Marienbad hauntings


Last Year in Marienbad (1961). Via.

In our age of cultural plenitude it can be salutary to remember the time when many things were easy to discover but often impossible to experience; albums, books, and especially non-American films could all too frequently exist as rumours, referenced but always out of reach. Two films in particular dogged me for years in this remote manner: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by Wojciech Has, and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the film that Alain Resnais made from a very novelistic screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Philip Strick alerted me to this pair of films with tantalising descriptions in a time-travel chapter of his book-length study, Science Fiction Movies (1976). Marienbad isn’t a time-travel film as such (a later Resnais film, Je t’aime, je t’aime [1968] does deal with the subject, however, and even features an actual time machine), but it is sufficiently open-ended to allow a science-fictional rationale into its enigmatic spaces. Strick’s book covered all the familiar SF territory as well as looking beyond the clichés of Hollywood and the SF genre, hence the inclusion not only of Marienbad and Saragossa, but also Je t’aime, je t’aime, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), and Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Most of these films, which were seldom shown on TV, I had to wait years to see.


Marienbad page from Strick’s Science Fiction Movies.

I was reading Strick’s book in 1979, and since I was bored with generic clichés, and also reading a lot of reprinted stories from New Worlds magazine, I became a little obsessed with these inaccessible films, Marienbad especially. It’s difficult to say what was so fascinating about a few words of description, and a single photograph, but the picture seemed an unlikely inclusion amid so many pages filled with robots and spaceships. It promised a film that approached the themes of science fiction at the same oblique angle as many of the stories in New Worlds. A couple of years later I found a copy of the Robbe-Grillet screenplay whose pages of dogged description read like the kind of forbidding and formal exercise that Brian Aldiss had attempted in Report on Probability A (1967), a novel that first appeared in New Worlds. Among other similarities, both works share a dismissive attitude to character, presenting a trio of ciphers indicated by no more than their gender, and some initial letters. This confluence of influences, Marienbad included, fed into the chunks of New Worlds-derived prose I was writing at the time, trying to fix inchoate impressions on the page. I always failed each time I returned to that photo from Marienbad, the real charge—as I didn’t see at the time—being a result of the gap between the promise of the image and the inaccessible film itself. Finally seeing Marienbad in the late 1980s was a curious thing, like meeting somebody face-to-face after years of remote correspondence; the same readjustments needed to be made to accept that this was the reality of the work of art, not Robbe-Grillet’s embryonic version, or my own baroque imaginings.


Screenplay book, 1962. Cover design by Roy Kuhlman.

If the above seems to strain for association by hauling a celebrated work of the Nouvelle Vague into a disreputable area then this essay by Thomas Beltzer is worth a read. Beltzer’s “Intertextual Meditation” compares Marienbad to The Invention of Morel (1940), a science-fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares which Jorge Luis Borges described as “perfect” (and which I really ought to read). If I’ve not written much about Marienbad itself that’s because it really needs to be experienced rather than described or explained. It’s a film that’s easier to admire than actually enjoy—I need to be in the right mood to accept its formalities—and given the choice I’d often sooner watch Providence (1977). But where Providence and other Resnais films have inevitably dated, Last Year in Marienbad remains out of time, a 20th-century dream held captive in 18th-century architecture where the airless rococo chambers might easily share a labyrinth with the hotel waiting-room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

• Alain Resnais obituaries: The Guardian | The Telegraph
Last Year in Marienbad at film|captures
Marienbad (2012) by Julia Holter

8 thoughts on “Marienbad hauntings”

  1. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by Wojciech Has

    That is on my list. Along with the Hourglass Sanatorium. The Covent Garden branch of Fopp was well-stocked with copies of the latter when I was there last year, but in my foolish concern about the weight of my luggage, I allowed myself to limit the number of DVD purchases.

  2. Coincidentally, my introduction to both Marienbad and The Sarragossa Manuscript came from Philip Strick’s book around the same time that I too was discovering the New Worlds writers. Whilst I ended up reading The Sarragossa Manuscript before seeing it, I wasn’t dissapointed with either film. I’ve also only just rewatched Marienbad in the last fortnight having got the french Blu-ray.
    Sad to see that Alain Resnais passed away this last weekend…

  3. herr doktor bimler: They’re both worth seeking out. Hourglass is the stranger of the two since it’s based on Bruno Schulz.

    Modzilla: I was the same with Saragossa, read a short version of the book but had to wait until 2001 to see the film when it finally appeared on DVD. I’ll definitely be upgrading Marienbad to Blu-ray; I wish there were more of his films available in the UK.

  4. It does look pretty good; I’ve a copy of Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime but sadly that looks like it’s been copied from an old VHS so it does tend to mar one’s enjoyment of it. I was watching Sir Henry at Rawlinson End again last weekend and I’ve always thought that the ghost’s remark as it drifts through the hallways that “The corridors are spiked and endless” was a nod to Marienbad.
    Bye the bye, thanks for the heads up on the Ethel Le Rossignol exhibition at the Horse Hospital in Russell Square. If you don’t make it down to see it, the photographs really don’t do them any justice; in the flesh, so to speak, the gold paint has a real lustre so that they glow like Klimt’s and the vivid colours and very fine details reminded me of some of Mati Klarwein’s works.

  5. A pleasure to see Last Year at Marienbad mentioned here. It was one of my favourite films in the first flush of film buff-dom. I don’t recall it being hard to see in London when repertory cinema flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s; I saw it several times in that pre-video era. I still love its formality and froideur.

    John Calder published the ciné-novel in the UK. The cover had the still you show at the top, with the famous painted shadows.

    Nice, too, to have a mention for Philip Strick’s fine book about SF films. Its broad interpretation of the theme was hugely suggestive—Hour of the Wolf as SF!—but for reasons that now escape me I let my much-consulted copy slip away 20 years ago.

    I met Strick once many moons ago, in my early 20s. He ran a company distributing independent films to cinemas. I recall him as smartly turned out, kindly and urbane, an old-school gent. He offered me a job dispatching cans of film, but in the same breath he all but advised me not to take it—too much unglamorous hard graft—so I didn’t. His SF-related pieces for Sight & Sound were always essential reading. The Guardian had a short piece in 2007 when he died:

  6. Hi Rick. I can’t imagine Marienbad ever being shown in Blackpool, where I was living in 1979. The old Aaben cinema in Manchester would certainly have shown it—I saw many such films there before the Cornerhouse became Manchester’s centre for non-Hollywood fare—but if they did it wasn’t while I was living near the place.

    I remember Strick’s pieces in S&S. His book was a good argument for not turning down the offer of writing a popular guide if you can use it to mention things that are less familiar. My friend James Marriott tried to do the same with his guides to horror cinema.

  7. I suppose there is nothing curious about having memory ambiguity where “Marienbad” is involved; it is part of the game (NIM, wasnt it?) It came to the US in 1962, and if that meant NYC, I could easily have seen it there. If not, then in the wilds of New Mexico?
    What I do remember is the hypnotic after-effect that lasted for all the years until I saw it, to the same or greater Affect, decades later. And still again, thanks to netflix. And again, soon.

    Another curiosity. “Rashomon” appeared in the early 1950’s, when I still lived in a small college town. Could it really have been shown there as my memory insists it was?

  8. Memory is a recurrent theme in Resnais’s early films so it seemed fitting to remember his work by writing about memories of its elusiveness.

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