LAST MONTH Alain Resnais commented on the diversity of interpretations with which the viewer can approach his new film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad. Now we can continue the discussion, with writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and discover the influences the winner of the Venice Golden Lion may have on world cinema. The picture itself plays tricks with time. What, to the ereator, does the time element mean in a film?
ROBBE-GRILLET: An image is always in the present. I remember an era when the idea of the past was established by a halo—a halo which often persisted throughout the entire flashback. But we soon reverted to using the same photographic quality for the present as for the past. In other words, we admit that everything is in the present.
RESNAIS: You say we soon reverted. It wasn’t as soon as all that. The first real example of the past into the present, with images of absolute clarity, and without recourse to the dissolve or a little snatch of indicative music, was, I believe, Orphée, when Roger Blin makes his statement to the police. At that moment we see a shot of the past, then the conversaton continues exactly as before. I have the idea that it was Cocteau who first used this technique so precisely.
QUESTION: Already in Hiroshima Mon Amour I felt that the flashback was no longer being used for strictly dramatic ends. The flux of images which it provoked rather smothered its dramatic function.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Yes, in Hiroshima the spectator could still think back on the scenes and mentally replace them in their chronological order. There were certain shots which one didn’t at first recognize as belonging to the past. For example, the shot showing the body of the German soldier. Its shock value is total, but, of course, any spectator who wants to be pedantic about it could always say to himself later: “Ah, yes, she was remembering the death of her first lover.” But the kind of realism we are seeking is: she sees the Japanese on the bed, suddenly, she sees the dead German. There are two images, one exterior to her, the other interior.
But since she sees them both on the same plane, as it were, the cinema should be able to give them both the same present quality.
RESNAIS: All in all, it represents a victory for realism. At least it is a gain for realism. It is not for us to pass judgment on the old-fashioned rhetoric which used symbols to introduce the past, but it certainly has no more justification than any other convention. Try for yourselves. Talk to someone for quarter of an hour, then stop and ask him: “You’ve seen what’s been happening. We are here, in a restaurant, eating. I talked about the sea, holidays. Which would be the most realistic way of showing the scene we have just lived through during the last quarter of an hour? To show the two of us dining in a restaurant, or to show the beach and the waves we have been talking about? Or even to show them, not in the way we spoke of it, but in presenting the mental images in our heads, corresponding, interfering, even contradicting one another?”
ROBBE-GRILLET: Obviously all this is contrary to ingrained habits, to a rhetoric which the public accepts, but which is not functionally linked to the way the human spirit works. It is associated with an artistic style, a certain romanticism, but scarcely to a mental reality. It is not for reasons of human truth that the past was introduced with specific references to the past, that the restaurant was showed in preference to the waves. It is just a convention; I should call it sheer formalism.
RESNAIS: Now, I have certain scruples. We can’t say it was never done. I am thinking of Mongol Train (The Blue Express?—R.E.D.) which I saw seventeen years ago. We see a fat capitalist in a restaurant car, flinging his hand forward into the lens. We are shown his hand with three huge fingers and immediately afterwards a torpedo-boat whose three guns are repeating approximately the movements of his hand.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Yes, of course, but what distinguishes Marienbad, and may prove rather disconcerting, is simply the general use of these devices. They are not disguised as exceptions to a rule, but as a consistent style of thinking, completely compatible with realism—perhaps more realistic. When we say that what goes on in our minds is just as real as what goes on in front of our eyes, we are laying the foundations for a cinematic style which can switch to and from between the things around us, like this tape-recorder, and the subject of our conversation, and include images more or less intermediary between the scene around us, your thoughts, my thoughts, and so on. Such a film still employs conventions, but would be rather more realistic than the convention of systematically restricting oneself to any one category of reality.
RESNAIS: In any case, if you study Marienbad closely, you see that certain images are ambiguous, that their degree of reality is equivocal. But some images are far more clearly false, and there are images of lying whose falsity is, I feel, quite evident. You mustn’t think that while shooting we amused ourselves and left the spectator to sort it out.
ROBBE-GRILLET : The use of decor is characteristic. When the room has an extraordinarily complicated baroque decor, or the walls are heavily encrusted with wedding-cake ornamentation, we are probably watching a rather unreliable image. Similarly when the heroine takes 300 identical photographs from a drawer, the image is improbable and must be more imaginary than objective. Perhaps, if we were speaking in terms of a strictly objective reality, we might say she only took one picture out; but she wished there were 300. Not that we can always give a single and definite interpretation of an image.
