Last Year at Marienbad

“My soul has not yet passed to the image…”

Adolfo Bioy Casares

On the making of novels into films, there are two general schools of thought. Some feel that the film should be faithful to the original and are dismayed when it deviates significantly. Like sophomore literature students, they want the movie to be a faithful crib of the book. Most films, both art and popular, based on prior texts humbly meet this demand – Ragtime, The Shining, Diary of a Country Priest and any of the John Grisham films are just a few examples. Some films even promise a special allegiance by making the author’s name a part of the title such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1). Of course, they are never completely faithful as the loyalist bitterly complain. The intrinsic differences between the two mediums makes duplication impossible. Others, ‘the divergents’ we’ll call them, don’t mind if the film deviates significantly or even radically from the original text, and they enjoy thinking about the differences another artist brings to the material. Blade Runner, Solaris and Apocalypse Now are all good examples of the divergent approach.

However, both the loyalists and the divergents would be baffled by the mysterious case of Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961). Hailed as a triumph of the modernist aesthetic, the film is formally severe and utterly modernist. Its characters are nameless and locked in a zone of their own, a zone that may not even be of this world. At a baroque resort, an unnamed man “X” tries to convince an unnamed woman “A” that they had an affair last year and agreed to meet at the resort and leave her current paramour “M”. She doesn’t remember him at all, but what he tells her has the power to create a past for her and to blend it into her present. They are all caught up in a surreal loop of disjointed time. The characters move like somnambulists through a hermetically sealed world that seems totally surreal. Reading the obsessively thorough screenplay, one gets the feeling that Alain Robbe-Grillet is striving to remain faithful to some unnamed rubric whose invisible influence shapes every move his characters make. One senses that the laborious screenplay is based on some prior text, whether novel or play or short story, yet no credit is given, either in the film or the published screenplay. Last Year at Marienbad presents itself as a pristine work of high modern art.

There is, in fact, a text behind the film – The Invention of Morel, a novella written twenty-one years earlier by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges’ colleague of the Fantastic. The Argentinean masterpiece is about a fugitive, Morel, hiding out alone on a deserted island who one day awakens to discover that the island is miraculously filled with anachronistically dressed people “who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad” (11). It turns out that Morel’s invention is a diabolical holographic recording device that captures all of the senses in three dimensions. It is diabolical because it destroys its subject in the recording process, rotting the skin and flesh off of its bones, thus gruesomely confirming the native fear of being photographed and also, perhaps, warning of the dangers of art holding up a mirror to nature.

Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its “low brow” science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares’ A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940′s, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that “The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film script for Last Year at Marienbad“. The high modernist masterpiece is “outed” as a postmodern, science fiction film.

Though it is cloaked in formal solipsism, Last Year at Marienbad does more than secretly allude to The Invention of Morel, though allusions abound in what turns out to be a veritable tangle of texts, a Borgean labyrinth of a library. Borges points out in his prologue to the novella that “the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau” (7). The principal female figure in Morel is Faustine, alluding to the devilish pact art inevitably makes with nature. Interestingly, Casares claims that Faustine was inspired by the silent screen star, Louise Brooks. Unlike Marienbad, another related text that will serve as a useful contrast in our discussion of remakes and intertextualiy is Man Facing Southeast, an Argentinean film that flies its flag of loyalty to Casares high through an explicit use of allusion (2). Rantes, patient number thirty-three at a mental hospital, explains that he is a holographic being from outer space. In order to comprehend him, Dennis, the skeptical psychiatrist, reads a passage from Morel in which the holo-recorder/projector is discussed (3). As a fellow Argentine, Subiela (director of the film) is proud to be associated with Casares and he pays suitable tribute to his inspiration whereas Robbe-Grillet and Resnais arrogantly disassociate their work from the sci-fi, Latino source. They even refuse subtle allusion, and the work is diminished as a result.

