Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 39, July 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeremy J. Shapiro

 

Still Searching for Lost Time:

On Leutrat on Resnais

 

 

Jean-Louis Leutrat

_L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_

Translated by Paul Hammond

London: British Film Institute, 2000

ISBN 0-85170-821-8

71 pp.

 

Surely _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ (_Last year at Marienbad_) will be remembered as one of the great art works of the 20th century: as one that, like other masterpieces of modernism, achieved its greatness through rupturing with the traditions of naive realism and conventional representation by using the formal and material properties of its medium to attain new depths of human expression and to wring truth from surrounding cultural forms of convention, artifice, and false consciousness. From the moment of its creation just over forty years ago by two imaginatively powerful collaborators, Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film, like other great works of modernism, has met with extremes of positive and negative critical reaction, from those who greeted it as a masterpiece to those who reviled it as a piece of meaningless decadence. Jean-Louis Leutrat, in his _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ in the BFI Film Classics series, quotes Jacques Brunius as claiming that it is 'the greatest film ever made' (7), while Pauline Kael referred to it as a 'disaster' and as 'aimless, high-style moral turpitude passing itself off as the universal human condition'. [1]

 

Because of its core method of narrating what appears to be a 'real' story or drama, one that takes place in everyday reality and in conventional time, through a form that deconstructs the boundaries both between inner and outer reality, and between past, present, and future, _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ leaves the meanings of both the real and symbolic stories open to interpretation and doubt. Even as knowledgeable and sympathetic a reviewer of Resnais's work as Muriel Zagha recently called _Marienbad_ 'puzzling'. [2] There is no getting around the fact that the film forces the viewer to actively construct its meaning in order to have a coherent or fulfilled aesthetic experience.

 

It is probably impossible to engage in such construction without recourse to some version of psychoanalytic theory, some version of phenomenology, and some version of critical social theory (and possibly also some version of Schopenhauer plus Bergson). That is why _Marienbad_, even as it stands on its own aesthetically, demands philosophical treatment. The depth at which it treats the complex and vital relationships among time, love, social order, and liberation, as well as the cinematic vehicles that it uses in this treatment, require philosophical analysis and interpretation. Parenthetically, it is enough of an invitation to philosophy that Jorn Bramann uses the film as an introduction to Cartesian philosophy in a course at Frostburg State University in the state of Maryland -- see <http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/PhilFilm2.htm>. Although it seems to me that it would have been more appropriate as an introduction to phenomenology -- it is surprising that not more has been done with it along these lines.

 

Almost a half-century before _Marienbad_, Hugo Munsterberg, in his classic work _The Photoplay_ (1916), practically predicted it. Munsterberg, in a remarkable series of formulations, identified those features of film technology that give film both its aesthetic and philosophical significance:

 

'The photoplay [film] shows us a significant conflict of human actions in moving pictures which, freed from the physical forms of space, time, and causality, are adjusted to the free play of our mental experiences and which reach complete isolation from the practical world through the perfect unity of plot and pictorial appearance.' [3]

 

'The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones.' [4]

 

Munsterberg points out that film does this 'by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination, and emotion'. [5] Part of the mechanism of this is that:

 

'memory breaks into present events by bringing up pictures of the past: the photoplay is doing this by its frequent cut-backs, when pictures of events long past flit between those of the present. The imagination anticipates the future or overcomes reality by fancies and dreams; the photoplay is doing all this more richly than any chance imagination would succeed in doing.' [6]

 

For anyone who has seen Resnais's film it will be impossible to read those words without thinking, 'Voila _Marienbad_'. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet's conception of film (and presumably Resnais's conception of this particular film) is rendered in almost identical words. In the preface to the screenplay, Robbe-Grillet says that he was drawn to Resnais's work because 'I recognized in it the attempt to construct a purely mental space and time, those of the dream, perhaps, or of memory, those of all affective life -- without being overly concerned with traditional causal links or with an absolute narrative chronology.' [7] And, in a statement quoted by Leutrat: 'I think one can arrive at a cinema without psychologically defined characters, in which the play of emotions would be in motion, as in a contemporary painting where the play of forms contrives to be stronger than the anecdote.' (27) When Munsterberg reflects that: 'Only the future can teach us whether it will become a great art, whether a Leonardo, a Shakespeare, a Mozart will ever be born for it', [8] does not the name of Resnais -- or at least Resnais in combination with Robbe-Grillet -- suggest itself?

