Self-Consuming Cinema: On "Last Year at Marienbad"

At Film Forum on October 22nd, the New York Review of Books, as a part of their ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, will screen Alain Resnais’ and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1961 art house conundrum Last Year at Marienbad. Former Village Voice critic (and recent NYRB acquisition) J. Hoberman will be on hand to introduce the film to an audience that will no doubt be composed of devotees who never miss the chance to puzzle over its meaning and neophytes interested to see for themselves what the fuss is all about. 

The connection between the film and its sponsor, however, is somewhat tenuous. NYRB was founded two years too late to contribute to the early critical controversies over Marienbad and a full consideration has never appeared in its pages. The premise for the October 22nd event is that the Review’s book-publishing arm, NYRB Classics, once reissued a translation of a slim novel called The Invention of Morel by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, which is sometimes said to be the inspiration or model or even the ur-text for Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay.

Of course, the NYRB screening suggests a particular interpretation of the film, and in the case of this particular film there is no such thing as an innocent interpretation.

Set at a garish baroque chateau where a group of enervated aristocrats have come to take rest cures, Marienbad follows three unnamed characters. A stranger (labeled X in Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay and played by Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a beautiful woman A (played by Delphine Seyrig). He tells her they met at the chateau last year and had a passionate affair. The two were supposed to run away together, but perhaps out of consideration for M (Sacha Pitoëff), A asked to postpone the elopement. A year has passed and X has now come to collect his beloved. But A claims never to have seen him before, let alone to have had an affair with him. In fact, she says, she has no memory of even being at the chateau last year. 

Thus Marienbad proposes a kind of hermeneutic game with its audience. Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth?

Naturally, a viewer’s first recourse will be to psychological interpretation—the grammar of reasonable motivation, internal consistency of account, and the way emotive states are revealed by facial expression and tone of voice.

Perhaps the viewer will side with X and provide the following interpretation of his insistent behavior: A is afraid of taking such a big step; she is having second thoughts; she is reneging on her promise. Such a viewer can marshal certain pieces of evidence: the photograph of A in X’s possession, the way some of A’s statements are contradicted by M.

Or perhaps the viewer sides with A. X is a madman, a seducer employing an elaborate ruse, or he has confused two faces. There is evidence for this position, too. X’s manner hardly conveys a sense of former intimacy. At several points he changes or misremembers his story and is forced to revise it. If X is indeed telling the truth, A’s denial is too far-fetched to be so persistently sustained.

Marienbad does nothing to tip the balance. In fact, director Alain Resnais uses techniques available only to the cinema to make a definitive resolution impossible. The way Marienbad is cut makes it impossible to tell whether a given scene is taking place this year or is a flashback to last year; visual cues like placards or dissolves or obvious changes in the physical appearance of the characters are completely absent, giving the film an uncanny look of perpetual presentness. Abrupt shifts in the camera’s point of view make it impossible to tell whether or not a given image is to be understood as objective occurrence or a particular character’s fantasy. There are paradoxical shots where the camera dollies to reveal, for example, A in different costume at the end of the shot than she was wearing when it began.

The acting is anti-naturalistic, with hieratic postures and vocal phrasings that obscure rather than reveal what a character is thinking or feeling. Albertazzi’s voice over is often contradicted by what the camera shows us and the score (traditionally the primary device for directing an audience’s emotive response to a scene) intrudes randomly on the events and is played by an organ that can’t decide whether it belongs in Notre Dame, Bayreuth, or a carnival fun house.

When psychological interpretation is frustrated, allegorical interpretation usually follows, and the task of establishing a rational order of events is replaced by the deciphering of codes, the discovery of hidden significations.

For example, what exactly is M’s relationship to A? Is he husband, lover, guardian, doctor (or… or…)? Sacha Pitoëff’s pallid gaunt face and his mournful basso profondo suggest something morbid and underworldly. When he is not passing the time at the chateau’s shooting gallery or at its card tables, he plays several rounds of Nim with X, a game he never loses.

