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Ever since Thomas Alva Edison invented the motion picture, men have tried to make films that exploited the full potential of this new medium. That is, they have wanted to develop a new art form which could stand by itself, without heavy borrowing from related areas. Too often they have gone little beyond the scope of the legitimate theater; they have done little more than photograph a play heightened in its vividness by close-ups, mob scenes, fast-paced cutting and all the other techniques worked out over the last fifty years. And almost no one has created a film so uniquely a film as Alain Resnais (director) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (screenwriter).
Both men seem to have transcended their past careers with this picture, finding in each other just the proper complement to their own failings. Resnais gained great fame by directing Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In it, he showed all sorts of technical ability with flashbacks and composition, but he never seemed able to integrate this talent with Marguerite Duras' rather somnolent script. Robbe-Grillet, on the other hand wrote novels that yearned for visual expression. In La Jalousie, for instance, he spends most of his time painting in the very smallest details of a banana plantation. Amid the minutiae, the author tells an exceedingly ambiguous tale of a husband's jealousy, a tale that never quite escapes from the encroaching landscape drawn in so heavily that it overshadows all else.
By a lucky chance, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet colaborated on L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad. The novelist suffered from a geometric sense of details, and the director had just the flair for composition to give those beautiful but boring paragraphs visual substance. Perhaps more importants, the author's penchant for ambiguity lent itself perfectly to the director's much-praised deftness with flashbacks.
It is this ambiguity which has made L'Annee Derniere the topic of heated second-guessing in Paris since its opening last October. The story involves a woman and a man known only as "A" and "X" (Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertzzi) and a second man, who is probably A's husband, but is identified simply as "M" (Sacha Pitoeff). For ninety-nine minutes, X tries to convince A that they had an affair last year at Marienbad in a plush resort hotel, but A can't seem to remember. Again and again, X corners A in the salons or the Versailles-like garden of the hotel where they are now staying (and also stayed a year before, says X) and retells some part of their supposed meetings of a year ago. He pours forth detail after detail, while the camera modulates between the actual present and the past conjured up by X's words. A almost never breaks her mysterious silence and never tells X that she remembers him even when they flee the hotel together to escape the dire presence of M. Did they meet, or didn't they? Even Resnais and Robbe-Grillet don't agree on that, nor is there any reason why they should. Ambiguity, after all, only presents difficulty to the person who wants to resolve it. Quite clearly, one ought to accept L'Annee Derniere on its own terms, which are patently ambiguous. We have become too used to the "fruitful" ambiguity which fits neatly into some half-submerged, rational scheme. But the ambiguity of Marienbad is not a fruitful ambiguity in that it leads to no tidy resolution, and we should approach this film looking not for answers, but for complex questions that have their own delight.
L'Annee Derniere poses these questions through ambiguities that involve much more than the obvious problem: did A and X meet last year. The movie at first contains four distinct levels of action, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly difficult to separate them or to know for certain which level is fact and which fabrication. As soon as the titles go on the screen, X's voice is heard describing the walls and gardens of the hotel. This voice continues to be heard sometimes as an understone, often as the major sound portion of the film. Like the organ music which flows along for a time, barely noticed, and then blares out to punctuate a particular event, it seems always to be present as an oral foundation for an intricate visual structure. It is the first level.
The titles and credits come to an end, and X appears, walking through a hallway; he enters a small theater where the last scene of Rosmersholm comes to an end. Suddenly the audience, a group of young and well-dressed young people, spring to life; they greet each other and break into smaller groups to play cards and talk of their previous meetings a year ago in the same place. Their games and dances, their banal talk, constitute the second level.
As they settle down to amuse themselves, the camera sweeps desultorily from one group to another, waiting only long enough to whet the viewer's curiosity. Just before the punchline of a joke or the winning trick of a card game, the scene shifts elsewhere. During this rapid cutting, the couple is included more and more frequently until the camera finally comes to rest on them. They are A and X, the third level.
Their conversation soon turns toward last year as X insists that they were lovers. He widely recounts their words and the camera dissolves to the past in the middle of a direct quotation completed by the X of the flashback. This is the supposed past, the fourth level.
From this point on, the ground rules are established and Resnais and Robbe-Grillet begin breaking them. They move from one level to another with alarming, confusing facility. For example, we watch M playing cards while we hear X tell A of the afternoon last year when they met on the hotel terrace and discussed a nearby statue of a man and woman in classic dress. X describes every gesture, every hold of the toga. Meanwhile, the card game goes on before our eyes. For a moment we hear the players' voices, and one of them makes a remark which logically precedes X's first statement in the flashbacks that follows immediately. In this sequence, X and A continue their discussion of the statue, which X had been retelling just a moment before. They try to name the man and woman of the statue, to place them in a mythical context, but too many possible pairs will fit. Does the woman try to hold the man back, or is she pressing him forward? X and A cannot resolve the ambiguity. Then M approaches to reveal that they are looking at Charles III and his wife taking the marriage vow; their dress is merely a convention. M talks on rather haughtily, and an incidental statement of his provides the bridge to reality--the card game. X's voice finishes the statue anecdote, while the scene shifts from the cards to him and A; they walks outside and find the statue of Charles III and his wife. At this stage, it becomes clear how wrong M was. For his own purposes, he had named the statue correctly, but for A and X, no name will suffice, since their love began (if it did at all) when they spoke together for the first time and could not identify this man and woman of stone.
Just as there can be no correct answer which will leave the total experience unmarried for A and X, so too, Last Year at Marienbad will suffer no explanation without suffering destruction. It creates an artificial world of enigma, a closed world that could exist in no form other than the fluid, puzzling one it has.
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