 

The film must certainly make us wonder at the majority of films that still keep to the pre-modernist conventions of filmic reality -- at the power of the cultural conventions and cliches that make most films stay completely within pre-modernist notions of space, time, and causality, and resist being 'clothed in the forms of our own consciousness'. In his 'Schwierigkeiten in der Auffassung neuer Musik' ('Difficulties in Grasping Modern Music'), Adorno talks about tonality's 'power of resistance', how it has become second nature to people in a way that has made them impervious to the liberating experiential and aesthetic possibilities inherent in modern music. [9] His analysis seems appropriately transferable to film. In comparing tonal and atonal music, he says that the difference between the two 'is not the superficial one between one system, one ordering schema, and another, but rather that between a sedimented language on the one hand and, on the other, a process that has gone through the conscious will of emancipated consciousness'. [10]

 

Adorno asserts that to grasp modern music what is needed 'is essentially fantasy, what Kierkegaard called the speculative ear. The prototype of the genuine experience of modern music is the capacity to hear divergent things together, to co-generate unity in what is truly manifold.' [11] He points out the ways in which, on the one hand, tonality has become integrated into the ideology and experience of advanced industrial society, and, on the other, how the subjective capacity that would enable individuals to grasp modern music, i.e. the speculative ear and appropriate ways of paying attention or concentrating, are made difficult by that society's life conditions. Probably the same is true for film: the narrative and temporal conventions of standard 'Hollywood' films are so fundamental to the prescribed consciousness and ideology of advanced industrial society that the 'speculative eye' necessary for a film such as _Marienbad_ is not easily to be found. The more conventional viewer may respond as Kael did to _Marienbad_, _La Notte_, and _La Dolce Vita_:

 

'All we need to undermine and ridicule this aimless, high-style moral turpitude passing itself off as the universal human condition is one character at the parties -- like, say, Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux -- who enjoys every minute of it, who really has a ball, and we have the innocent American exploding this European mythology of depleted modern man.' [12]

 

To view _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_, the speculative eye will in fact be close to the speculative ear, because it is one of the most musical of films: secondarily through its use of music, but primarily through its method of construction, which could be described as symphonic, involving a story or drama that occurs through the repetition and elaboration of recurrent motifs (somewhat like a Wagnerian opera -- as Leutrat reports, when composer Francois Seyrig began discussions with Resnais to determine the latter's conception of the film score, it turned out that he had something Wagnerian in mind for the music as well).

 

For those who are interested in the film, Leutrat's book is a valuable discussion of the work and its background, ranging in its treatment from the personal and cultural backgrounds of 'the two Alains' (director Resnais and screenwriter Robbe-Grillet), through details of the film's production down to the level of costumes to interpretation and a review of critical opinion. The book's chapters bear the titles 'A Controversial Work', 'The Film's Background', 'The Genesis of the Film', 'A Description of the Film', 'The Two _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_s' (this refers to the fact that the screenplay by Robbe-Grillet was published as an autonomous work even though it was written as the film's screenplay, and that Robbe-Grillet and Resnais, despite declarations of unanimity, seem to have had somewhat differing interpretations of it), and '_L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ and the History of Cinema'.

