Descartes: Meditations AND

Last Year at Marienbad

Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Released 1961
With Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, Sacha Pitoeff, and others

The film seems to present the drama of a love triangle, but the events are not told in any linear fashion, nor do they constitute a story in the usual sense. Scenes, conversations, detail shots and panorama views are fragmented, mixed, re-composed, and their parts rhythmically repeated as in a slow-motion kaleidoscope. The film has been described as a formalistic experiment in the medium of film—in the sense in which cubist paintings have been described as formalistic studies. “Last Year at Marienbad” is not a popular film, as it ignores all the rules of narrative fiction and the established Hollywood dramaturgy that today’s mass audiences expect. It is, however, recognized as one of the outstanding landmarks of modern artistic cinematography.

The film has baffled many viewers, even viewers who enjoy seeing it. As with many works of modernism, there is no unanimously accepted explanation of its meaning. In the following study “Last Year at Marienbad” will be interpreted as an artistic presentation of the inner dialectic of the Cartesian mind.

As far as a story line can be identified in the film, it can be summarized as follows: In a spacious baroque castle, that is run as a modern luxury hotel for an upper-class clientele, one of the guests (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to persuade a woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they have had something like an affair the previous year, and that this year she ought to elope with him to a new life outside the geometric architecture and highly formal society of the establishment–away also from the man who seems to be watching over her (Sacha Pitoeff), and who may be her husband. In the course of various encounters and conversations the protagonist gradually succeeds in bending the woman to his will, and at the end of the movie the two seem to be ready to leave the splendid world of the hotel for an unknown destination.

The characters in the film are all nameless. But in the script the protagonist is referred to as “X,” the woman as “A,” and the presumed husband as “M.”

“Last Year at Marienbad” starts with introductory shots of the labyrinthine castle the baroque design of which is as consciously geometric as it is overloaded with theatrical decorations and elaborate ornaments. We also catch first glimpses (by way of framed prints on the walls) of the park outside with its exceedingly regular lay-out–typical of the French garden architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the camera moves slowly through the hallways, galleries, and salons of the hotel’s seemingly endless structure, we hear the voice of the protagonist:

I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors–silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls …

The voice is solemn and monotonous, and the series of architectural shots seems as interminable as the accumulated descriptions in the spoken text. It is out of this hypnotic monotony that the first hints at a love story arise:

Between these walls covered with woodwork, stucco, moldings, pictures, framed prints, among which I was walking–among which I was already waiting for you, very far away from this setting where I now stand, in front of you, still waiting for the man who will no longer come, who no longer threatens to come to separate us again, to tear you away from me. Are you coming?

What seems to be addressed by the protagonist lover to the woman of his desires, however, turns out to be spoken by an actor on a stage as a piece of dialogue from some drama. That drama is being performed at the hotel as entertainment for the guests. By and by the camera reveals the whole cast that presents the conclusion of a triangle story in a somewhat stilted and melodramatic manner. What at first seemed real, in other words, is only a performance; what appeared natural is really only a theatrical construction. The deliberate artificiality of the theatre scene is emphasized by the fact that the stage actors are posturing rather than acting like ordinary people. They assimilate their demeanor to the histrionic baroque statues that flank the stage, and that will soon be in evidence in many other locations of the hotel’s premises. The lack of naturalness and spontaneity, as will be seen, is a pervasive feature throughout the structures and happenings at the hotel.

Gradually we see more of the other hotel guests, who are all dressed in formal attire, and who are engaged in polite and low-key conversations while standing or moving about decorously and in the unobtrusive manner of an up-scale clientele. This is decidedly a leisure class culture. Nobody is ever in a hurry; and no one conducts any business; the everyday world of commerce and work never comes into view in the film. Much of the guests’ time is spent with typical leisure activities and games–marksmanship competitions, ballroom dancing, dominoes, poker, and a game without a name in which the apparent husband of the woman invariably excels. This nameless game is played repeatedly throughout the film.

It is played by placing cards or other suitable objects in the following order:





Two players then take turns in removing as many cards from a row as they wish–with the restriction that the cards have to be taken from one row only each time. (A little bit of practice will reveal that the player who takes the first card or cards is bound to lose the game. But that is not evident by just watching the movie once or twice–or to most of the guests who see the game played in the story.)

X and M, the two rivals for the woman, play the game several times. M always wins. “Can you ever lose?” X asks him at one point. “I can lose,” M replies, “but I always win.” M plays the game, as all the other games, very ceremoniously. The games are, in fact, deliberately executed ceremonies. They are an activity whose very essence is structure—or form for form’s sake. Moving inside regular structures, and acting according to clear and prescribed rules, is the deeply felt need of the hotel society portrayed in the film.