Understanding that “A” and “M”, and perhaps “X”, in Marienbad are all holographs would enrich our enjoyment of an otherwise incomprehensible film. “A”, the woman, and “M”, her husband, are cycling endlessly in a film that never ends. “X” offers her a way to freedom. Though he also seems strangely caught in their world, he is able to alter the scenarios through the power of suggestion. Maybe he is also a holograph and none of them can leave the resort, but he has at least achieved some self-awareness of what they all are. Maybe like the nameless narrator of Morel, he has edited the film to his own liking and inserted himself as a character. Though Marienbad is substantially different from Morel, knowing about the relationship between the two enriches Marienbad‘s meditation on the relationship between art and nature. Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first. Beginning as a mere trickle with The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero, we now have a flood of these ontological vertigo films – Total Recall, Dark City, The Matrix, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, The Truman Show and the on-going holo-deck of the various neo-Star Treks just to name a few. In our digital times where CGI billboards pop up in Times Square, false reality and false people have become a global obsession (4).

So why do Robbe-Grille and Resnais hide the fact that Marienbad is a divergent film version of Morel? Is it because they are Eurocentrics who think art should have nothing to do with the genre of science fiction/horror even though, admittedly, Morel is certainly more literary than an example of genre fiction? Mostly though, Marienbad, by keeping itself textually pure, remains a shrine to modernism. As a last dying gasp of modernism, it is in desperate denial regarding its true intertextual nature.

Without The Invention of Morel, Marienbad is merely surreal art for art’s sake. However the film does provide clues that “A”, “M” and “X” are simulacrum and not real people. The play at the beginning of the film slavishly foretells the fates of the protagonists, and “X”‘s endless monologue is spoken by both the play actor and “X”, their voices intentionally blended. All of the paintings in the hotel are mimetic of the resort itself. As they discuss the sculptures in the garden, we suspect that “X” and “A” are sculptures themselves. Then there are the many time dysfunctions – sudden changes in chronology signaled only by the placement of characters and their costume changes. The effect of all these changes is mostly irrelevant because nothing ever really changes at the resort. The essential nature and meaning of the film is utterly dependent on its hidden relationship with Morel, so its formalistic elitism is false. Nevertheless, and this is the beautiful irony of intertextuality, once its indebtedness is acknowledged, Marienbad can go on to have an independent artistic life of its own. It, after all, has very little in common with Morel.

Marienbad reveals in and of itself an ambivalent, dual attitude regarding the relationship of art to life. On the one hand, the film itself presents itself as a work of art that is in agreement with the modernist credo expressed well by poet William Carlos Williams in his landmark 1923 collection of poetry, Spring and All:

.the illusion once dispensed with, painting has this problem before it: to replace not the forms but the reality of experience with its own. now works of art cannot be left in this category of France’s “lie,” they must be real, not “realism” but reality itself.It is not a matter of “representation” much may be represented actually, but of separate existence. (204)

Marienbad dwells on the “separate existence” of its characters. Cinematically, it is a study of the separate reality of its own existence, eschewing the conventions of realism as being false illusion. By its own temporal discontinuity, its nameless characters and hermetically-sealed set, it demands that we accept it as reality itself rather than as a faithful and ultimately illusory representation of reality. Marienbad says by its construction that art is a reality added to reality and not a copy of reality. On the other hand, within the holographic reality, the characters in the theatrical performance that opens the film represent the characters of the film itself. Because the action of the film comes after the play, however, “A” and “X” seem to be imitating the play rather than the other way around. Even their body language is nearly as formal and architectural as the characters in the play. Play and film exist in a Möbius-style feedback loop, and it is impossible to determine which imitates which. Thus, though the film presents itself as non-representational, within itself it presents a story of artifice holding a mirror up to nature and vice versa (not only in the play but in the card game and the various paintings and sculptures around the resort). “X” and “A”, however, seem unaware of the mimetic nature of their activities. Though architecturally beautiful, the world of Marienbad is pure nonsense, chaotic and absurd by the intentional design of its makers. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais are comfortable in the chaos of the a-historical. For them the world does not make sense, so neither should art. It seems they have held a mirror up to nature after all.

