Last Year At Marienbad: Reinventing Cinema

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A great deal of nonsense has been written about Last Year at Marienbad, and most of this nonsense stems from the basic unease that scribblers feel when confronted with the unbridled jouissance with which Resnais handles the film medium. Although the director himself claimed in an interview in Sight and Sound in 1959 that “serious cinema is inseparable from literary discipline”, this is not to say that the cinematic form should be subordinate to the literary. As no director before him (with the possible exception of Bunuel), Resnais liberated cinematic form from the apron strings of literary conventions and realised the purest cinema Imaginable:

“L’Annee Dernière, if written as a novel, would certainly seem nothing like an audacious or challenging as it does on the screen. Subjective time, recurring time, the gradations of reality and experience, are nothing strange to the modern novel. But film can accommodate them more easily – or more suggestively; and since its essential ingredients are space and time it can manoeuvre in both at once, make both relative to its own purposes. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais explored time and memory from a fixed point of reference. Here there is no fixed point, and consequently the film imposes its own time.”
Penelope Houston, Sight and Sound Winter 1961

I would like in this short article to explore concretely two techniques which Resnais brings to bear in Marienbad. These techniques serve to bring under pressure conditioned and habitual viewing practices commonly associated with the narrative cinema. It will be my argument that this attack on geography and temporality; this break with the cinema that aspires to mask its illusions and pretends verisimilitude with the ‘real world’; is in fact a full and complete realisation of the potential of the film medium itself.

The classical narrative cinema (what is broadly referred to as the ‘Hollywood’ cinema) has at its bedrock the perpetuation of the illusions of spatial and temporal continuity. Fundamental to these illusions is the so-called ‘eye-line match’.

Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad.  Photo Courtesy Rialto Pictures.

This is a system which relies on an imaginary line of vision connecting the eyes of two different actors from one shot to another. In order to cement our belief in the illusion that both actors are engaged in a discourse in real time and real space over the period that the shots and counter-shots are made, it is important that is actor A looks out towards the left side of the frame, then actor B must look out towards the right side of the frame. Similarly if actor A is looking up towards actor B, then in the counter-shot, actor B must be looking down towards actor A. In order to ensure this illusion of spatial continuity the camera must at all times remain on one side of the visual axis set up between the eyes of both actors.

The principle of the eyeliner-match is one upon which the classical cinema depends heavily in order for the spectator to suspend disbelief and thus allow him or herself to be carried ‘into’ the diegesis. Resnais subverts this principle by retaining the ‘correct’ angle of the axis between the actors while ensuring that other elements in the frame are glaringly unmatched. For example from one shot to another the lighting might change from sunlight to candles at night, or else all the extras might be differently dressed, or else we are all in a different room altogether. Because the eye line match is perfect these shot changes serve to jolt us, to make us feel uncomfortable.

These moments of discomfort are fundamental to an understanding of what Resnais is after in this film: a rigorous formal exploration of how time and space are (re)constructed in the classical narrative cinema. Resnais’ system employs the eye line match diligently to achieve exactly the opposite end result of that obtained in the classical usage: a gradually increasing distrust of the cinema’s ability to order the chaos presented by the cutting up of perception that ‘shots’ entail.

If we do not trust the cinema’s ability to order the chaos of its own making (the world, ‘reality’, is dissembled in the conventional cinema into separate segments – image, sound, closeups, total shots – which are then re-assembled in the editing process, ostensibly recreating a continuity of space and time that resembles the ‘real’ world) then perhaps there will be a spillover of suspicion as we leave the cinema hall, and perhaps we will be able to see and hear the world just slightly differently from the way we had done so before. This revising, this re-orientating might be all that art is capable of, it might be everything that art is capable of: it might be enough.

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A second system clearly in operation throughout Marienbad is one utilising the close-total-close shot order.

In the classical cinema this shot system satisfies two different spectator demands: the urge to know where an activity is happening, and the urge to identify emotionally with the person that the activity is happening to. The tension between these different but always concurrent demands is resolved in the classical cinema by an editing system which establishes the action in a total shot and then provides us with close-up shots wherever the director feels that the emotional connection deserves to be strongest.

In the total-close-total trilogy we see where the action takes place, are given an emotional ‘fix’ by the close-up and then our sense of space is reassured by returning to the total. Resnais subverts this reassurance by consistently placing the subject of the closeup into a third total shot which is in fact a space altogether different than the first total shot. The moment of readjustment to this new space is disconcerting and wondrous. We do not believe our senses. We literally don’t believe our eyes.

These moments are what Marienbad is about. Not whether the narrator did or didn’t meet the woman in Marienbad last year, nor whether she goes off with him at the end or not. The film is a seductive play with perception. It is an invitation to briefly indulge in a way of experiencing space and time and light and sound that purely the cinema and nothing else but the cinema is able to divulge. To accept this invitation is to discover the cinema’s autonomy.

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While the classical cinema was hysterically trying to (re)impose a way of seeing and hearing the world based on the congruency of sound and image and the inexorability of this congruency in time, Resnais mastered the techniques of this system and applied them against the system itself. What resulted was a fundamental challenge to the notion of ‘realism’ and the notion that film as a medium is somehow more ‘realistic’ than other art forms.

Marienbad’s untranslatability into the language of plot and story is a victory for the film medium on its own terms, a declaration  of its autonomy from the conventions of literature and the theatre. As Resnais put it in an interview in 1961, “the spectator is asked not to reconstruct a story coldly from the outside, but to live it at the same time as the characters, and from the inside.”

ARYAN KAGANOF

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