“Last Year In Marienbad” – Alain Resnais

Peter Greenaway once remarked that Alain Resnais’ first three films were the three most important films in the history of cinema (he went on to poach Resnais’ cinematographer Sacha Vierny for all of his films so, if nothing else, they are all immaculately crafted.). The third of them, Muriel (‘63), finally appeared on dvd last year and, truth be told, it hasn’t aged terribly well. The Brechtian delineation of e d i t i n g, f i l m i n g, a c t i n g etc that would eventually lead to the tedium of the Dziga Vertov “movement” is, alas, all too evident. But his first two films, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (‘59), and Last Year In Marienbad (‘61) really do justify that heady accolade. And the latter has just been re-released, both by the peerless Criterion (http://www.criterion.com/films/1517-last-year-at-marienbad), and on a brand new print.

Marienbad is an exquisitely crafted, unashamedly elliptical piece consisting of a series of mercurial scenes that appear to be staged at an exclusive spa in the heart of Europe. There, a man insists to a woman that they “met” there the year before. But everything that we see calls into question his version of events. She was in black, or perhaps it was white, standing there on the stairs, or was it on the veranda, last year, in Frederiksbad, or maybe it was Marienbad. The details, that is to say the truth, of what actually happened is irrelevant. All that matters is that his version of the story is the one that prevails.

To begin with, he pursues her, trying to impose his version of their shared past. But after a while she begins to remember. But her version of their past is very different to his and flatly contradicts it. And when a second man appears, presumably her husband, his version of events is further called into question, not so much by anything the man says, but by the sheer force of his presence.

In many ways, Marienbad has a companion film in Antonioni’s Blow Up. There, a photographer witnesses an event which he captures on film. But no-one will believe him when he tries to convince them that anything has taken place. And when the only evidence that anything did happen, his photographs, are stolen, he has to chose between accepting the false reality that the rest of the world is insisting on, ie that nothing took place, and the reality of what he knows to be true, but that no-one else will accept.

Both films take that philosophical perennial and turn it upside down. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, it doesn’t matter whether it makes a sound or not. All that matters, both films suggest, is whether someone remembers – or moreover, decides to remember – that it made a sound. Even if they weren’t there to hear it, indeed, if there’s no tree there in the first place, if somebody remembers hearing the sound that it made, then that will eventually become that event’s history. For what is history, whether we are dealing with the events of the Second World War, or the shared events of a broken marriage, other than a battle of wills in which two sides try to impose their own memories, their own histories, at the expense of the other? Can we ever point back to an objective reality, or are all memories subject to the prism of our vision?

Everything that the man says in Marienbad makes it abundantly clear that it’s not the details of his version of events that matters to him, that is to say the facts. All he is interested in is establishing that it will be his truth that prevails, his will that triumphs. The artfully formal, increasingly stylised language that Resnais uses to continually call into question that version of events suggests that perhaps all objectivity is an illusion. Everything that we know is just a set of memories that we’ve decided to construct. And all truth is forever distorted by the mirror that we view it in.

As monumental as Marienbad is, rather like listening to Wagner’s Ring, or reading Ulysses, you need to be in a certain frame of mind. And if you are looking for an easier entrée into Resnais’ work, then you should probably start with Hiroshima, his devastatingly intense yet epic essay on love. Or better still, begin with one of his more recent films like Private Fears in Public Places (’06), from a play by Alan Ayckbourn, which is relatively conventional but no less distinguished. But when you can, you really ought to have a look at Marienbad. And preferably in the cinema.

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