Alain Resnais is one my favorite filmmakers, and it’s largely because of his early work. Between Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and this week’s film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Resnais’ late 50s-early 60s work represents a sort of trilogy meditating on the themes of trauma and memory.
While these first two films address these subjects specifically in regard to resonating painful memories of WWII (the subject of Night and Fog being concentration camps, and Hiroshima mon amour clearly being Hiroshima), Marienbad’s narrative avenue towards this subject isn’t rooted in globally relevant history. Rather, Last Year at Marienbad switches gears to tell a story of memory loss between two socialites at a baroque hotel, one of whom (the man, played by Girgio Albertazzi) remembers a brief but passionate affair from the previous year, while the other (the woman, played by Delphine Seyrig) doesn’t.
As the film progresses, the woman’s behavior suggests that maybe they had actually encountered one another the previous year and the man isn’t mistaken by fantasy, but he may be mistaken in that it was a consensual affair when it could have been something far darker, and the woman may have suppressed the memory of whatever happened last year at Marienbad. Debates over what actually occurred that past year ultimately matter not, however, as Last Year at Marienbad is hardly a mystery film as much as it is an exercise in illustrating the complexities and problems of human memory when tied to intense emotions or borne of traumatic events.
Corridors of Memory
In the opening minutes of Last Year at Marienbad, the extended metaphor that structures the entirety of the film becomes clear. As the opening dialogue echoing through the hallways of Marienbad suggest –actually, they don’t suggest it, they outright tell you – the hotel itself is a grand symbol for the functions of human memory: the corridors are endless, each hallway and room is exquisitely detailed with ornamentation of a bygone era (read: details of memory from events long past), and the hallways are endless, interchangeable, and unpredictable. Memory for Resnais clearly possesses qualities that are the opposite of objectivity, and instead shape selectively everything we think and know – or everything we think we think and know – while determining our attitudes towards the present. Thus, two characters can recall an event and literally see two different things (if one can recall it at all) with neither of them being wrong. Our subjective memory, the film suggests, shapes our knowledge of reality, compounding memory upon memory as further assumptions of reality are built upon subjectivities formed from previous subjectivities.
The ‘Inception’ Question
The release of Inception this summer drew immediate comparisons to Marienbad, and whether or not Mr. Nolan was at all inspired by Resnais’ masterpiece of modern European cinema, the similarities are clear: a camera that spends a lot of time evocatively framing and exploring the intricacies of architecture, characters who are frequently well-dressed and staged in stark positioning amongst each other (the careful positioning of our heroes of Inception standing on a large stairway while planning the heist towards the beginning of the film is a faint reminder of the Resnais’ positioning of characters along Fredericksbad’s garden pathway), the sudden switches in behavior between socializing and stillness in both films from unnamed characters that surround the protagonists (used as a sign of a dream coming apart in Inception), the enigmatic mazes of narrative reflected in complex mazes of architecture, or the fact that each film has a major female character who preoccupies the memory of the protagonist and the subjective perspective of the audience to the point that the heroine could simultaneously represent a love interest and a femme fatale.
But there exist deeper thematic overlaps as well. Both films are about the architecture of a specific location (a hotel, a dreamscape) transforming into a place where one is inescapably haunted by the reverberations of traumatic memory. The location featured in each film acts as both present reality and the center of past events, while each reality openly interacts with and influences the perception of the other. The memories of the unstable central male characters of each film not only shape their perception of the world and determine their actions, but go on to suffocate them as their preoccupation turns into self-destructive obsession. Each film concerns itself with the ways in which one deals with trauma that allows the trauma to compound upon itself and continue to be relived. These films are about the illusion of closure in the face of intense emotional struggle, or how returning to a significant memory always brings about less certainty than before. Each film echoes one another in proclaiming that, through obsession over memory, knowledge of both the self and of one’s surrounding reality becomes fogged.
Yet what can be gained from this comparison? Are the similarities between Inception and Last Year at Marienbad merely an example of intertextual referencing so common in contemporary film, or is there something separate – greater – from each film to be gained from looking at these two films together? Is there even anything new to say about a film as beloved as Marienbad besides its continuous influence on newer films?
As I argued with the function of surrealism in Inception, Last Year at Marienbad is just as much about cinema itself as it is about the subjects and themes it addresses. This is established immediately as the film’s extended metaphor of hotel-corridors-as-memory is explicitly stated in the film’s opening lines through what is initially perceived to be a voice-over of fluctuating volume, but reveals itself as a play for the patrons of the hotel. Here we have self-reflexivity immediately established: the meaning of art expressed through another work of art.
This impression, in retrospect, is entirely consistent with my frustrating first experience watching Marienbad, which – like many films I now adore – has only transformed into one of my favorite films by one of my favorite filmmakers after multiple viewings. I experienced this initial frustration because Marienbad seemed so explicitly constructed, so self-awarely staged in its artistry, execution, and idiosyncrasies. The first time I saw the film it almost read as a slight parody of modern European art films, which would be especially odd considering that its year-of-release sets it right in the early stages of Western Europe’s major emergence of modern art filmmaking. I had this experience largely because I had watched (and loved) Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour before being introduced to Marienbad, and this context made me think of Resnais as a filmmaker who intermixes shocking documentary realism with poetic narrative experimentation and form, but Marienbad proved to exclusively and aggressively reside in the category of the latter.
Not only has examining the thematic consistencies of Resnais’ career as a whole enriched my understanding of how form and style function with theme in Marienbad, but in an odd way seeing it for the first time since watching Inception has as well. While I would be ever-hesitant to suggest that both films reside alongside each other in artistic function and accomplishment, the self-reflexive nature of both films (their respective comments on cinema articulated to deliver their themes through cinema) alludes to why I had an unexpectedly cold meta-experience of Marienbad in my initial viewing: in being reflexive (intentionally or not) of Marienbad in its central structure, Inception uses Marienbad intertextually, yet in this action Inception uses a film that comments about film, memory, and trauma to make a film that also comments about film, memory, and trauma: these three subjects are understood through film, yet even this understanding is only made possible through previous films. The end result in this interaction between these two films is a large intertextual maze in which, akin to each films’ thematic exploration of memory compounding upon memory, film is compounded upon film to make a statement about reality until reality is no longer visible (and “reality” is, in fact, never truly visible in Marienbad).
Like dreams within dreams whose interactions have consequences for one another, the relationship between Marienbad and Inception allows for the exchange of interchangeable layers of subjectivity to ultimately deliver an enigmatic film in which, ultimately, no conception of reality is unshakeable or certain: reality is only understood through memory, which is understood through cinema, which is understood through cinema, and so on; mazes are only understood here through other mazes. If Last Year at Marienbad isn’t the first postmodern work of modern European art filmmaking, then at least it should be credited for paving the way for post-modernism. It’s essential cinema in the most fundamental understanding of the world.
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