 

Given the short (71-page) compass of the book, it provides as much information as either a fan or critic could wish for, bringing out especially the differences and tensions between Resnais's and Robbe-Grillet's conceptions, the unusual aesthetic ideals that help account for the film's distinctive aesthetic (e.g. Robbe-Grillet's and Resnais's shared wish to make a film that would be 'between statuary and opera'), and technical details about the production process that help the filmgoer understand what makes the film what it is. For example, despite the sense of complete planning, down to the level of the painted shadows, there was considerable improvisation on the set, and Robbe-Grillet and Resnais differed about the musical soundtrack -- Robbe-Grillet wanted a mixture of percussive sounds, twelve-tone music, and the background noises of a hotel, Resnais wanted a mixture of modernism and, as noted above, something Wagnerian (which is, of course, what he got). Leutrat also provides valuable quotations from those who worked on and in the film that illuminate it in a variety of ways, from how Delphine Seyrig's wardrobe was chosen to how continuity was established among scenes of the main actors walking down a hallway that were actually shot in three different hallways in three different castles. Also, the cultural background provided -- such as Resnais's exposure to and appreciation of surrealism, the world and values of the 'nouveau roman' that surrounded Robbe-Grillet, and the musical context in which Francis Seyrig's music was composed (Resnais's first choice for a composer was Messiaen, who declined the offer) -- offers valuable context for understanding the film.

 

Since _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ is of philosophical importance, it could be said that anything that helps us understand the film could be considered of philosophical importance, and therefore that Leutrat's book about the film and its background is arguably of philosophical importance. Nevertheless, Leutrat's book is fundamentally unphilosophical, for it not only fails to directly analyze or reflect on _Marienbad_'s philosophical implications, but, more importantly, appears to misunderstand features of the film that are essential to its philosophical meaning. Shockingly, Leutrat fails to give a coherent account of the story and primary meaning of the film, even from a straightforward, 'unphilosophical' point of view. For example, the plot centers around a clear dramatic and psychological evolution. In the initial situation, the male lead, X, tries to remind and convince the female lead, A, that they had a love affair the previous year and that she promised to go away with him this year. She does not acknowledge this and believes that he is either mistaken or fabricating it. The evolution is a process of widening and deepening memory and reconstruction of the past in which the hypothesized past becomes richer and more real, leading to the resolution in which she accepts that this past did happen, at which point she does actually choose him and leave her 'husband', M, in order to be with X.

 

What is distinctive about the film is its manner of generating this evolution not through portraying a linear, chronological sequence of events but rather through the continual, musical shifting, recycling, and deepening of scenes, images, memories, and fantasies from the past and the present. That is, from within the static material of the given, so that the given is, as it were, reconstructed as a dynamic movement that transcends itself toward the future, much as in psychoanalysis the return to a deeper understanding of the past -- through shifting back and forth between: past and present; reality, dream, and fantasy; perception and memory; and childhood and adulthood -- leads to a transformation of the self that enables it to transcend itself and engage and act in the present and future rather than merely repeat the past.

 

Yet a reader of Leutrat's book could be pardoned for laying down the book without even understanding this plot, because the author, by emphasizing the way in which the film mixes past, present, and future, and by repeatedly asking rhetorical questions about what the film might mean, gives the impression that the film is a confusing, perpetual static recycling of those time dimensions, rather than one in which a dramatic evolution occurs. He sees the film as representing a kind of eternal present moment that consists entirely of the repetition of the past: ''L'annee derniere' is *a priori* that past which, over time, the present never ceases to repeat . . . We are in the temporality of the eternal return; confronted by the category of repetition' (61). But this is really the opposite of what the film is about, which is, as mentioned, the way in which transformation can use repetition and the discovery of deeper layers of memory and the past to move forward, to escape from repetition.

 

Without an adequate understanding of the film's plot, it is impossible to understand it philosophically, since part of the point of the film is that there is indeed 'real' or objective time, in which a dramatic evolution occurs both in the characters' inner experience and in their relationships and choices -- even though the real time and real evolution occur in consciousness and experience through a complex web of memories, present perceptions, and anticipations of the future that are ongoingly elaborated and constructed and whose sequence in consciousness (in other words, just as in most people's real lives) is not chronological. In Robbe-Grillet's words, 'the story that is told will appear [to the spectator] as the most realistic, the most true, that which corresponds best to his everyday affective life'. [13] This particular way of constructing the real is precisely what gives the film its aesthetic and philosophical interest.

