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— Errata Movie Podcast —

I'll be elsewhere this evening, so here are a few additional observations to wrap up the week of Last Year at Marienbad:

  • The scene with the audible footsteps that I mentioned earlier ends with a voice-over explaining that after the man-who-might-be-the-woman's-husband leaves the room, the woman listens for his footsteps in the adjoining room but hears nothing. She also listens for his footsteps on the gravel below — he said he was going to the firing range — but she hears nothing there, either. Perhaps the ground is too far from the windows, the voice explains, or perhaps there's no gravel down there after all. I'm absolutely certain the footsteps on the carpet — added in post production like nearly all the sounds in the film — are intentional.
  • A small bit that I love from early in the film: a woman (not Delphine Seyrig) is facing the camera. She turns to walk away, but then turns back toward the camera as if she's forgotten something, or is looking for someone, or is disoriented. And no wonder: half way through her turn, there's an edit so that by the time she's facing the camera again, her dress and surroundings have changed completely. Perhaps we're watching deja-vu.
  • The man and woman are at the bar trying to recall previous events. His hand is frozen over his drink. We flash to her white bedroom, then back to the bar. Flash, then back. Repeating many times, the flashes getting longer. It's the visual equivalent of the tip of the tongue.
  • The white feathery gown in which the woman is draped beautifully across the bed or shot with a gun such that she lies half on the floor like a fallen angel — I feel this image should remind me of a piece of art — is echoed in the late scenes by a black feathery gown.
  • In the first scene at the firing range (which seems strangely incongruous, to be shooting pistols in this ornate room), the men fire one by one at targets. The man in the middle — the primary voice of the film — gets a close-up, and when he turns to shoot, the scene ends by cutting away to Delphine Seyrig who is walking toward the camera through a huge dark hall. But the cut is disorienting, as if he's firing a gun at the woman.
  • The statue's role in the story is intriguing. The man who might be her husband, looking at a similar figure in a wall hanging, seems to offer an explanation for what it depicts: it's Charles III and his wife, the oath before the Diet, in a trial for treason; their clothing does not date from that period. Hmm. Sounds good. Except that I'm not sure what he's referring to. (Ditto the play whose title card is displayed outside the theater, Rosmer, but whose content clearly echos the film we're watching. Double ditto for the repeated half-adage "from the compass to the ship.") Nevertheless, I love the notion of a trial for treason, one of many elements of danger and betrayal that hang over the film to give card games and bedroom lights an ominous shade.
  • The statue shows a man, a woman, and, facing the opposite direction, a dog. When the man and woman meet near the balustrade, he makes conversation by commenting on the statue. He interprets the scene such that the man is the primary actor; she interprets it in the other direction. She gives the figures names; he says the names don't matter and they might even be you and me, n'importe qui. But what about their dog, she asks. It's not their dog, the man explains: the dog just happened by. But why is he standing so close to her leg, she asks. Because look how small the pedestal is. (Heh, I love that.) He refers to a statue offscreen that shows the two figures without a dog. Evidence. The picture of the figures hanging in the hotel also shows no dog.

    Later in the film, the man and woman are seated indoors. As usual, the man is talking. Approaching from behind is the mysterious man who may be her husband, but before he reaches them, he pauses, turns, and leaves. Who was that, the mans asks. Your husband? He just happened by, you looked right through him, and he thought it best to leave. Implication: like the dog in the statue, he does not belong to her, and indeed this hotel seems too small for the three of them.

    I note with some amusement that as the man approaches from behind, his footsteps are not heard, even though he crosses rugs and a bare space between them. But the man notices his approach regardless; of course, the hotel is full of mirrors.

  • I still can't figure out what we're seeing in that tracking shot down the corridor toward the mirrors, nor how it was achieved. As we move toward the mirrors, the reflected columns seem to register shadows that might belong to a camera dolly, but the vampire camera itself does not show up in the center.