There are several encounters and conversations between X and A during which X keeps suggesting that they have known each other since last year. Where would they have met? the woman wants to know. A’s question is playful, for she does not seem to think that the two have ever seen each other before. X’s answer is vague, and he implies that it does not really matter. He settles, however, for Marienbad–at a hotel very similar to the one where they are now. The woman just laughs at X’s suggestion, but at times she seems to grow weary and annoyed at X’s persistent attempts to convince her of the reality of their amorous encounter at Marienbad. After some time X’s persistence seems to have its intended effect: the woman does not outright deny their past encounter anymore, although she still shows some resistance to the suitor’s advances. X mentions some specific details of what happened during their alleged time at Marienbad, details that have the ring of truth to them. Eventually X even produces a bracelet and a snapshot that are hers, and that could well have played a role in their past encounter.

X’s professed goal is to take A away. He maintains that that was their agreement–that A would think things over for a year, and then leave with him if they should meet again: “It was on that day [last year] that you gave me the little bracelet. And you asked me to allow you a year, thinking perhaps that you might test me that way… or wear me out… or forget me. But time, time doesn’t count. I’ve come, now, to take you away.” A keeps resisting, however. Over and over she tells X: “No, no.” “Let me alone … Please …”

At one point X submits a more dramatic episode of their alleged past at Marienbad: “One evening, I went up to your bedroom…” Changing images of a plush bedroom appear in this sequences of shots. At a subsequent point X’s voice describes the details of the alleged bedroom occurrence: “At that hour, in any case, he [M] is at the gambling table. I had warned you I would come. You didn’t answer. When I came I found all the doors ajar…” At a still later point X asserts: “You’ve always been afraid. But I loved your fear that evening. I watched you, letting you struggle a little… I loved you. There was something in your eyes, you were alive… finally… I took you, half by force.” A few moments later X recants the rape aspect of his visit to A’s bedroom: “Oh no… Probably it wasn’t by force… But you’re the only one who knows that.”

Still more drama is added to the story by X’s tale of M’s alleged jealous rage. M, after a conversation with A in her bedroom, leaves–supposedly to exercise with other male guests at the hotel’s shooting gallery. X intends to use M’s absence to pay A a visit. Unexpectedly M reenters A’s bedroom, brandishing his pistol. He shoots A, who comes to lie on a rug in a lascivious posture. The alleged incident is conveyed both by images and words.

Before long X recants this whole story, however: “No, this isn’t the right ending… I must have you alive…” The fact that X begins to treat details of last year’s events at Marienbad like obvious fictions of a conventional movie drama naturally casts doubts on the entirety of his allegations concerning their affair. It begins to look as if X is putting fabricated ideas into A’s head, ideas that she is increasingly inclined to treat as reality, and on the basis of which she eventually is willing to follow through with X’s proposed elopement scenario.

In the end we see A in traveling clothes, waiting in a lobby for X and the clock’s stroke of midnight–the deadline she has set in order to give M a chance to prevent her from leaving. The clock strikes, X appears, and A gets up to leave with him. A little later M appears, troubled, in the vacant lobby, and then walks to his suite. The last shot of the film is of the castle looming darkly in the night, while X’s voice defines the conclusion of the story: “The park of this hotel was a kind of garden a la francaise without any trees or flowers, without any foliage… Gravel, stone, marble and straight lines marked out rigid spaces, surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here… down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me.”

In the Labyrinth of Solipsism

One of the things that characterizes “Last Year at Marienbad” as modernistic is the deliberate indeterminacy of the plot. The viewer can never be quite sure about what is happening at the hotel, let alone about what happened a year earlier at “Marienbad.” Does A ever believe what X is telling her? Have X and A ever met in the past? Is the enigmatic M the woman’s husband? Is X in love with A, or is he playing some sort of elaborate game that has nothing to do with amorous feelings? And if there has been an encounter at Marienbad, which of the individual events mentioned or depicted in the film are real, and which ones are fantasies, projections, or outright fabrications? All we ever have to go on is what X tells us, and what he conveys is uncertainty about alleged facts as much as a report of these facts. What is important is that all the above questions are in principle unanswerable. The film never provides the viewer with the means to tell what is real and what is fictitious. A closer look at the details of the scenes and events in question will show that Robbe-Grillet and Resnais went out of their way to make sure that everything in their story is and remains ambiguous and uncertain.

At first X maintains, for example, that he has met A at Frederiksbad. When A protests that she has never been there, X replies: “Well, then it was somewhere else, maybe, at Karlstadt, at Marienbad, or at Baden-Salsa–or even here, in this salon.” Nothing in the film ever pinpoints the exact locations of the alleged past events–as little as it determines the reality of crucial details. Even the presumably unforgettable act of rape is left hovering between possibility and fact. Pieces of seemingly hard evidence of past encounters, such as the bracelet and the snapshot, are quickly discounted as proofs of anything. Concerning the photograph, for example, A points out that “anyone could have taken the snapshot, at any time, and anywhere: the setting was vague, remote, scarcely visible…” All these uncertainties about important events go together with the film’s practice of frequently showing details as different when they should be the same. A’s bedroom is furnished quite differently every time it is shown, and sometimes A is wearing different dresses even within the same scene or during the same conversation. It is the basic strategy of the film to eliminate systematically the difference between fact and fiction, between inner thought and external event..