In M it is easy to see the personification of Fate or Death. But in Marienbad, one soon discovers, it is easy to see anything one wishes. Critics have interpreted the film as an allegory for the decline of the aristocracy (Kael), for the repression of the trauma of rape (Higgins), for the varieties of temporal experience (Deleuze), for the separate worlds of the sadist and the masochist (Reading), and of course, for the filmmaking process itself (Ebert). For any one of these interpretations to be convincing however, one must attend to only a few items at the expense of others—a selection process that depends on nothing more than the tastes and preoccupations of the viewer.

The Film Forum event suggests a third category of interpretation: the intertextual (Hoberman, Beltzer). According to this interpretation Marienbad is an adaptation of Bioy Casares’ novel. The Invention of Morel tells the story of a man marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean that is inhabited by a party of wealthy Europeans. He falls in love with one of them, Faustine, only to discover that she and the others are nothing more than 3D images of people long dead. The party was invited to the island for a weeklong holiday by Morel, a mad scientist, who recorded them in secret with his strange invention. The recording causes the party to age prematurely, but Morel outfits his recording device to play perpetually, thus granting them a kind of immortality: their 3D images will repeat the week they spent on the island eternally.

In the Marienbad “adaptation,” then, the enervated aristocrats we see are nothing more than 3D recordings, cinematic ghosts. X and A come to a misunderstanding because they operate on fundamentally different temporal planes: he is in the present and she a recording from the past. The film’s repetitiveness is a literal representation of the repetitions of the images generated by Morel’s machine.

As with any interpretation of Marienbad, this one has a certain superficial plausibility. Robbe-Grillet is known to have read Bioy Casares’ novel. The narrator of Morel compares the island’s inhabitants to guests at “a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.” In an interview, Bioy Casares claimed he based the character Faustine on Louise Brook’s Lulu in Pabst’s film Pandora’s Box, which Resnais screened for Albertazzi and Seyrig as a model for their performances.

But when examined a little more carefully, the intertextual interpretation proves just as partial as the others. A often tells X to “leave her alone.” Were A Faustine, however, she would not know that X, the narrator, was there. Perhaps, then, it is the viewer who occupies the perspective of Morel’s narrator and X is only another 3D image? But this merely adds zero to a complex equation: the questions the hermeneutic game proposes remain on the table. Ultimately, Bioy Casares’ novel is only one among many influences on the production, an influence that by no means should be privileged over any of the others, from Piero della Francesca and Lee Falk to Pabst and Hitchcock to Ibsen and Kafka.


Is Marienbad, then, just one of those art objects that resists any attempt to say what it’s “about”? Susan Sontag thought so. In “Against Interpretation,” she noted that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet “consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations.” Given that, Sontag recommended that viewers “resist the temptation” to interpret the film at all so that they could experience “the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and the rigorous if narrow solution to certain problems of cinematic form.”

For Sontag the desire to interpret—to reduce a particular form to a particular content—is a temptation, in the Christian sense of the term. Whereas the pre-modern was tempted to sin, the modern is tempted to explain. But rather than a work that is resistant to interpretation, Marienbad actively invites it: Marienbad leads the viewer through a number of interpretive stages, each one as unsatisfying as the last. The viewer is tempted to come up with an explanation, only to have that explanation frustrated upon subsequent viewings by previously neglected details.

To this end, the film provides a number of images for this process. It runs rampant with mises en abyme. In its central conflict: X’s attempts at seduction and their frustration are not unlike a viewer’s attempt to make sense of the film. In the game of Nim M is always playing with X: the game that M “can lose but never does” is not unlike the hermeneutic game the film plays with its audience. Or, in the classical statue group of a man, a woman, and a dog in the chateau’s gardens. X gives one interpretation of the way they are posed; A gives another; M swoops in to tell them—incorrectly—that the statue is really Charles III and his wife and the classical costumes are merely artistic conventions. (Really the statue group was created for the film, loosely based on figures in a painting by Poussin. This is one of the film’s many “reference failures,” the most important of which is the name of the titular spa. The Czech town of Marienbad is never actually visited by either X or A, who are always discussing Friederiksbad, a spa of Robbe-Grillet’s invention. The set itself is a composite of a number of different locations around Munich. Nobody, in any event, seems to know what to say about the dog, the hermeneutic remainder.)

