International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 40, July 2005







Jean-Louis Leutrat


Response to Shapiro



Translated by Douglas Morrey


First, let me thank _Film-Philosophy_ for giving me the opportunity to respond to the text that Jeremy J. Shapiro was kind enough to write about my short book on _L'Année derniŹre ą Marienbad_, and for allowing me to address the question of the cinema's relationship to philosophy.


I am entirely in agreement with Shapiro when he says that my essay is 'fundamentally unphilosophical'. It was not my intention to write a philosophical text. I am by no means hostile to such approaches but, having lived through the so-called 'structuralist' era and been familiar with its Lacano-Althusserian, pseudo-Marxist, and pseudo-psychoanalytical methods, I am extremely wary with regard to any application of a theory to a work of art. As Julien Gracq, a major contemporary French writer put it: why is it that these critics, having found a key, insist on transforming my work into some kind of lock? One could say the same, today, for methods like 'gender studies', made up of a bastardised Marxism and an extremely basic sociologism, together, obviously, with a psychoanalytic twist. The same is true for those methods that see films as documents to be studied by social historians. Shapiro, although he doesn't fall victim to such excesses, manifests the same tendency that can be found among young people in France confronted with the analysis of films, a tendency that seeks its operating instruments in works of philosophy. Once again, I am not opposed to this approach, but it strikes me as being a little hasty. The idea that _Marienbad_ could serve as an introduction to a seminar on phenomenology does a disservice both to _Marienbad_ and to phenomenology (at best it is a pedagogical gimmick). Resnais's film, as Shapiro rightly points out, 'stands on its own aesthetically'. It is difficult to account for the film as an aesthetic object, and yet this task is essential before we can proceed any further with its interpretation. Hence this task must take priority.


We cannot, after all, grasp the sense of a film without first performing a thorough 'formal' analysis. Meaning is born in the work of form. The philosopher Pierre Macherey's remarks about works of literature are equally valid for films:


'It is in literary forms, and not beneath what they appear to say, or on some other level, that we must look for a philosophy of literature, which is the thought produced by literature, rather than that which, more or less beyond my control, produces it. Consequently, this thought is not to be extracted from these forms like some foreign body that could be reassembled via a system of separate statements . . . Here, content is nothing outside of the figures in which it manifests itself: it coincides with these figures, just as they are reflected in the movement that creates them: we could talk about a complete agreement between the 'message' and the vehicle of its transmission'. [1]


Similarly, another philosopher, Francis Jacques, writes: 'There is no use in trying to discern a content for which the textual form would be merely a kind of dressing. One cannot distinguish, even by abstraction, thought from expression'. [2] I believe therefore that, rather than rushing into interpretative systems, we should observe how the film is presented to us as a constructed aesthetic object. For instance, directors may invest considerable care, time and energy to elaborate their works around 'details' that they know the spectator will never notice (they can even ensure that they go unnoticed): but this invisibility is not an argument for ignoring such details, on the contrary: 'In art,' wrote Kandinsky, 'that which is concealed is most powerful'. Consequently, the discovery, or the bringing to light of such 'details' is all the more important for a fair appreciation of the work; and it can, in some circumstances, allow for greater understanding. This is the case with _Marienbad_ as with many other important works of art.


When I read that _Marienbad_ 'demands philosophical treatment', I am bound to ask: is this not a rather arbitrary statement of principle? What is it about this film that demands a philosophical approach? At the same time, why not -- provided this approach allows me better to understand the film. Unfortunately I am not at all sure that the combination of Freud plus Husserl plus Marcuse plus Adorno (and the list could go on) is likely to help me better understand this film. I would remind you that Gilles Deleuze compared Resnais's films to what Prigogine and Stengers, in _Order out of Chaos_, called 'baker transformations'. As he wisely concluded: 'What we are trying to demonstrate is not that Resnais is applying scientific knowledge to cinema, but rather that he has created, with his own cinematic methods, something that finds an equivalent in mathematics and physics'. [3] The argument that, in _Marienbad_, the time of domination is transformed into the time of gratification according to a schema borrowed from Marcuse doesn't tell me anything about the film, especially as I don't understand why the match game or the tracking shots along the corridors should belong to the time of domination, whilst the scenes in the garden would express the time of gratification. At any rate, these assertions are merely hypotheses and would need to be backed up with evidence.


Furthermore, I am struck by the fact that Shapiro always refers to Alain Robbe-Grillet and rarely to Alain Resnais. If I sought to separate the two _Marienbad_s in my book, it is because I feel that the film adaptation of Robbe-Grillet's 'ciné-roman' is altogether distinct from this ciné-roman, and not only because one is a work of cinema whilst the other belongs to the domain of literature. The film, although it appears to stick closely to the screenplay, in fact makes so many small (and not so small) changes that it differs from it completely. One needs only to look at the films Robbe-Grillet went on to direct to understand that he and Resnais are on two very different wavelengths. I admit that Freudian ideas (in their most banal sense) may be relevant to Robbe-Grillet (since he knows them and plays with them), but I don't believe they are relevant to Resnais (who doubtless knows them, but doesn't play with them). I would point out also that Resnais's oeuvre did not end with _Marienbad_ and that, to talk about this film, it would be helpful to consider other films like _Je t'aime je t'aime_ or _Providence_. And this remark goes for me as much as for Shapiro. Finally, _Marienbad_ is situated at once within a very French tradition (Nerval) and mixed with other traditions, be they Anglo-Saxon (Cavalcanti, Crichton, Deardon, and Hamer's _Dead of Night_) or Argentine (Bioy Casares's 'The Invention of Morel'). These comparisons are all the more pertinent since evidence for them can be found in the film itself.


'Without an adequate understanding of the film's plot, it is impossible to understand it philosophically . . .', writes Shapiro -- supposing we must of necessity understand this film 'philosophically' (but why must we?). As I stated above, meaning is constructed principally out of formal choices and not by 'plots'. When one approaches a film through its screenplay, one focuses on that which is least cinematic about it. Regarding this plot, Shapiro discerns a narrative progression concluding in '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'. Shapiro cannot deny that identifying M as the woman's husband is a choice of his own, since the film never states that this is the case. In the same way, we are entitled to ask whether this 'end' is really an end (in the sense of a conclusion to a dramatic progression) since we hear this sentence during the play that is finishing at the beginning of the film: 'This story is now, already, over.' We know that 'this story' is the story of the film (by a kind of mise-en-abyme) and that it only ends in order to begin again. Furthermore, Resnais didn't want the word 'Fin' ('The End') to appear in the film. I did not propose a univocal interpretation of this film because the desire of the filmmakers was clearly that everyone should be allowed to interpret it according to their own means. In this sense, Shapiro's proposals are as valid as any others, but no more or less so.


The relations between philosophy and cinema thus take at least two forms, depending on the texts. Some of these texts (Shapiro's for example) use philosophical tools in order to 'interpret' works of art, and I have said all I have to say about that. Others are written by philosophers about cinema. In this field, in France, Gilles Deleuze has gone farther than anyone else. But that is another question, for a future text.


University of Paris 3

Paris, France





1. Pierre Macherey, _A quoi pense la litterature?_ (Paris: P.U.F., 1990), p. 187.


2. Francis Jacques, 'L'ordre du texte', in _Encyclopedie philosophique universelle_, vol. IV (Paris: P.U.F., 1998), p. 1764.


3. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: L'Image-temps_ (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 156 n. 30.



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2005



Jean-Louis Leutrat, 'Response to Shapiro', trans. Douglas Morrey, _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 40, July 2005 <>.









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