 

Indeed what makes the alternation of scenes from past, present, and future -- from memory, imagined memory, present perception, and anticipation -- aesthetically valuable and philosophically significant, is precisely that through them a transformation occurs within the characters and in their relationships and lives -- otherwise this alternation would just be a technical trick, which is how Kael described it: 'all we get are games, and tricks that look like parodies of old movies and decorators' versions of film art'. [14] Rather, the film gets its life from the complex relationship and tension between 'real' or 'objective' time and the subjective temporality of both the characters and the film itself. For comprehending this it is helpful that Leutrat describes the diagram made by the script supervisor, in which the X axis represented 'the sequences in the order in which they appear on the screen', and the Y axis represented time:

 

'at the bottom the present, at the top the past (last year), and in between an intermediary area which has helped me graphically separate the present from the past more clearly, and which represents what one might call 'time in general' (in his shooting script Resnais spoke of 'eternity' shots). Lined up in the middle, these emphatic black touches were to represent shots that had no precise date, everything that was future time or timeless.' (31)

 

It would seem almost impossible to think or write about the film without recourse to: Freud's theories of the unconscious, dream construction, the Oedipus Complex, and symbolism; Husserl's analysis of internal time consciousness; Herbert Marcuse's notions of liberation from surplus repression and of the 'abolition of time in time'; and Adorno's analyses of form in Schoenberg, Kafka, and Beckett as the attempt to speak the truth about a false social reality. Not only does the film's method of construction use the Freudian mechanisms of primary process thinking, condensation, displacement, and symbolism and capture the timelessness of the unconscious and the quality of a dream, but, in true psychoanalytic fashion, the transformation that enables the characters to escape from repetition this year follows from recovering the previously repressed memory that the characters had had a sexual encounter the previous year: it is through the recognition of past love and desire that one breaks through the veil of repression, illusion, and self-deception. The story itself is an Oedipal struggle to the core: the single male (the diffident subject/narrator X) uses the seductive power of memory to attempt to wrest the desired female/maternal love object A (the remembered source of past gratification) from the control of her apparently more powerful 'husband' M, who fights back with the characteristically male/paternal mechanism of hyperrationalistic mind control (the instrumentally rational matchstick game, which he 'can lose but never does') and the phallic symbolism of shooting a revolver.

 

The attention to the intertwined time dimensions recalls Husserl's protentions and retentions, i.e. the precise and subtle way we are conscious within the present of time appearing before us and toward us and receding into the past. In a rather phenomenological vein, Robbe-Grillet points out the way in which the image in film has the same function as the present moment in time-consciousness, which itself contains our protentions of the future and retentions of the past:

 

'The essential characteristic of the image is its presence. Whereas literature disposes of an entire arsenal of grammatical tenses that make it possible to situate events in relation to one another, one can say that, on the [screen] image, verbs are always in the present . . . it is evident that what one sees on the screen is happening, we are given the action itself and not a report about it.' [15]

 

Even an image that is meant to be in the past 'is indistinguishable from present action, is in fact in the present'; and he also talks about leaving the spectator with 'pure subjectivities'. [16]

 

The transformation of the time of domination (represented by the matchstick game, the slow movement through empty corridors and around right angles) into a time of gratification (represented by the garden) has an analogue in Marcuse's notion of the 'abolition of time in time', in which the quality of time shifts from anxiety and insecurity in repressive civilization to an Eternal Return within human temporal experience in the alternate 'reality principle' of a non-repressive civilization. Robbe-Grillet himself clearly articulates the domination/liberation dimension of the film. He talks of the social world in which the story transpires as a 'prison', [17] a 'closed world, suffocating, people and things seeming equally the victims of some spell, as in those dreams where one feels oneself guided by a fatal order', and refers to the woman, A, as a 'prisoner perhaps still alive in that golden cage'; and what X 'offers her [is] a past, a future, and liberty'. [18] Together they leave 'toward something unnamed, something other: love, poetry, liberty . . . or, perhaps, death', [19] terms that evoke Marcuse's images of Orpheus and Narcissus as symbols of the otherness of an 'Erotic' society.

