What really happened in this luxurious maze of marble and mirrors?
It’s difficult to discuss the plot of L'année dernière à Marienbad, because so much of it is shrouded in the unknown. There is a man in a hotel. He meets a woman and informs her that they had a meeting here last year. The woman can’t remember it, but the man insists and refuses to leave her alone. Is there truth to his story, or are they the delusions of an obsessed stalker? Perhaps even a rapist? As time goes by, memories get muddy on both sides, are forced onto the other, become strained, contradictory, disappear altogether. The truth of Marienbad is known only to its endless marble hallways, its trompe l’oeils.
Most films strive to create a fiction that will absorb the viewer. They build a sturdy world with rules mimicking our own. Breaking those rules is frowned upon; plot holes and incongruities are to be avoided. But then there is a rare class of film that is less concerned with constructing a durable universe, and actively encourages the viewer to focus on its themes by breaking the illusion.
Marienbad is such a film. It reminds me of a book I recently read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. The short novel discusses fading memories and how the mind can play tricks on you. Rather than spinning a linear narrative, it emphasizes with its form the themes of subjective recollection and digging up the past. The book consists of short passages that frequently veer off wildly from the previous one. They skip through time, like thoughts unexpectedly popping up in one's head. Doing such a thing makes it harder for the reader to get a grasp on the story, but facilitates seeing through the layers, perceiving what it is the author is trying to express.
Director Alain Resnais does the same thing with Marienbad. By heaping flashback on unreliable flashback; a narration that stretches across scenes; ambiguous mise-en-scène; repetition and variation; suggestive compositions; and freezing characters, it draws attention to its form. It keeps reminding the audience that it’s trying to say something and would you please be so kind to figure out what.
Marienbad feels like an experiment from a time when the language of film was not so cut in stone yet, though this is an obvious anachronism. In 1961, cinema was thoroughly understood and had seen many formal masters of the medium come and go. Nevertheless, Marienbad plays with its fiction, its characters and reality. Rather than coming across as a gimmick, it becomes a confounding experience. As a storyteller I wouldn't even know where to begin to unravel what this is, much less write it myself. Maybe this is what's scary about it.
Or perhaps it’s the sinister undertone of unspoken violence. This film is about violation. Not just of the female body, but of her personality, her memories. The man forces his view of the past on her, stalking her incessantly, until she accepts them as her own. His motivations are unknown, his only claim an undying love. The sole physical proof of the affair they shared is a lone photograph, which appears in a puzzling light later on – a scene I admit to not fully understanding at first glance. There are a handful of shocking scenes in Marienbad, that are neither grotesque nor sexual in nature, but simply frightening because of their implication. Unnerving is the only word for the merciless organ soundtrack that does not relent.
I would not call Marienbad a pleasant film to watch. Resnais’ earlier Hiroshima Mon Amour from 1959 is a dreamy reverie. Though Marienbad shares some of its themes of memories and decisions from the past, it’s more like a feverish nightmare. Some movies want to bring a pleasant fantasy from which the viewer must never be woken. Marienbad is different. Its worth lies not in how gently it goes down, but how it uses its form to weave a distressing tale of dubious memories and how easily we fall for them.