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‘False exits’ Dernière année à Marienbad / Last Year in Marienbad.


Dernière année à Marienbad (1961). Director, Alain Resnais. Script, Alain Robbe-Grillet.



‘False exits’


…‘le long de couloir’…


      ‘ les fausses exites.’




No exit. The denial of (the possibility of) escape. But escape from where; and when? For even these most fundamental ‘placing’ co-ordinates of human experience are denied to us…


And as for why? This small matter of the story’s motivation, the plot construction, is also left up to us to puzzle out, to re-construct (always assuming there is an original single meaning to ‘re’-construct…).


When? Our options on interpretation; a situation in past, present, or future; and then the implied question of whose memory, viewpoint, or fantasy (imagination) we occupy. Rhetoric of our choice, a puzzle, a game, film as play; but open play means all comers are welcome; choice implies renunciation of the control of meaning… Time (place in history) as open, timeless, so implying myth, or collecting its force (even the costumes are timeless, perennially in fashion?). Does finding a time imply more or less meaning? As we are continually reminded, the viewer must choose, as in linguistics in the role of context and its final, pragmatic, arbiter or embodiment, the perceiving self, so it is ‘us’ who make the meaning(s).


Nevertheless, a highly-structured and calculated work… featuring much experiment in juxtaposition, so using techniques since become dominant in art (as in the post-conceptual visual riddle or the ‘combine’ from Rauschenberg on) and already well-established in the poetic world. A matter of juxtaposing elements… and then leaving the audience to decide… to sense the ‘feel’ and construct the ‘meaning’. An effect which offers profound ambiguity in this film (but in recent art history all too often declares an abdication on the part of the artist). An ambiguity which extends to the relation of each episode to its predecessor. Even up to being its inversion (even up to being its predecessor’s predecessor…).


Which version; inversion…? When each scene may be an ‘inversion’ of the previous, so denying the cumulative effect which is the key to understanding, the ‘simple arithmetic’ or addition which forms overall meaning…


Which vision; re-vision…? When each scene is already a re-visioning of the previous one(s), a reshuffle of the deck, a shaking of the dice of permutation…


Repetition (standby of all and every means of sense making – foundation of ritual, of identity). Repetition of key moments, as if repeated many times in the past. Or, conversely, why not, once this series, this relation of repetition, has been admitted as a possibility, of a sequence projecting into the (or a) future… Repetitions, of apparently similar events, as an examination of options, a set of elegant variations. Repetitions, of events, images, processes, as an indicator of ritual, of ritual effect - visual incantation.


Ritual games (matches, cards, guns, photographs). Games as ritual combat, or bonding, binding and place finding… A safe outlet for competitivity (male? sexual?). A nonsense game, codes unknown… Aleatory, with an ever-so-slight suggestion of having been made-up between the players as a surface manifestation of hidden agendas and maneuvers, of complicities and allegiances, rivalries and conflicts of interest; a mapping out of the contours of potential conflict – ritual in form and function; open in content and combination.


A sequence of rituals; an infinite series (with or without, or even as, a ‘line of flight’, an attempt at escape through form and variations); but also a culture, a way of life, a habitus… so a trap, prison house - a hotel no longer read as the site of escape(ism) but as limit, a gilded cage.


Where? The hotel: as popular/privileged trope of our times… (a sign of increasing wealth, of the opening of travel, offering access to mass society of some form of cosmopolitanism). A place at once both private and public, a new ‘in-between’ of these key aspects of felt space… an ideal place, place of fantasy, of opportunity (obviously sexual). But still, in reality (in economic reality) a place of privilege, replete with echoes of feudal privilege, whence the signaling of these settings as sumptuous, privileged; in actuality, in terms of cultural ‘taste’ or ‘class’, the habits of a given class, its habitus. But real, or now merely historical or past, such a ‘place’ is also to be found in the collective social imagination as the site of collective cliché, the clichés of possibility, of transgression, of escape. Imaginary site of imaginary events; imaginary place of the imagination.


‘Hotel California’; the trap of luxury, of vice, the lure of satiety (The Eagles).


Postmodernism as hotel (image as Zeitgeist); a choice of readings, of ideological points of view, or appropriations, suggestive of leisure and play, of choice itself; though perhaps more usually happening as peoples and cultures mix with the global fluidity of labour markets and refugees - creating ever new waves of Diaspora. Of disembodied beings in disembedded places (whatever their point of origin). Also with the meaning of Everyman/woman (although possibly subjunctive with respect to such a place, the fantasy element). So existential.


Background. Architecture as the star. Rooms and corridors… The container that incites, dwelling place of the imagination, of desire, of repetition and all the rituals of life and thought (of event and representation, of habits physical and mental, geo-political and psychological).