The ambiguities and uncertainties that characterize the story are not a matter of memories that fail here and there–because too much time has passed, or because the events in question were too trivial, or for some other realistic reason. Rather, the makers of “Last Year in Marienbad” consciously set out to expose or present everything in the film as a deliberate artifice. “Last Year at Marienbad” is sometimes described as “the story of a persuasion”–the story of a man who attempts to convince a woman of the reality of certain past events, and thereby to persuade her to elope with him. What we see in the film, however, is not a persuasion in any realistic sense at all. The things X tries to persuade A to accept are too fantastic, too implausible, or too incoherent to be believable for even a very gullible person. “What is your name?” A asks X during a somewhat intimate rendez-vous in the park of the hotel. “It doesn’t matter,” X replies. This can hardly be a conversation among two people who have had a significant encounter a year earlier, and who have made an arrangement to meet again and to possibly elope. It would not even be a plausible exchange among the two if they had met at the hotel just a few days ago. The exchange is more like a dreamy philosophical meditation that the authors have put into the protagonists’ mouths. It has the same function of rendering the story non-realistic as X’s “recollection” of M’s jealous rage. When X says that M shot A with his marksmanship pistol, and then recants his report because it would not be a suitable ending of the story, he clearly indicates the fictional nature of the whole Marienbad yarn. If the report of M’s violent act is an obvious fiction, any other alleged happening might obviously be the same. And revealing the fictional nature of his tales to A cannot help to “persuade” the woman. “Last Year at Marienbad” does not tell a story about uncertain memories and conflicting feelings, but is a deliberately incoherent composition of materials gathered from conventional triangle stories and the fantasies of their readers and viewers.

The over-all implication of composing facts, presumed facts, memories, fantasies, possibilities, wishes, and things that can be either past or present into one continuous flow of cinematic sequences is the creation of an artistic space in which all visible and audible happenings are on the same ontological level. The difference between real and imaginary, present and past, or actual and possible are systematically eliminated in this space. The structure of the story is not shaped by the logic of realistic external conditions and events, and it does not provide the viewer with an objective framework of space and time. It represents, rather, the subjective order of emerging and disappearing memories, fantasies, desires, projections, and a host of other purely inner experiences. In the Introduction to the printed version of his screenplay Robbe-Grillet talks about his and Resnais’ intention to “construct a purely mental space and time–those of dreams, perhaps, or of memory, those of any affective life–without worrying too much about the traditional relations of cause and effect, or about an absolute time sequence in the narrative.”

To the extent that this “purely mental space and time” is cut off from any objective reality against which it can be checked, i. e., to the extent that it is impossible within the film to determine with certainty whether any event is real or fictional, the flow of images, thoughts, and events of “Last Year at Marienbad” is the equivalent of the self-contained, solitary mind of the Cartesian self. The whole sequence of events conveyed by the film is like the interior monologue of one individual—presumably that of X. Descartes holds that all we can really be certain of is that we experience something–the content of our minds. Whether the content of my mind corresponds to anything outside my mind I cannot possibly know. I seem to have the experience of seeing a world and other people around me, but I can never be entirely sure whether these experiences are merely mental, like a dream, or whether they are caused by real things and people outside my mind. The world experienced by a Cartesian, in other words, is in principle like the flow of events and images presented in “Last Year at Marienbad.” It is a world which I cannot leave, and the reality of which (its ontological status) I cannot determine. It is a world in which nothing may be real, and in which I may, indeed, be the only existing being.

The whole story of “Last Year at Marienbad” is ultimately the dialectic of the Cartesian mind—its imprisonment in itself, and its anxious attempts to get out and to find a real world and other human beings. X’s important desire is not to win A, it is not an amorous passion. It is, rather, the Cartesian’s attempt to escape from solipsism. X’s courtship is an ontological quest. His anxiety is that of the Cartesian individual who wants to make sure that there is something real beyond the contents of his own mind, and that there are other beings like himself. The hotel is the labyrinth of the Cartesian mind that inspires the search for a way out, but that also reveals every seeming exit as yet another part of the labyrinth. This is also shown by another way in which X tries to escape from the Cartesian world.

