memory, but also, its persistence and inescapability. As in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais explores the effects of time and memory on the emotions of a pair of would-be lovers. In his hands, the time elements of memory, whether retrospective or prospective, find realization as cinematic images, which the author manipulates through editing, effusing a non-chronological structure to his work. In Marienbad, Resnais shows us the hotel, its corridors, its salons, and its garden, together taken as an explicit metaphor for the "mind," traveled by the roving camera, the "self" exploring its memory.
There are so many things to discover in Marienbad that, like the "story," the possibilities are endless. There are two possible ways of viewing this film. In the first, a Cartesian approach, the viewer will try to somehow impose a linear, rational structure and invariably will find the film difficult, if not totally incomprehensible. In the second way, the viewer will just let him or herself be carried away by the extraordinary images and the mise-en-scene, and he or she will find the film completely obvious. And the "bonus" resides in the fact that upon subsequent viewings, one can reassemble this puzzle-like film in as many different ways as one's imagination allows, making it each time a new viewing experience. Viewers in the first category will probably give the film a negative rating; those in the second category will give it a five-star rating. I give it a five star.