Q: What is so striking about L’Année dernière à Marienbad is the experience of being confronted by an object requiring all our resources of understanding and interpretation—like a fragment of reality.
ROBBE-GRILLET: The question is whether the uncertainties aroused by the images are more intense than all the uncertainties of everyday encounters or whether they are of the same order. Personally I believe that things really happen as vaguely as this. The theme is of a passionate love affair and it is precisely these relationships which comprise the highest proportion of inconsistencies, doubts and phantasms. Marienbad is as opaque as the moments we live through in the climaxes of our feeling, in our loves, in our whole emotional life. So to reproach the film for its lack of clarity is really to reproach human feelings for their obscurity.
Q: There is a risk of misunderstanding here. For if Marienbad does seem obscure, it is not because you deliberately conceal certain items which might clarify the film.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Exactly. We show everything even those things which can’t be reduced to simple explanations. It is strange how people will quite willingly accept the plethora of irrational or ambiguous factors in everyday life, yet complain bitterly when they come across them in works of art, whether novels or films, they suppose, ought to present something more reassuring than reality. They feel the work of art is made to explain the world to them, to provide them with reassurance. I am quite sure that art is not meant simply to reassure people. If the world is so complex, then we must re-create its complexity. For the sake of realism.
But we should go further. So far we seem to be assuming that reality exists “outside” the work of art; which is far from certain. A work of art is a kind of consciousness. The world of everyday life doesn’t exist completely without a consciousness to perceive it; and the same is true of a work of art. The events it recounts have no real existence outside the account which the work of art gives of them.
Q: In this connection, I have sometimes heard of films reproached for “formalism.”
ROBBE-GRILLET: It’s very strange how the people who reproach Marienbad for being “concocted” are those who accept as “spontaneous” works of art which scrupulously observe all the previously formulated rules of construction, all the formulae, all the conventions. And these people are reasoning as if there were a reality which existed before the work of art, and all a work of art did was to find the “form” in which it would be most accessible to the public. For us, on the contrary, the “anecdote” has no existence whatsoever beyond the “form” in which it is told. The genesis of the film is particularly illuminating. When Resnais and I had our first discussion, we found we had both conceived a cinematic “form” of the same kind. I knew that all my ideas on the Cinema would somehow suit whatever Resnais would set out to achieve from then on. It so happened that he wanted to make the kind of film I had been thinking of. I didn’t actually produce four outlines in three days for him, but I have written four projects each about a page and a half long, which I have had in mind for a long time.
RESNAIS: When I had finished reading his work I said to myself: we’ve already made one film together—Toute La Mémoire du Monde.
ROBBE-GRILLET: That doesn’t stop us from having different ideas about all his films or my novels. But we do seem to have a world in common, which we can both inhabit. There was never any question of compromise between Resnais and myself, but of a common “form” which functioned in the same way for us both, although it’s not certain that we both give the same importance to the details.
RESNAIS: We don’t have the same tastes, and we sometimes disagree violently about a book, a film, or a way of life .. .
ROBBE-GRILLET: All the same we are constantly having the same intuitions. For example, I was explaining a camera-movement, and Resnais said: “Don’t worry, it’s the movement I would have chosen in any case.” Still, it is quite possible that Marienbad isn’t exactly the same film for Resnais as it is for me. We must see the world around us rather different, although it’s the same world.
Q: This will probably startle you, but Marienbad reminded me of Bioy Casares’ book L’Invention de Morel (Morel’s Invention).
ROBBE-GRILLET: Not at all. I have nearly always been disappointed by what science-fiction I have read, but L’Invention de Morel is an astounding book. Oddly enough, Claude Ollier telephoned me after seeing Marienbad to say: “It’s just like L’Invention de Morel!”
RESNAIS: I’m not in A position to comment as I don’t know the book.
Q: It’s a novel written in the first person and based on the myth of “total cinema.” The narrator disembarks on an island where a machine perfected twenty years previously, reproduces in three dimensions events it has recorded. Naturally these 3-D images merge with the real world so closely that it is impossible to distinguish the two. Just as in some shots of Marienbad: the objects are under suspicion, they are there, but what are they really?