In spite of the systematic ambiguities concerning the plot of “Last Year at Marienbad,” the film does tell some sort of story. The story describes a love triangle the basic schema of which has served as a basis for countless literary and cinematic productions: A man challenges another man for the affection and loyalty of a woman. The woman is shown to agonize about the choice she has to make. What is challenged in this particular drama, however, is not just the relationship between A and M, but an entire social establishment and its corresponding mind-set. X does not just want to win A, he also wants to overcome the conditions of a society and a life that are based on Cartesian principles.

X is clearly an outsider among the inhabitants of the hotel: He speaks with a slight accent, and he consistently loses when he plays the game without a name with M, the man who is fully integrated in the hotel society, and who seems to be the unbeatable master in that field of contest. X does not waste much time on polite conversations, social games, or other distractions; he is single-mindedly engaged in the conquest of A as a way of combating the Cartesian world of the hotel. (At one point X may have learned that the only way to avoid defeat in the nameless game is to refuse to play it—to refuse to make the first move whenever M challenges him to do so.)

X is a determined rebel. He conceives of himself as a contender of life against the deadness of the Cartesian world. He sees that the architecture of the hotel and its park is not only unnatural, but decidedly anti-nature, and he abhors the lethal grip that geometry has on nature and life. Although the following words are spoken by another man, they express X’s own frustration that is caused by the stifling effect of the hotel’s artificial environment on human emotions and relationships: “A garden reassuringly arranged, with clipped bushes, and regular paths where we walk with measured steps, side by side, day after day, within arm’s reach but without ever coming an inch closer to each other,…” X’s own critical summary of the hotel’s Cartesian world is expressed in the following description:

I have never heard anyone raise his voice in this hotel–no one… The conversations developed in the void, as if the sentences meant nothing, were intended to mean nothing in any case. And a sentence, once begun, suddenly remained in suspension, as though frozen by the frost… But starting over afterwards, no doubt, at the same point, or elsewhere. It didn’t matter. It was always the same conversations that recurred, the same absent voices. The servants were mute. The games were silent, of course. It was a place of relaxation, no business was discussed, no projects were undertaken, no one ever talked about anything that might arouse the passions. Everywhere there were signs: Silence, Quiet.

For X this Cartesian environment is not the secure and untroubled world that it might be for the troubled followers of Descartes, but a prison that mortifies everything that is lively in the human spirit: “There were always walls–everywhere, around me–smooth, even, glazed, without the slightest relief, there were always walls…” “Always walls, always corridors, always doors–and on the other side, still more walls.”

X’s struggle against the Cartesian world is connected with his pursuit of A because he sees that A may succumb to the dead life of the hotel. Basically X distinguishes A from the rest of the crowd because he sees certain signs of life in her: “I told you that you looked alive,” he once tells her. Sometimes, however, A herself stands motionless and with a vacant gaze among the emptily chatting guests and the theatrical decorations; the script describes her on those occasions as “statuesque.” And even when she is engaged in seemingly lively conversations with others, X fears that her liveliness may be less than genuine: “You were taking part in the conversation with an animation that seemed false to me.” A’s liveliness, in other words, may sometimes or often have been of the sort that one sees on a stage; her seemingly engaged conversation may have been a social performance. X intends to rescue her from such empty liveliness.

At first sight X seems to win his struggle against the Cartesian world: At the end of the film X and A, in traveling clothes, leave the hotel to start a new and different life somewhere else. A closer look at the ending of the film suggests otherwise, however. X’s last words state explicitly that the pair is getting lost in the very world that they are seemingly leaving: in the Cartesian park with its clipped bushes and regular pathways that add up to a giant labyrinth. Proceeding from the inside of the building to the open spaces of the park represents, to be sure, a certain escape or liberation. (It is significant that earlier in the movie the pair was increasingly shown outside the walls of the hotel.) But the gardens of the park are still part of the hotel, part of the Cartesian world. In taking their leave X and A are not getting very far. All they accomplish is a certain variation of their life inside the Cartesian world. Hence their subdued and ritualistic way of moving in the final scene–entirely unlike passionate lovers who have found each other and who are joyfully escaping from confinement and oppression. All they do is enact the stage play that was shown at the beginning of the film. What they say and do is not spontaneous and free, but part of a studied ritual. Hence also the fact that the very last picture is that of the dark and looming castle which, although the camera is moving away from it, “seems to grow larger and larger” (according to the screenplay).

In his famous Dream Argument Descartes reminds us that waking up from a dream can itself be part of a dream. No matter how awake we feel, we may still be asleep and in the grip of a dream. There is no possible way of getting “outside” of our minds to determine in what state we actually are; inescapably we remain imprisoned in our minds. It is similar with X’s and A’s escape from the hotel. Although X and A rebel against the confinements of the world of the castle, and although they intend to leave their present life by going “somewhere else,” their futile rebellion is nothing more than yet another variation of life at the hotel. The end of the theatrical and ceremonial life is itself a ritual and part of the show.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2004.)