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Time Trap: Last Year in Marienbad and La Jetée

  When I was very little, I used to have dreams where I could lift up my feet and glide around, and in one of those dreams which I still recall vividly, I was exploring a huge mansion that was completely deserted. This, I knew, was because killer robots had been loose in its corridors, and had murdered everyone in the place except me, but there were others, too: in a small hidden room, a group of little old ladies sat knitting, safe in the knowledge that the robots would never find them. As I investigated the mansion, sometimes gliding through the corridors, at others wandering around vast halls, I was aware I was taking my life in my hands by not staying with the little old ladies, so eventually returned. The robots must have followed me, for the dream ended in carnage.

Everyone has had a nightmare like that, where seemingly serene elements - being able to fly or glide - are twisted into something frightening by the sheer impossibility of what we are experiencing as we sleep, yet no matter how many horror movies have been made, not that many tap into the feelings of the uncanny that you wake from (possibly sitting bolt upright and staring straight ahead, as is the law after movie bad dreams) and can't quite shake for the rest of the day. Maybe you don't shake them ever, hence why the nightmare above and many more are indelibly etched into my memory, apparently uselessly filling up space, yet with a potential meaning that will probably be lost to the mists of time. No, most horror movies never capture that.

But one film that was not presented as a horror did, and that was the collaboration between writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and director Alain Resnais, who in 1961 unveiled their masterpiece Last Year in Marienbad for the world. The reactions varied wildly, and still do: you could find one person who was deeply affected by watching it and proclaimed it a work of art, while for someone else it could be one of the most boring films they had ever watched. Who was right? If you are the sort of person for whom dreams stick with, then the chances were you would discover something extremely unsettling about it, as the two talents had twigged something about dreams and memory that appeared to get to the heart of a truth beyond everyone's grasp.

The fact of the matter is, you're not supposed to understand dreams, sure, you can see where the influences of one might have arisen from the events of the day before, but quite why the subconscious chooses certain aspects and ignores others, which may seem more important, is a mystery. Nobody really knows why we dream anyway, and though it is essential to a healthy mind, even if you never remember what they are afterwards as some don't, the reason we make up randomly-plotted stories in our slumber will always remain something fascinating to many, whether they have their own theories as to the motives or not. Last Year in Marienbad conjured up the precise mood of being trapped in a dream, for what was a dream but a form of memory?

The lead characters are unsure of what is happening to them even as they try to pin down the precise details of their environment and their experiences which may or may not have overlapped. "May or may not" - that was what was alarming about the film, the fear your memories, which you have always relied on for your sense of self in your interactions and simply being in a place at a particular time, may be as ephemeral as dreams, and that identity you cling onto is as malleable as anyone recollections of any one event. The image of the statues in the hotel gardens are returned to again and again: apparently they are literally memories set in stone, representations of a past you cannot change, yet their provenance cannot be so relied upon.

Everyone has their own interpretation of any occurrence, and as Delphine Seyrig as the unnamed woman is implored to recall a meeting last year she is increasingly alarmed to realise could not have happened the way it is set in her mind, or the way her conversational pursuer (Giorgio Albertazzi) has himself convinced it occurred, and even then he's difficult to pin down. As the organ music swells and fades unnervingly on the soundtrack, the purpose is plainly to disorientate, as in a dream, and as with memories that don't tie up, that fallibility of what you really want to be a certainty proving menacing, as if sinister forces are at work. Can it be possible our selves are so easily knocked and led that no matter how sure we are of facts, someone or something can shatter them?

The year after, in 1962, experimental filmmaker Chris Marker directed possibly his best known work, though that has been largely because of association with a Hollywood movie that took it as its basis. That film was Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, which Gilliam fully admitted had been directly inspired by Marker's earlier half-hour short La Jetée, one of the keystones of French science fiction as seen on film. As with Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, it was preoccupied with memory and how a longing for the past can wipe out the future, especially when you cannot be certain the thing you are aching after has any basis in reality, or if it is real, then has been affected by what has happened since it made such a huge impression on your psyche.

The plot was a science fictional one, more blatantly than Last Year in Marienbad's messing around with time as La Jetée could be regarded as a time travel yarn in a far more traditional style as we understand the subgenre now. Unfolding as a series of still pictures, much as memories do, it related the dilemma of one of the few survivors of World War III which has left those who did not succumb to the devastation eking out an existence underground. However, science is still advancing, and after many failed attempts, the scientists find they can place their guinea pig elsewhere in time. This is what our lead is subjected to, but finds he keeps returning to get to know a woman who has become his most vivid memory, falling in love with her.

Whereas the Resnais work was frightening, the overwhelming emotion in La Jetée was sadness, because no matter how you try to get back to a place of contentment in your past as the future turns uncertain and dangerous, there will always be a catch. There was one shot here that moved: when the woman awakens in bed with her lover, and opens her eyes, emphasising the impossibility of attaining a perfect love when what you really want to be is frozen in one moment of perfect happiness and feel that way forever. But time does not operate like that, and as Last Year in Marienbad illustrates, nostalgia and a harrowing event can be two sides of the same coin, and the years keep ticking by despite your melancholy protests.

The manner these films treat time, as something that carries us along with only memories to anchor us to it, then whisking that anchor away cruelly, has been highly influential, indeed, Resnais crafted this own answer to La Jetée with Je t'aime, Je t'aime later in the sixties. You can see the terrifying consequences of the hotel in which Seyrig is trapped in a variety of cult favourites, from Joseph Losey's rarefied Accident to John Boorman's Zardoz to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining to Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract to Alejandro Amenábar's ghostly The Others. Marker's romantic anguish has been referenced in Alex Proyas' Dark City, Shane Carruth's fearsomely complex Primer and Michel Gondry's lovelorn Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But anything that takes dreams and memory seriously, especially how they are linked and can provoke pleasure and fear alike, owes a debt to these two remarkable works.

[Studio Canal have released Last Year in Marienbad (or L'Année dernière à Marienbad as it was in its original French) in a new restoration on Blu-ray and DVD. Those extras in full:

RESNAIS and ROBBE-GRILLET - The wanderers of imagination
Interview with Film Historian Ginette Vincendeau
2 short films by Alain Resnais : THE STYRENE'S SONG and ALL THE MEMORY OF THE WORLD
In the Labyrinth of Marienbad
Documentary on Alain Robbe-Grillet
Restored Trailer

Note the title is no longer translated as "AT" Marienbad, it's now "IN" Marienbad, for some reason.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018