Reprinted from Creative Screenwriting, a journal for film writers
About ten-thirty one night not long ago, an aspiring film critic fresh from a retro-screening leaned across a crowded café booth in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris and blurted: "`Marienbad' is like sitting at an elegantly set table where nothing is ever served."
I admired the remark, but disagreed with it. For although the 1961 film "Last Year at Marienbad" (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad), a French-Italian production directed by Alain Resnais with text by Alain Robbe-Grillet, does not provide much rationally linear nourishment, it does offer an abundance of food for the senses.
Realized on the screen as a tableau vivant of dazzling, often disjointed images and haunting dialogue that defy the viewer's idea of logical storytelling while appealing purely to the senses, `Marienbad' is not the product of a director's whimsy out of control, but rather the result of a carefully crafted, richly detailed screenplay from one of France's foremost novelists.
The film's story line, as it exists, concerns three characters: two men, "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi) and "M" (Sacha Pitoeff), and a woman "A" (Delphine Seyrig), who is M's wife or mistress. The three, according to their dress, are contemporaries of the 1960's who are staying (or existing) at a Baroque palace/hotel amidst a group of formally dressed guests. From the time X meets the mysteriously attractive A, he tries to convince her that they had met last year and that she promised to go away with him in one year's time. Throughout the film she resists this idea, claiming no memory of it. He insists and persists, trying to convince her. Despite M's solicitous possessiveness, A finally, resigns herself to X's relentless claims and leaves with him.
In the script, Robbe-Grillet deals with the concepts of reality and time. The reconstruction of reality or the fabrication of fantasy through the inconsistencies of memory and time are examined and explored from an aesthetic, rather than clinical standpoint. Is X telling the truth, or is he projecting his own desires? Has A forgotten her commitment or did she ever make one? Perhaps this never happened at all. Since the author blurs all distinctions of time, perhaps he is imagining a future event which might never happen.
In `Marienbad,' Robbe-Grillet treats time as a flat, planar element, not a linear one. Past, present and future are of equal scale occupying the same space -- a novel concept for a French writer whose native language has eight past, four future and four present tenses. With the concept of time, Robbe-Grillet is a deconstructivist smashing the temporal elements into fragments for Resnais to reconstruct into the cinematic present tense of ninety-three minutes.
In addition to the three main characters in his screenplay, Robbe-Grillet assigns principal status to two unlikely participants, the camera and the palace itself. Throughout the third-person narrative, active roles shift back and forth from the characters to the camera, the latter being part of the action as well as recording it:
"The camera having circled, as for the preceding groups (but quite rapidly), the frozen characters, returns quite naturally to the gallery seen at the beginning of the film and starts following it. . .
She is reading a small hard-cover book. The camera slowly approaches her from in front." 1
In addition to the camera as participant, Robbe-Grillet casts the sumptuous, but somberly suffocating palace/ hotel as a principal protagonist (read antagonist) within whose all-embracing walls, sterile gardens and mazes the film takes place. Instead of merely providing an ornate background, the architecture and furnishings of the palace become inter-active participants in the action, integrally woven into each scene.
Conversely, Robbe-Grillet reduces the roles of the other actors and extras to mere window dressing, not allowing them any direct participation in the film or with the three principal characters. Whatever dialogue these other actors deliver in partially realized vignettes is fragmented, oblique and irrelevant. To the author and his principal actors, the others are beyond the parameters of psychological cognizance.
The major on-screen voice in the film is provided by X. In X's voice-over description that begins the film, Robbe-Grillet demonstrates an impeccable ear for poetic narrative:
"Once again - I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure -- of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel -- where corridors succeed endless corridors -- silent deserted corridors....." 2
The running of long lines of adjectives and nouns punctuated by commas and the repetition of certain words and phrases establishes an aural rhythm that accompanies the visual pattern throughout the film.
Particularly effective in the above passage is the repetition of "corridor" three times within seven words. The French word for corridor, "couloir," which is found in the film has an even more concise, poetic quality.
Later, X's monotone narrative continues the rhythm:
"Empty salons, corridors, salons, doors.
Empty chairs.... 3
Finally, X's voice closes the film with:
".....where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me. 4
The English translation by Richard Howard preserves much of Robbe-Grillet's poetic intentions. However, the frequent accenting of the next-to-last pronounceable syllable in a word endows the original version with its own mysterious cadence, combining spondees and half spondees contrapuntally against iambic, trochaic and anapestic feet.
Poetic qualities can be found elsewhere either in the dialogue spoken by the main characters or in the snippets of non-sequiturs from the background cast:
X: ......but we kept meeting each other at each turn in the path behind each bush -- at the foot of each statue -- at the rim of every pond.... 5
X: Always walls, always corridors,
always doors -- and on the other
side, still more
M (sad, dreamy): Where are you...my lost love...
A (uncertain): Here...I'm here...I'm with you, in this room. 7
For the rest of the cast, Robbe-Grillet instructs:
"The music has gradually faded and here and there a word can be heard emerging from a chance phrase, such as: ... "unbelievable" ... "murder" .... "actor" .... "lying" ... "had to" ..."you're not" ... "it was a long time ago"... "tomorrow." 8
"Snatches of phrases are heard, their sources unrevealed: "...Really, that seems incredible...." "..." We've already met, long ago..." "... I don't remember very well. It must have been in '28 or '29..." 9
With few exceptions, the screenplay is so descriptively complete that it is likely any competent director could make a film from it. What is unlikely is that anyone other than Alan Resnais could have made `Marienbad' just this way.