RESNAIS: Yes, the similarity to Marienbad is quite remarkable. We have had many surprises like this. I remember the first take we saw projected. It was a shot of the young woman, in the sunlight, on the balustrade, behind the statue. When the lights went up I said: “How funny, we’re right in the serials of Fantomas.”
ROBBE-GRILLET: And I described the shot without knowing the serials. I have hardly read the Fantomas stories.
Q: I thought of Fantomas too, but at the moment when the balustrade crumbles.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Yet that shot is described in detail in the scenario. And of course I could hardly have been influenced.
RESNAIS : It is one of the lying images. I remember telling Albertazzi as were shooting to stride over the balustrade in Arsene Lupin style. The feeling was there. And I think it’s legitimate, for, insofar as it is an image of the future, probably imagined, under the stress of her anguish, by the young woman, it is quite natural that she should have recourse to popular novels. It’s perfectly normal.
ROBBE-GRILLET: And at that moment the young woman says: “Depart, I beseech you, for the sake of the love you bear me!” which gives an idea of the theatricality of the scene.
RESNAIS: Which sharpens my regrets at not having directed Fantomas!
Q : These coincidences would tend to confirm the idea so dear to Malraux, that art derives its sustenance from art.
ROBBE-GRILLET: I think that the artist replenishes himself directly from the reality and that art interests us because we find in it ready-made the things to which we feel impelled by the emotions reality has generated in us. I don’t think we really derive our inspiration from art, not during our creative moments.
Q: So you would oppose Malraux’s theory?
RESNAIS: Personally I’m in favor of it. I think that a longing to belong to the world of art does exist very powerfully. It’s not incompatible with what Robbe-Grillet is saying.
ROBBE-GRILLET: The real shock is produced by the world and art is only a reminiscence of it. An illumination, perhaps. If I like, say, the work of Kafka it is really because I rediscover in it the way in which I have been seeing the world around me, it’s as if I knew it before I read it. When an image strikes me in the cinema, it is always because I recognize my own experience, otherwise communication would be impossible. Every work of art would be purely subjective and absolutely no contact with anyone else would be possible.
RESNAIS: A few years ago I received a letter from a lady, which said, more or less, “Ah, I have seen your film Van Gogh, what a marvelous film, what delightful journeys you must have made going to film all those different places.” She seemed to remember a film which showed both canvases by Van Gogh and real landscape!
Q: To return to Marienbad, there is one curious phenomenon. One can say equally well: it’s a Resnais film, or: it’s a Robbe-Grillet film. But it’s no secret that there are a few minimal differenees between the very detailed shooting script and the finished product.
ROBBE-GRILLET: In the scenario I handed over to Resnais there were already numerous specifications as to editing, composition, and the camera-movement. But I had no notion of the technical terms used in the Cinema nor of its real possibilities. I described a film which I saw in my imagination and in very naive terms.
RESNAIS: Not at all. In any event it was very precise. You even used many of the dodges of an experienced editor!
ROBBE-GRILLET: We didn’t use them all. For example towards the end there was a series of dissolves. None of them remains. They weren’t intended to indicate the passage of time; quite the reverse. For example there was a dissolve between two sequences in the present; and then a brusque transition between the present and the past.
Q: Yet in your books there is nothing corresponding to a dissolve.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Oh, there is, I think.
RESNAIS: NO. I don’t feel they are dissolves. They are phrases which transform the images. A dissolve wouldn’t give that impression.
Q : At any rate the dissolve, as an indication of the passage of time, would have no place in Marienbad. Is it reasonable to assume that the story unfolds in eight days, in 24 hours, or during the running time?
ROBBE-GRILLET: One can say that the only time is the time of the film. There again, there is no reality outside the film. Everything is shown. Nothing is ever hidden and it is a mistake to think that the film’s hour and a half represents any longer period whether two hours, two days, or eight. I wouldn’t say the same of Clouzot’s La Vérité, for instance, which does create the impression that there is another time, more real than that of the film. For Marienbad, no other temporal order seems possible to me. All others are derived from “interpretations” and only restrict the film. But if we say that the story lasts an hour and a half, we leave it intact.