Borges and Casares are more progressive than Robbe-Grillet and Resnais in their comfort with intertextuality, but I believe they are extremely traditional in their view of false realities and false people. I believe this in spite of their elegant and advanced ontological play, and play they did. Early in their careers they wrote a brilliant book of detective stories called Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, and published it under the pen name, H. Bustos Domecq. A false biographical outline of Dr. Honorio Bustos Domecq was attached, allegedly written by schoolteacher, Miss Adelma Badoglio. A flowery forward is provided by Gervasio Montenegro who later turns out to be a fictional character in one of the stories and not just any fictional character, but an anti-Semite who is ridiculed by the jailbird detective throughout the interlocking six stories. Casares himself is known to most well read North Americans only as a fictional character in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story by Borges, in which the narrator and Casares discover volume eleven of an encyclopedia of a nonexistent country. Nevertheless, their play was always guided by a strict conservative logic of their own.

In speaking of Casares we must speak of Borges as well. Poor Casares. Not only was he snubbed by our French filmmakers, he was fated to live and die (b. Sept. 15, 1914 – d. March 8, 1999) in the shadow of his more famous colleague. However, as Borges himself once said, “Fame is a form – perhaps the worse form – of incomprehension” (94). He said this, as it happens, in one of his most brilliant stories on the subject of simulacrum and intertextuality, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” an amusing tale that illustrates the old Heraclitus dictum transmuted to literature – no one can read the same book twice. Though most of his fiction is out of print in English, Casares does not deserve his marginalization, for he gives us everything Borges gives us and more. Along with the Borgean logical puzzles and metaphysical, ontological meditations, Casares gives us excellent psychological characterizations (something lacking in Borges’ work) and social/political involvement. His typical narrator is not detached and meticulous as in Borges. More like Philip K. Dick, (but with a much better grasp of literary prose) his favorite narrator is desperate and paranoid and on the verge of a mental breakdown. The strangeness is not just in the observed but in the observer. It is truly a mystery to me (and a Borgean irony as well) why Borges was blessed by the gods of canonicity and Casares was not.

Borges was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, Berkley and Hume by way of his father’s library, and much of his fiction plays with the illusory nature of the phenomenal world as taught by those philosophers; nevertheless, Borges and Casares are confident that “all pages, all words, predicate the universe” (345) and not the other way around. They have faith in the essential solidity of the phenomenal world, and their false realities work on the theory of Aristotelian displacement and a Catholic transubstantiation of life by art. This is what happens in Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Mirror and the Mask.”

In The Invention of Morel, the holographic machine destroys everything it records. Formalistically, in other words, on internal evidences alone, the situation is horrifying with many interesting philosophical implications. Perhaps, metaphorically, the story represents the rejection of realistic representation as a value and goal of art. It harks back to the timeless theme of star-crossed lovers. It implies, (an ancient religious theme) that the price of immortality is always death. And of course, it provides the satisfaction that only fiction can provide – an explanation of the unexplainable which is perhaps one of the chief pleasures of reading.

The first text behind Morel is the collective film work of Louise Brooks. Here is the relevant exchange between Sergio Wolf and Casares in a July 1995 interview:

Question: You said that the inspiration for La invención de Morel came to you, at least partially, from the vanishing of Louise Brooks from the movies. What happened with you and Louise Brooks?

Adolfo Bioy Casares: I was deeply in love with her. I didn’t have any luck, because she disappeared quickly. She went to Europe, she made a film with Pabst, and then I didn’t like her so much as when she was in Hollywood. And then, she vanished too early from the movies.

Question: Could she be seen as one of the characters in La invención de Morel?

Adolfo Bioy Casares: Yes, she would be Faustine. (qt. in Louise Brooks)

Knowing that Morel is in part a story about a real person’s love for a screen presence changes the nature of the text and our relationship to it. The novella becomes a meditation on our relationship with the art of cinema, its bestowal of seeming immortality on its stars and the dialectic of our own fulfillment and loss.

