Last Year at Marienbad
(L’Anée Dernière at Marienbad) the film made in 1961 by Alain Resnais based on the script of Alain Robbe-Grillet was hailed as the triumph of the modernist aesthetic because it is formally severe and utterly modernist. The unnamed protagonists are all caught up in a surreal loop of disjointed time. They move holographic, like somnambulists or dummies, human replicants through a hermetical seal world, like the sculpture in the garden or the paintings in the hotel with who the protagonists seem to be part. The text behind the film is Casares’ novel The Invention of Morel written twenty-one years earlier.
In the holographic world of Marienbad “A” the woman and “M”, her husband are cycling endlessly in a never ending and monochromatic film. “X”, the lover comes to offer a way of freedom. Although he seems also strangely caught in this static world, he is able to alterate the scenarios trough the power of suggestion. Without Morel, Marienbad... is mostly a formalist exercise, an early false reality film, perhaps the first one.
Marienbad... reveals itself as an ambivalent attitude regarding the relationship between art and life. Art is a different reality added to the original, not a copy of it. On the other hand, within the holographic reality, the characters in the theatrical performance that open the film anticipate the entire plot. The two lovers “A” and “X” seem to be imitating the play, even their body language is nearly as formal and architectural as the theatrical one. Play and film coexists in a Möbius-style feedback loop, and becomes impossible to say who imitates whom.
Marienbad... is a monument to past human expression. A baroque crypt with sculpted portals and glittering chandeliers, mirrors that multiply and corridors whose intersections lead to chance encounters like a machine whose real function is yet to be discovered. The stranger appears to be the protagonist seconded by the guests, clothing dummies frozen in mid-gesture or in contemplation of some private vanishing point. The story-line is late medieval, early Renaissance, a morality play with the morality removed.
The high modernist masterpiece is “outed” as a postmodern, science fiction film. Marienbad.., by keeping itself textually pure, remains a shrine to modernism. But without The Invention of Morel, the film is merely surreal art for art’s sake.