 

Finally, as suggested above, the film is illuminated by considering Adorno's analyses of the formal and linguistic procedures through which modernism ruptured with the classical, realistic, and naturalistic conventions of pre-modernist art, which are congruent with Robbe-Grillet's critique of commercial cinema's 'radical separation of scenario and image, story and style, in short, 'content' and 'form,'', whereas, as art, 'the cinema creates a reality with forms' and 'it is in its form that one must seek its veritable content', [20], a characteristically modernist formulation. In a Hegelian phrase that could be found in Adorno, Robbe-Grillet refers to the 'vulgar interpretive schemes' of most novels and films as 'the worst of abstractions' [21] compared to the real affective life of the viewer.

 

All of these connections are lacking in Leutrat's book. His own excursion into philosophical analysis is limited to references to Deleuze's work on repetition and the time-image, and his interpretation of the film is less satisfying than that of Roy Armes in _The Cinema of Alain Resnais_ over 35 years ago. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in pursuing the philosophical import and content of _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_, Leutrat's book provides useful materials.

 

Fielding Graduate Institute

New York, New York, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Kael, _I Lost It At The Movies_, p. 196.

2. Zagha, 'A Stagy Kind of Realism', p. 16.

3. Munsterberg, _The Film: A Psychological Study_, p. 82.

4. Ibid., p. 95.

5. Ibid., p. 74.

6. Ibid.

7. Robbe-Grillet, _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_, p. 10.

8. Munsterberg, _The Film: A Psychological Study_, p. 100.

9. Adorno, 'Schwierigkeiten in der Auffassung neuer Musik', p. 117.

10. Ibid., p. 118.

11. Ibid., p. 129

12. Kael, _I Lost It At The Movies_, p. 196.

13. Robbe-Grillet, _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_, p. 18.

14. Kael, _I Lost It At The Movies_, p. 186.

15. Robbe-Grillet, _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_, p. 15.

16. Ibid., pp. 15 and 17.

17. Ibid., p. 14.

18. Ibid., p. 13.

19. Ibid., p. 14.

20. Ibid., pp. 7 and 8.

22. Ibid., p. 18.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Theodor W. Adorno, 'Schwierigkeiten in der Auffassung neuer Musik', in _Impromptus: Zweite Folge neu gedruckter musikalischer Aufsaetze_ (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1968).

 

Roy Armes, _The Cinema of Alain Resnais_ (London, A. Zwemmer Limited, 1968).

 

Edmund Husserl, _The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness_, Translated by J. S. Churchill (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964).

 

Pauline Kael, _I Lost It At The Movies_ (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1965).

 

Herbert Marcuse, _Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud_, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

 

Hugo Munsterberg, _The Film: A Psychological Study_ (New York: Dover, 1970). Originally published as _The Photoplay: A Psychological Study_ (New York and London: D. Appelton and Company, 1916). Currently available in Allan Langdale, ed., _Hugo Munsterberg on Film: The Photoplay -- A Psychological Study and Other Writings_ (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).

 

Alain Robbe-Grillet, _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ (Paris: Les ditions de Minuit, 1961).

 

Muriel Zagha, 'A Stagy Kind of Realism' (Review of Alain Resnais, _Pas sur la bouche_), _The Times Literary Supplement_, no. 5273, 23 April 2004.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Jeremy J. Shapiro, 'Still Searching for Lost Time: On Leutrat on Resnais', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 39, July 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n39shapiro>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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