Behind the Scenes: “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961)

The late British Queen Elizabeth II put it succinctly, “Recollections may vary.” Or as director Alain Resnais, in reference to his masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad, explained, “It is quite possible that all the characters are speaking the truth…what is presented as the present or the past is simply a reality that exists while the character is speaking.”

However, Resnais was keen to dismiss other theories. “As far as I am concerned Marienbad contains no symbols or allegories.” He suggested that anyone looking for such meanings “will arrive at a correct interpretation 60% or 80% of the time but your interpretations will never hold good for the film as a whole.” Nonetheless, even Resnais was susceptible to such possibilities, for example, there is a Breton legend of Death coming to fetch his victim but allowing him a year’s respite.   

It was unusual for a director to admit he has no clue what his film was actually about. Resnais confesses that “the game (Nim) is the only point about which I am unable to tell you anything…Robbe-Grillet (the screenwriter) invented a variation without knowing it (the game) existed. My personal impression is that Albertazzi (the would-be lover) loses it consciously and deliberately.”

Offering an alternative view to the film’s meaning, Resnais added, “The whole thing is possibly a part of the woman’s stream of consciousness, as, on the point of deciding what to do, she recalls all the various factors in a few seconds.”

The last pages of the script had barely been written before shooting began. And while that was scarcely unusual, nor for pages to be rewritten during filming, what was singular in this approach was that when the editing could offer dozens of ways of putting it back together, “we always fell back on our original ideas.”

“We wanted the film to work quite differently from a conventional entertainment: by a sort of contemplation, of meditation, a series of advances and retreats from the subject. We wanted to feel ourselves in the presence of a sculpture which one studies first from one angle, then from another, from near or farther away.”

In one sense the movie, as Resnais accepted, can be seen as the man playing the role of a psychiatrist forcing his patient to accept events she has deliberately suppressed. Resnais also introduced other psychoanalytic themes: “the ostentatiously large rooms indicating a tendency to narcissism.”

Resnais added, “It is also attractive to conceive of her (Delphine Seyrig) as an invalid. First of all, the hotel has a special air. And I have always been intrigued by (potential husband) Sacha Pitoeff’s words to the woman as she lies on the bed, ‘You must rest, remember that is why we came here.’ Perhaps the hotel is really a clinic.”

Resnais’s directorial method included making sketches to elucidate his thoughts. “It helps in my relationships with the actors and the cameramen. They save the actor from getting panicky eight or ten days before the shoot. If he has read the shooting script and has a clear idea of it and then while shooting I place him in a position or composition which hasn’t been foreseen he is apt to worry.

“And as I like everyone to be relaxed as possible on the set, I prefer arguments to be over before shooting. I’m all in favor of rehearsing the entire film before shooting begins.

“For Marienbad we drew up a complete chronology on squared paper. And before beginning any scene with the actors, we said, ‘in the editing this scene follows such and such a scene, but in actual chronology it follows another scene which will appear later in the film.’ I frequently recorded a fragment of the preceding scene so as to work from the continuity rather than from the cue.”

He hesitated to adapt his ideas to suit the cinematographer. “I would be reluctant to transform a setting, even in small details, to suit the camera. It is up to the camera to present the décor in the right way, it’s not for the setting to conform to the camera. The same holds good for the actor. I have an immense respect for an actor’s work. (But) how rarely we alter the shooting to suit an actor’s feelings, whereas we are constantly changing it on account of the weather.”

SOURCE: Alain Resnais, “Trying To Understand My Own Film,” Films and Filming, February 1962. P9-10, 41; translated from Cahiers du Cinema by Raymond Durgnat.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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