I watched Last Year At Marienbad and was only confused by the reviews
Trigger warning: sexual assault
I am going to preface all of this by saying: I am no film critic. My degree is in literature and I've never seen A Trip to the Moon. That being said, what is the purpose of a personal blog if not to state my own uniformed opinions?
I watched Last Year at Marienbad in a postmodern literature class with a professor who like to expand our studies into other media. The film, directed by Alain Rasnais, has been hailed as a postmodern surrealist masterpiece, a gem of French New Wave cinema and film festival darling.
Expecting a trippy surrealist daydream, I was frustrated, if not surprised, by the frantic pursuit of the female lead (referred to as “A” in the criticism, although I never managed to catch why during the film) by the male lead, “X”. It felt at first like a simple plot to a stylistically fascinating film. Man pursues woman despite her protestations. Man escalates his advances. Woman swoons. End credits.
I didn’t think much about the relationship between the two until, halfway through the movie, X starts to describe the alleged romantic encounter that happened the previous year between the two protagonists. “I let you struggle,” he tells A. “I’m not sure if it was consensual.”
So this, I thought, is what happened at Marienbad. The haunting, nightmarish wander through this Baroque castle was a symbolic tour through A’s traumatized mind, the time breaks a representational breaking with reality. Of course X chased her, slowly and inevitably, while she begged him to leave her alone; of course she could not remember meeting him, her own mind protecting her from the trauma he caused. Of course he mistakenly believed that they were in love. Here was a way to excuse the presence of a tired trope - the constant pursuit of a woman until she magically changes her mind - in such a deliberate and original film.
However, when I started to research Last Year at Marienbad, I was stunned by the absence of any mention of rape in the criticism and reviews of the film. While dozens of respected critics talked about how important the film was, it was generally in the context of how enigmatic it was. The reviews that mentioned plot called it a “love story”, in which X swooped in to rescue A from her miserable marriage and mundane life.
It was not until I found T. Jefferson Kline’s article “Double Projection” that rape was mentioned in conjunction with Marienbad, and it was in the context of a gratuitous rape scene that had not actually appeared in the film, but had instead been cut by Resnais from Robbe-Grillet’s written script. Kline argues that Resnais’ refusal to include the explicit rape scene was just one of the “subtle but powerful visual details” he added to Robbe-Grillet’s written script in order to allow the film to be interpreted as a reflection on trauma.
In his essay, “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies”, Geoffrey H Hartman writes that interpretations of trauma in literature do so by communicating a psychological disturbance:
“The disturbance in question is….a very human though compulsive doubt...which afflicts reference (is this the real or at least a sign of the real?), subjectivity (saying “I” and the possibility of meaning it), and memory or story (being in control of the “plot” of one’s life rather than part of some other, unknown but fatal, narrative).” (Hartman 547)
I assert that these three afflictions can also be interpreted in film through visual, audible and chronological clues:
1. What Hartman calls “reference” can be interpreted in film as the visual representation of realness, present in the visual cues that Resnais shoots.
2. The “subjection of the subject”, or ability to say “I”, is present in the delivering of lines, dialogue and voice-over by each character.
3. The question of memory is represented in time-jumps and repetition throughout the film, rounding out the trio and indicating the loss of control present in the entire narrative.
1. Uncertain Reference
“The questioning of reference, or more positively our ability to constitute referentiality of a literary kind (with a symbolic or polysemic dimension), indicates a nearness of dream or trauma” (Hartman 548)."
Marienbad presents a visual world in which the viewer can never exactly find their footing. Instead, the contrast of chaotic stiffness, the way the film jumps haphazardly between frozen moments in time, gives us the “suspension of disbelief” needed in such a post-traumatic story. As the characters stand frozen but not suspended, an earring the only thing moving in a crowded ballroom, we are forced to believe the unbelievable, as Hartman writes: in their constant search for a stable frame of reference, post-traumatic stories demand the acknowledgement of being real.
In “Ten Years after Marienbad”, Richard M. Blumenburg says that Resnais’ shooting style resembles that of a documentary with its long traveling shots. The broad shots visually overwhelm us and we search for what we are supposed to be focusing on, often settling on an odd or unexpected object for its prominence. Add to this the fact that rooms, hallways, and gardens tend to show up multiple times, but with small details missing or changed, as Mark Polizzotti writes in his analysis “Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year Where?”
The uncertainty and instability of perception indicate the underlying threat of Marienbad, in which the viewer cannot help but feel trapped. This threat can be directly tied to the visual clues of the film, as Blumenburg points out that it relies on geometrical structures of the triangle in Nim and the rectangles of trompe-l’oeil frames to model the behavior of the characters: “A recognizes that she is a ‘piece’ in the game of Nim; this leads her to ‘break the balustrade’ which is a part of the trompe-l’oeil frame (her environment and her madness) and freely to move out into ‘life’” (Blumenburg 41).
For Blumenburg, this is A’s “escape” from the rigid structure of life “lived too formally at the expense of feeling” which becomes hollow - this, for Blumenburg, is a symbolic death. But what Blumenburg does not take into account with this rendition of freedom is that A’s exit at the end of the film is accompanied by X, who only added to the sense of instability and threat in the film with his relentless perusal. While Blumenberg groups A’s environment and her madness into the category of things to escape from, he neglects the idea that X was a part of this environment and perhaps a cause of the madness.
