Remembering Marienbad

Written by  //  November 10, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  3 Comments

An insightful and affecting behind-the-scenes documentary has surfaced on a film that has come to epitomize the cool, formally rigorous European high-art film since the Second World War. ‘The making of “Last Year at Marienbad”, is edited and narrated by Volker Schlöndorff from footage that was recorded by a member of the cast, Françoise Spira, on 8mm. Schlöndorff himself was the second-unit director of this film, helmed by Alain Renais in 1961. The film was lost for many years and after the death of Spira, it was passed on to the original screenwriter in 2008, who died later that year. It was eventually procured by Bernard-Henri Lévy who was one of the producers of the film. He wrote an article, briefly explaining the process- like Harrison Ford spelunking for the lost ark- and reminding us about the lasting importance of the film: “a masterpiece refracted in hallways and mirrors (with) hieratic and unwavering dialogues”.

With ‘L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)’, Resnais touched the zenith of his Film-Literature mash-ups with the most important writers in France, pushing at the boundaries of language, literary expression and narrative filmmaking. The film was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in a style that is immediately evocative of some of his most daringly form-busting novels; especially La Jalousie, which wanders lingeringly and repetitively around an indefinite act of violence and makes the narrative read more like a relentlessly macabre study of walls, doorways, shadows, shadow-gestures and banana trees than a regular crime d’amour. A similar structure is added to ‘Last Year at Marienbad’. The narrative keeps circling around an event, buried in the past, which may or may not have happened. In an ornate, palatial estate, populated by rich and bored haute bourgeoisies, a character X (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a married woman A (played by Delphine Seyrig) that they had met last year, fallen in love and had decided to elope. The people in the palace roam about aimlessly and play frivolous games. Sometimes they watch a play that seems to bleed into the performance of the main characters- if it can be called a performance. The characters seem to imitate not only the melodramatic play, but also the stiff, cold sculptures, the bright chandeliers and the general air of decadence. It’s like the crowd at Gatsby’s palace; and if that wasn’t decadent enough, add to it a further atmosphere of isolation and imminent doom, like in Agatha Christie’s And then there were none. Richard Brody, in his article on the documentary, observes how the setting represents a pre-war house of Germany, “before all hell broke loose”. Not only can one extend it to a general house of Europe in a purely political manner, it also confronts the nature and meaning of European art in the face of a disaster that affects a complete breakdown of memory and modes of relying on history and language. It’s not terribly hopeful that way. As X says at one point: “This story is already over. It will freeze like the cold, marble statues…”.

The people associated with the film have charted somewhat different territories since. Alain Resnais, usually bunched up with the nouvelle vague Cahiers group that included committed leftists like Godard, only made a heavy political statement in The War is Over (1966), perhaps. But his politics does allow for different readings of ‘Last year at Marienbad’. It’s been largely springtime for him, otherwise; his latest film, Les Herbes Folles (2009), is a flighty, breezy exploration of post-middle-aged amour fou with lots of sunshine and faintly disturbing ambiguities. A wildly different film from Jean-Luc Godard’s dark, cynical and cantankerous bogey this year, Filme Socialisme.

Volker Schlöndorff has established himself as one of the foremost directors of his generation in Germany. He has made films that also concentrate on war, love and memory, most memorably in his adaptation of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1979). His other well-known films also talk about the inextricability of personal relationships and political commitments: among the ones I’ve seen- Coup de Grace (1976) and his adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975).

The real shocker, for me, was learning how Bernard-Henri Lévy was one of the producers- I never guessed- and was instrumental in bringing this documentary to the attention of film festival goers and, perhaps, the Criterion Collection. It was up on Lévy’s website ‘La Règle du jeu’.  Bernard-Henri Lévy has often been credited as a sort of Pied Piper of Paris, post 1968, leading a new generation of French philosophers away from the stranglehold of active Marxist influence (and Nietzche; and Sartre; and Heidegger; but not Foucault) with his book Barbarism with a human face and many others. He is married to a vague sense of opposing homogenous power structures but has rejected multiculturalism outright; coined alarming terms like Islamofascism and adopted truculent positions on Israel. He appeared to accept a part of Nietzche’s dictum though, when he announced: “God is dead but my hair is perfect”.

Where does this leave Marienbad and how does one pin individual politics, especially when they are so divergent and even contradictory perhaps, to a film or a place or a memory?

3 Comments on "Remembering Marienbad"

  1. Arghya November 10, 2010 at 9:46 pm ·

    Well I can’t comment knowledgeably about this movie, but it seems rather mysterious and exciting. Thanks for the post!

  2. Ankan November 11, 2010 at 7:36 am ·

    Oh it’s definitely mysterious!

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