In the dark of the theater all of our wishes are fulfilled. However, despite our materiality and the ephemeral flickering of illusion before us, there in the dark we feel ourselves to be mere ghosts, lesser beings in the presence of screen grandeur. We know we matter less as real brings than the fictional beings before us. Casares captures these feelings beautifully:

Now I understand why novelists write about ghosts that weep and wail. The dead remain in the midst of the living… I was horrified that Faustine, who was so close to me, actually might be on another planet; but I am dead, I am out of reach, I thought. (47)

Remember, Faustine is holographic, but her Louise Brooks-like presence is so much larger than life that the living narrator concludes that he must be dead. Not only does the nature of the text itself change, but our relationship with Casares’ novella is also changed by the Brooks/Faustine paring. Many of us have been in love with the artificial constructs of popular culture. This shared experience with the narrator makes the Morel text feel less foreign to us; with the addition of the Brooks text, we become “simpatico” with the narrator and understand his final immolation when he submits himself to Morel’s machine. How many young people empty themselves to become one with their screen idol?

The relationship with Morel to The Island of Dr. Moreau does something else to the novella. Morel becomes, in his dialectic with Well’s mad scientist, a violator of nature through his hubris. Dr. Moreau attempts to create a higher being, but merely creates sad perversities, parodies of both human and animal. Intertextually, Morel becomes a dire warning of the vivi-sectional splicing of the artificial and the real, a confusion we now all live with on a daily basis. In contrast to Robbe-Grillet, Casares is not comfortable with putting art first and demanding that life follow. His tale tries to tell us that it is not wise to confuse the artificial and the real, that it is not wise to prefer artifice over nature. At the end of the novel, the narrator chooses to submit himself to Morel’s deadly machine, splicing himself into the holographic movie in hopes of living eternally with Faustine. Pathetically, he concludes his diary:

My soul has not yet passed to the image; if it had, I would have died, I (perhaps) would no longer see Faustine, and would be with her in a vision that no one can ever destroy. (90)

Like the narrator, for many of us now, artificial images come before reality. For example, upon hearing that I was from Memphis, an adult professional man told me enthusiastically, “I’ve always wanted to visit Memphis. I want to tour the places where John Grisham’s movies were made.” A young man off-road cycling with a friend of mine, paused at the top of a ridge to catch his breath and say, “This is almost as good as Nintendo.” Reality is not what it used to be or rather our relationship to it has become more tenuous. This basic feeling with which many of us live daily is expressed in the increasing catalogue of ontological vertigo films of which Last Year at Marienbad may be the first in line because of its now-revealed relationship with The Invention of Morel.

Standing alone, The Invention of Morel, is a brilliantly conceived and executed horror tale, but when considered with its prior texts of Louise Brooks and Dr. Moreau, it gives us a warning – if you go to the movies too often, you may never come back. Your own life may become a fiction, you could become a nameless character wandering forever in the present tense, alive or dead one cannot be sure.

Works Cited

Bioy-Casares, Adolfo, The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (from La Trama Celeste), translated by Ruth L.C. Simms, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964

“Bioy Casares, Adolfo”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/idxref/2/0,5716,43221,00.html 5/15/00

Borges, Jorge Luis, Prologue, The Invention of Morel and Other Stories (from La Trama Celeste), translated by Ruth L.C. Simms, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964

—- Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, New York: Penguin, 1988

Dust-Jacket Biography from A Plan For Escape by Adolfo Bioy Casares, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975

Jahiel, Edwin, “Man Facing Southeast: a Review” http://www.prairienet.org/ejahiel/manfacin.html 5/15/00

The Louise Brooks Society, http://www.pandorasbox.com/tributes/casares.html 7/13/96

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, Last Year at Marienbad, translated by Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, 1962

Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. I. 1909-1939, edited by A.Walton Litz & Christopher MacGowan, New York: New Directions, 1986

Endnotes

  1. I once had a postmodern intertextual moment at a drugstore bookrack when I picked up a paperback with the following title: Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Novelization Based on the Original Screenplay.
  2. Despite his talent as a filmmaker, Eliseo Subiela is not big on subtlety.
  3. Rantes’ fellow holograph, Beatriz Dick is, I think, a double allusion to Dante and Philip K Dick.
  4. I suspect that the postmodern obsession with false realities and people have something to do with intertextuality and the belief that the world is one of these texts. By looking at early examples of both, I am hoping to understand better the phenomena of intertextually-created reality.

About The Author

Thomas Beltzer is the author of Antojitos: Little Cravings (Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). He currently lives in Fredericksburg, Texas and teaches at Austin Community College.