  • When the man tries his hand at the pyramid game one final time, having already been beaten once with cards and twice with matchsticks, he loses once more with dominos. He shrugs it off with a smile — oh well, I've lost — takes a few dominos from the pile, and lays them out in the form of a cross, like a grave marker, having been shot dead by a better marksman. He's seated; his rival is standing. Towering. Placing the dominos one by one, he keeps his hand over the last one so the cross is not obvious and probably not noticed in a casual viewing, and yet it's deliberate, because the action otherwise serves no purpose. I wonder if Resnais wanted to soften the imagery by leaving the hand there. (It works.)

  • The characters in the film are never referred to by name, neither in the film nor in the credits. I sometimes see them referred to as A, X, and M, and I assume the origin is Robbe-Grillet's script, which I've not read. A man named Frank is mentioned several times, as is a Mr. Anderson who the possible husband says will be arriving in time for dinner. Could they be the same person, Mr. Anderson and Frank? (It's even possible in each ambiguous instance that Albertazzi's character, the man doing the seducing, is Frank. Someone says that Frank wasn't here last year. Another says that Frank played the pyramid game last year.) The man shows his disinterest in the woman meeting the men for dinner, referring to Anderson as Anderton or Pemberton or whoever.

  • Perhaps the woman is in purgatory. Perhaps she is sick, or suicidal. If her husband had left the play early and gone to her room — to find her, to stop her — he'd still have her. But he did not, so she leaves, in black, with Death as her escort, having held him off for a year.

  • Although Marienbad is normally considered a memory film, it's possible that it's not rifling through memory fragments to construct a previous event but laying out fiction fragments to construct a story. The man who tries to seduce the woman may have made up the entire thing about meeting her last year. He may be changing the story not to piece together what's been forgotten but to fit the facts — the weather, the photograph — just enough to win the girl. We can't know for sure. But, of course, his fiction relies on the very idea of faulty memories.

Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
March 27, 2008, 02:46 PM

This film is very influential, so someone could spend quite a bit of time listing other films that play with memory and subjectivity in ways that recall Resnais' films of this period.

But I think one of the clearest descendants is Stanley Kubrick. Consider the scenes at the hotel bar in The Shining, for instance, or the final minutes of 2001, and especially the dream-logic and subjective storytelling that make up Eyes Wide Shut.

March 27, 2008, 03:47 PM

"The man who tries to seduce the woman may have made up the entire thing about meeting her last year. He may be changing the story not to piece together what's been forgotten but to fit the facts — the weather, the photograph — just enough to win the girl. We can't know for sure."

James Monaco proposes this idea on his book on Resnais, and it makes perfect sense. It also fits with the deliberately artificial construction of the setting, like the trees that don't cast shadows (it doesn't contribute to the seduction, so it isn't added to the image), or the way the objects and setting seem to shift to suit the narrative/point of view. It also fits with the idea of that match game, where the pieces are all there, the end result is always the same, but the intermediate gameplay changes. The shifting arguments seem to be those logical permutations.

March 27, 2008, 04:52 PM

True. A random person in the early part of the movie says "he knew all the outcomes in advance" but then concedes that it was still impressive. :-)

Yeah, the hotel is so artificial that it doesn't even have a location. It may or may not be in the same place as the garden, the garden may or may not have flagstones, or gravel, the previous meeting may or may not have been in Frederiksbad or Marienbad or here at this hotel or anywhere at all. One of the few nods to life outside the location is when the "husband" says that the woman should rest, adding, "that's why we're here." Hmm.

Can you recommend the Monaco book? I've resisted reading analyses of these early films -- for years now -- just because I wanted more time to roll around in them myself, but now I'm curious. I have a fun little little pocket book on Resnais by Roy Armes that I found somewhere, and it has a few good anecdotes, but it's largely biographical and I'd like to read something a bit meatier.

March 28, 2008, 05:26 AM

The Monaco book is pretty good, not too loaded on biography, but like Armes's book, it's awfully dated (I think the latest film that's mentioned is Providence). There's a lot of good material through Providence, although part of the limitation on the book as a whole, I think, is that Monaco is trying to demystify Resnais's cinema as difficult, so there's at times a tendency to oversimplify, and there's nothing simple about what Resnais does.