Containing excess; inciting excess. Negative appropriation of everybody’s desire to be higher up in the social pyramid (recognition; people are as dressed by architecture as they are by clothes…). Positive appropriation of everybody’s desire to live in a beautiful space (the hope of architecture).


Containing desire: the desire to be to be placed (recognition); and the desire for an object, and other… (sexual desire, the possession of bodies and minds, or the possession by such of the self… sexual desire and its dance). Containing desire; setting the rules of the game, the pattern of the dance – the desired-ends and the dead-ends, the come-ons and the outcomes. Configuring desire; giving it a shape…


The triangle. Symbol or situation. Real or imagined. Feared or desired. Not -in this most untypical of films- untypical as a narrative driver; in fact overwhelmingly the most popular motor force of the tales we tell and like to hear - especially if we include the obstacle as putative third party. The triangle (itself the most typical narrative institution): its presence provides the content that will fill the finite extensions in space, the extensions of the hotel as institution, as well as the infinite reach of the imagination. Providing the incitement, as well as the filling, of the actual spaces we behold, the halls and corridors, the gilt décor (back drop to the guilt triggered by transgression); the baroque and rococo décor that is the ever-present background of the film (the first presented, the frame, the container, itself within the limit of the film as frame, border, horizon, demarcating the ‘world of the film’ to be crossed as self-reference, as post-modern, border-crossing – only with special effects in mind…). All these frames within which unfold the play of the triangle. The eternal triangle; beloved of the imagination, as evinced by the history of our stories about ourselves; the infinite variations. Figure on a ground; space as ground, containment as limits… trap within which to play out the possibilities or fantasies of escape… The dice falling again on the black cloth of the table. Dice the tumbling of which sets the tone for the ritual play of variations which follow…


Repetition/Variation/Ritual (the most intensified form of the combination of time and space, or of ‘when’ and ‘where’). And ritual’s foremost role in human culture is that of renewal; the renewal of society, of life, the turning of the generations, reproduction of the species: in art depicted as the sexual dance… (echo of fertility rite, now signaling social reproduction, the passing of the baton to the new generation). Among which the violent form (rape); beloved of avant-garde writers (perhaps desperate to maintain audience interest). Rape as the hidden event around which the memory game centers is (biographically, if not textually) foreclosed by Resnais, who wanted to play down this reading of the film; but preferred by Robbe-Grillet, the script writer… whereas the lovers unification and possible ‘escape’ would seem to minimize this reading. Yet if the reading-in of rape is accepted as an option, then so are other versions based on the ‘evidence’ (the film text)… For example, marital rape by the husband-figure is also an option: yet whilst some ’versions’ (episodes in the series of ritual repetitions, ambiguous as to temporality and point of view) show or imply violence, others suggest amity and complicity. All readings (based upon the text) are acceptable (indeed a sweep covering the range of options would seem to be what we are presented with, so suggesting the creativity of fantasy). The debate about the film’s context of interpretation is another matter (but one too prone to fundamentalist distortions… anyone can find a context which will support their own reading – yet all readings do have contexts). The search for a (hidden) controlling or guiding event, however, is out of keeping with the film’s sense of repetition–variation, and the constant ambiguity or openness to interpretation it fore-grounds (as in ‘post-modern’ physics we are offered probability only). Rather, a range of options are suggested, as in this instance, from violent possession to consensual romantic obsession.


Obsession; stuck in one place, a new hiatus of libidinal exchange. An ‘eternal return’… to the eternal Same. The passage without becoming the return within. Caught somewhere - with the awareness that there is (or should be) somewhere else…


When every prospect of utopia runs sour (the results of progress look increasingly problematic)… and the perspective twists into duration -sitting it out- an existence haunted by the trace of redemption. The goad that built the prison walls.


Purgatory (a no-where with no when…). Perhaps one of the longest, ‘deepest’ of cultural tropes, because part of the history of religion as key input for cultural history (most particularly those cultures with a Judeo-Christian heritage). Even in a society become increasingly neutral in terms of religious enthusiasm (or perhaps more easily become entertainment in such a context); ‘agnostic’ towards religion (the ‘weak’ ‘belief’ of cultural inheritance or reception, the habits, or ‘colouring-in’ of the geo-cultural calendar). Purgatory, as the awareness of being trapped between, transforming a place of escape into a prison, a playground of meaning into an obsessive set of restatements. With everyone waiting on the next variation for an indication as to the place or manner (or even possibility) of exit. Purgatory: a picture of those awaiting escape or redemption. Purgatory: the status of the waiting room when there is nowhere else to go…


So returning us to repetition (and variation) - and so (again) ritual. And from the world of ritual also, as from received behaviour patterns and the organized clichés of ideological points of view, there is no escape, only variation. A further shuffling of the deck of cards.





©Peter Nesteruk, 2010