This is not to say, for example, the X and A represent the viewer and the film respectively, only that the film enacts its own intended reception. A critic must account of this rather than wish it away. If Sontag is correct that “none of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself,” how are we to have the purely formalist viewing experience she recommends?  The answer, paradoxically, is not to resist the temptation to interpret, but pace Oscar Wilde, to get rid of that temptation by yielding to it. One must instead attend to Marienbad’s effect—what it does and how it works. Passing through each of these stages of interpretation is part of an askesis, or training process, for the viewer. It is an education in the “art of seeing.” And that, as Emanuelle Riva’s character in Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon amour (1959) puts it, “must be learned.”

For this reason, if there is a source-text for Marienbad, it is Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations rather than The Invention of Morel. This is not to say, of course, that the film is an adaptation of Wittgenstein’s book, but rather, that the Investigations and Marienbad use their differing media to pursue the same strategy to analogous ends. They are both examples of a genre Stanley Fish calls “self-consuming artifacts.” The aim of a self-consuming artifact is not to present its audience with a straightforward film narrative or philosophical argument, but rather to produce a particular effect. Self-consuming artifacts hope to convert their audiences to a different way of looking at art, themselves, and the world. When the effect has been achieved, the artifact is no longer necessary.

Wittgenstein was notorious for his antipathy to the discipline for which he is famous. He thought that the questions raised by the philosophical tradition were unsolvable and, like Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, staged that unsolvability in his work. The persistence of philosophical problems was actually a result of misunderstandings about how ordinary language works, combined with several millennia’s worth of preconceptions about how truth was supposed to look. Attempts to create ideal logical languages only confused the issue by reducing the various functions of ordinary language to bivalence (declarative statements, or propositions, that are either true or false), whereas ordinary language was diverse in its uses and functions.

Wittgenstein hoped to replace “philosophical explanations”—those reductive interpretations of language familiar to us from so much criticism—with descriptions of how ordinary language worked in the various contexts of its usage. The goal would be to rid or cure philosophers of the disquieting illness of proposing unsolvable problems by making the problems themselves disappear. Through his descriptive and therapeutic method, Wittgenstein hoped for them to achieve a “change of aspect” that would enable them to see (in a literal sense) things as they really were, cleared from the obfuscations of linguistic misconception. He called this achievement “a perspicuous view” of language and the world.

Just as Marienbad does not proceed in a straight-forward narrative, the Investigations does not present arguments as arguments, but rather as a series of loosely connected aphorisms that travel “criss-cross in every direction.” Sometimes they are structured as a dialogue between an unnamed doctor (Wittgenstein) trying to cure an unnamed patient (usually someone who espouses the views of the philosophical tradition). Often, the aphorisms circle back over and over again to the same subjects, trying to describe them differently, using different metaphors, “as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.” This unusual, unsystematic method is a result of Wittgenstein’s self-conception as a philosophical therapist, and his work as a cure for the illnesses of philosophical illusion and failed explanation—“to let” as he put it “the fly out of the fly bottle.” There should be as many therapies as there are patients, as many strategies as there are types of illusion. And, of course, the only way to effectively cure an illusion is to understand what it is like to have succumbed to it in the first place: the only way for the fly to get out was to show him the various different ways to fly into the glass. Like Resnais and Robbe-Grillet after him, Wittgenstein understood that the only way for his audience to be persuaded was to stage the very process of confusion they were ultimately to be freed from.

The sort of naïve or innocent eye with which Sontag thinks we should watch Marienbad is impossible in an age where art is “infested with interpretations.” In order to return to the pure sensuous immediacy of perception, we will have to free ourselves from hermeneutics. And in order to do that, the film suggests, we should not resist the temptation to interpret, but rather to yield to it, over and over again, until we finally come to see its futility.

The goal of the film is that, at the end, after many screenings, the viewer sees Marienbad for exactly what it is—a collection of images and sound lasting a little over an hour and a half—and no longer feels compelled to interpret, no longer to return there next year.