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 (, 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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