Q: There is one shot which surprised me and is even more surprising now I know that all the shots and their editing were preconceived on paper by Robbe-Grillet, and that is the long, over-exposed tracking-shot which concludes with a repetition of the last part of the movement. Such a shot is very hard to conceive beforehand.
RESNAIS: That is in fact one of the few shots which weren’t anticipated from the outset.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Resnais told me beforehand he wasn’t going to shoot what was written in the script. It was the point of friction between us. Resnais knew that, there, for a few seconds, there would be something else.
RESNAIS: The idea for the new version came to me a fortnight or more before shooting.
ROBBE-GRILLET: There was another passage which I hadn’t anticipated, although I should have thought of it myself, for it strikes me as exactly right; it’s the series of shots where we see Delphine Seyrig sitting in various ways on the left and right of her bed, in quick succession: I feel quite upset over not having thought of that!
Q: What were your feelings on seeing the film for the first time?
ROBBE-GRILLET: I found it far more beautiful than I had imagined. I recognized it as my film, but it had become marvelous. Everything had been planned: yet everything was still to be done. One can’t describe a shot as it eventually turns out; it is created during the shooting.
RESNAIS : All the same, if the shooting script took me only two and a half days to prepare it was only because Robbe-Grillet had anticipated everything so precisely.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Even so, a composition that has been foreshadowed by a description still has to be executed. It is obvious that the film would have been altogether different if it had been assigned to another director, or an electronic robot. It was a question, not of following my descriptions, but of directing them.
RESNAIS: Just as we had to execute the statue in the park.
ROBBE-GRILLET: One can think of Marienbad as a documentary about a statue: with “interpretative” glimpses of gestures and constant returns to the gestures as they endure, “frozen,” by the sculpture. Imagine a documentary which centered on a statue with two people, and succeeded in combining a series of shots, taken from different angles and by various camera-movements, so as to tell a complete story. And in the end we realize that we have returned to our starting point, the statue itself.
Q: In this sense, all your books are documentaries and it is because of their documentary quality that they seem to be fantasies. So the father of screen fantasy is not Méliès after all, but Lumière.
RESNAIS: In this case fantasy is much the more important of the two. The most fantastic moments of Nosferatu, for example, are the “realistic” moments.
ROBBE-GRILLET: Yes, in Marienbad the important thing is always a sort of hollow in the heart of the reality. In Marienbad it is the “last year” which provides the hollow. What happened then—if anything—produces a constant emptiness in the story. Similarly, the hero of Jealousy is only a void; and the main event of The Voyeur—the murder—is a void. The narrative covers everything as far as the void, and then everything subsequent to it; and we then try to join the two so as to dispose of that disquieting emptiness. But the opposite happens; the emptiness spreads, it fills everything. In Marienbad at first we think that there is no last year, then we realize that last year dominates everything: that we are definitely caught up in it. At first we think that Marienbad did not exist, only to realize that we have been there from the beginning. The event which the girl repudiates has, by the end of the film, contaminated everything. So much so that she has never ceased to struggle against it, to believe that she was winning, since she has always rejected everything, and, in the end, she realizes it is all too late, she has, after all, accepted everything. As if everything were true—although probably it isn’t. But true or false have been emptied of meaning.
RESNAIS: Of course, there was never any question of faking.
ROBBE-GRILLET: You know the phrase, “Larvatus prodeo,” “I advance masked, but revealing my mask.” The Cinema is a technique which displays itself. It is the unmasking of that technique which creates a truth. There is no question of a truth preexisting a technique whose job is to trap it. That is why I am inclined to say that the story lasts for an hour and a half and has no existence before or afterwards. If the characters leave at the end, it isn’t to go anywhere. They cease to be. There has never been anything but the film’s here and now.
Q: An example of the way the film exists is the proverb whose first words are repeated several times : “From the compass to the ship . . .”
ROBBE-GRILLET: Yes, if you like. I have invented a half-proverb. Again, we have concealed nothing from anyone. Why invent a whole proverb so as to retain only the first half? Evidently on the basis of that half-proverb we can imagine many things.
RESNAIS: One doesn’t need to know the rest. Say those words in a drawing room, everyone will seem to know the proverb. No one will ask what the rest of it is. I know. I’ve tried it!
First published in English in Films and Filming, March 1962, pp. 39-41; translated by Raymond Durgnat from Cahiers du Cinéma.