The fact that A is merely an object to be won and traded suggests that perhaps the lack of feeling is instead a coping mechanism for dealing with the trauma of her situation, a desperate attempt to hold on to self between uncertain jumps in reality. This can also be attributed to Resnais’ overall refusal to present Robbe-Grillet’s script as it was. Pilozzotti writes,
“Perhaps most drastically, Resnais attenuates the screenplay’s clear indication that X is rescuing A from a comfortable but stifling existence. By numerous subtle and not-so-subtle details, the visuals seem to favor the heroine’s point of view, almost defending her against Robbe-Grillet’s identification with X, giving her an autonomy and independence of mind out of register with the author’s objectifying gaze. Robbe-Grillet called Marienbad “the story of a persuasion,” in which the hero offers the woman “a past, a future, and freedom.” In Resnais’ realization of it, things are not nearly so simple.” (Pilozzotti 1)
“The subjection of the subject, when it is not given an exclusively political or erotic explanation, evokes what Lacan defines as the “fading” of the I before the Other” (548).
A states multiple times throughout the film that she does not remember X at all. This is, in fact, one of the few things she does say, and its repetition emphasizes that A speaks mostly of absence, contributing very little to the film’s bank of ideas. When X responds that he has the power to create a past for her and blend it into her present, it is clear that A’s individuality is already in question. Robbe-Grillet’s explanation that he is reshaping her reality through the power of seduction hides how terrifying this idea actually is. Therefor, Resnais’ decision of what music to set the film to was crucial - the film could have been either a quiet seduction and total disintegration of A, or an alarming journey through her loss of control. Resnais chose the latter. Under Resnais’ musical direction, the score undermines Robbe-Grillet’s “seduction”, allowing the viewer to see it for what it is - a slow breaking down of A’s personhood through manipulation.
In “Masculine Singular: French New Wave Cinema”, Genvieve Sellier discusses what she calls the “masculinist cult of the male protagonist and auteur”, in which the male protagonist becomes the alter ego of the auteur. This trend, which she associates directly with the French New Wave, leads to movies scripted like Marienbad, “A film that gives an exorbitant privilege to the male protagonist by making him the narrator of a story whose interpretation he imposes at the expense of the female character” (Sellier 11).
X’s narration dominates the narrative, but his control is subverted by the happenings on screen, which sometimes seem to slip out of his control. One of the most striking instances of A producing sound herself that affects the overall ambiance of the film is during her own murder, when her scream breaks through the monotonously unsettling musical score and whispered, insistent dialogue spoken by X. If, as Hartman suggests, the only way to overcome severance of body and mind that occurs from trauma is to come back to mind through the body, then A’s visceral scream as the camera frantically re-zooms towards her over and over again may be the closest we get to a healing - her death may actually be the closest she gets to escaping Marienbad after all.
3. Temporal Disturbance
"[The lack of linear narrative in trauma stories] defines a temporal structure that tends to collapse, to implode into a charged traumatic core, so that the fable is reduced to a repetition-compulsion not authentically ‘in time’” (548).
This is perhaps the most easily indicative of a postmodern, posthumanist storyline, but Marienbad does not merely present itself as a story told out of order. Instead, it continuously loops back on itself. Time is not irrelevant, but instead perhaps even more deliberately worked to create the sense of trap and threat that Resnais infused the film with. If we incorporate into the narrative the gratuitous rape that Robbe-Grillet had originally written and assumed that this is indeed what had happened last year at Marienbad, we can view the odd time jumps in the film as A’s psyche attempting to bypass the memory of the experience, splintering whenever X gets too close. Hartman’s primary example of a literary trauma narrative, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, uses this same kind of time warp:
“The repetitions...suggest an unresolved shock: a rhythmic or temporal stutter, they leave the storyteller in purgatory, awaiting the next assault, the next instance of hyperarousal...concerning such repetitions Yeats said that a personal demon always brings us back to the place of the encounter - to make it final” (543)
As X chases her around the endless maze of Marienbad, we are awaiting the next literal assault, for the trauma to repeat itself. The hyperarousal that Hartman talks about surrounds the vast, ever changing bedroom and results in her death, the most sensory assaulting few minutes of the film both visually and audibly. The film seems to suggest that the only finality that A can hope for after her trauma would be a physical death that matched the psychological death she experienced the year before.
While many critics skirt around the idea or mention of rape in their reviews and interpretations of the movie, many of them do acknowledge that it is difficult to buy Robbe-Grillet’s seduction narrative. Robbe-Grillet’s later works do not make this twisted love story any easier to believe - when he switched to color film in 1970, his movies were condemned by critics as “puerile” and “mere pornography to excite sado-masochism” (Kine 1). And while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sado-masochism or porn, Robbe-Grillet’s tendency to continually humiliate and harm naked women on screen in the guise of art does not lend itself well to the original intentions of Marienbad as a seduction narrative. As Polizzotti writes:
“Indeed, though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love. For a seducer, at times he seems patently cruel, his face betraying a kind of predatory hardness.” (1)
A Giant Question Mark
Perhaps this is what makes the film postmodern, in the sense that it is less about the journey of the characters than other artistic and ontological questioning. But it is also not a love story, and the distorted nature of the film lends itself to the interpretation of a play at love, a twisted rendition orated by the male protagonist who’s female counterpart has no autonomy in the decision. One way to resolve the dissonance of this unlikely seduction is to read the film as the self-aware trauma narrative that Resnais may have hoped it would become.