Last year at Marienbad Results in an Amorous Event – Detail from seiminar by Alex Ling
The following blog post is my own notes as taken from Alex Ling’s lecture which is available on the Philosophy at UWS website.
Alex Ling is Research Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of Badiou and Cinema (Edinburgh UP, 2011) and the co-editor and translator of Badiou’s Mathematics of the Transcendental (Continuum, Forthcoming). His current research is on the role of artistic and scientific conditioning in contemporary continental philosophy.
L’Année dernière à Marienbad (released in the USA as Last Year At Marienbad and in the UK as Last Year in Marienbad) is a 1961 French film directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet. The film is famous for its enigmatic narrative structure, in which truth and fiction are difficult to distinguish, and the temporal and spatial relationship of the events is open to question. The dream-like nature of the film has fascinated and baffled audiences and critics, some hailing it as a masterpiece, others finding it to be incomprehensible. I have already reviewed Last Year at Marienbad on this blog, so for a full plot synopsis check that out.
Last year in Marienbad is a film that stands within its own time. It has both stepped out of time and stands in a separate time that is unidentified. This calls to mind Jaques Rivettes famous quote after seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour (another brilliant Resnais film) “Resnais work constitutes a parenthesis in time.”
Deluze argued that LYIMarienbad captures the idea of time itself. Contrary to this, Lind argues in this paper that LYIMarienbad exists within a temporal rupture which is a cut between two heterogeneous times. that is the past and the present as they are presented in the film. Or, through the Badiou lens, the films timeless nature comes from an amorous event.
Resnais claims that LYIMarienbad is an open film that presents the viewer with choice. The film remains something of a puzzle. At the level of narrative, the man (X) and the woman (A) are engaged in a conversation that continues throughout the film where X tries to convince A they had an affair exactly a year ago; and affair that A denies has ever taken place. Lurking in the background is another man who may or may not be A’s husband but who certainly appears to be a rival for her affections. Teh film centres around the discussion between the man and the woman about the affair. He claims they are meeting in Marienbad because of a previous promise. She claims she’s never seen him before. The fact that this question is never resolved has been the cause for some consternation and backlash around the value of the film.
Even more interesting than this, however is the treatment of form within in the film. Namely the repetitions through the film that are only recognisable through subtle differences.
the hotel is pictured as an engulfing labyrinthine structure of mirrors and intricacies. Marienbad – the time, place hotel and film – is about repetition and reflection. Time appears to stand still. time is caught in a single moment that seems to stretch through eternity. To quote Rivette again, “… the infinite … contained within the very short interval seeing as the time… can just as well last 24 hours as a second.”
The opening scene in LYIMArienbad (seen above in the You Tube clip) is mirrors mirroring mirrors. Resnais will continue to use and intensify this mirror theme through the film by posing reflected and unreflected people in the same shot. At the end of the opening sequence they arrive at the play which is also the film. Superficially we are never told what time the action takes place. The narrator tells us it is “in the past”. Likewise the film may or may not show flash forwards and flash backs by using inexplicable room, image and costume changes with and against each other so that time crashes together defeating all hope of chronologisation.
While this practise of simultaneously effacing and multiplying time might lead one to view LYIMarienbad as an a-temporal film, it makes more sense to conceive of LYIMarienbad as an in temporal or inter-temporal work. LYIMarienbad falls between plural times. Thus the films paradox also exists with it being excluded from time while also straddling multiple times.
Alain Badiou – Appearing to disappear. The Philosophy of the event.
Badiou has achieved a rather rapid rise to fame and acceptance in the English-speaking world largely due to his position posited against post-modernism tha argues we are in no way condemned to repetition. Rather, Badiou holds that we are capable of radical invention. In fact, to Badiou, innovation is not only possible, it’s the only way we might truly live.
Badiou’s philosophy is an attempt to think of novelty itself. Quote: “My unique philosophical question I would say is the following: can we think that there is something new in the situation? Now outside the situation, nor the new somewhere else. But can we really think through novelty and treat it in the situation? The system of philosophical answers that I elaborate whatever its complexity may be is subordinate to this question and to none other.”
key to this is the philosophy of the event. The event is a completely localised rupture within the order of things with the arrival or a radically new element that is immediately a universal. A single spark that ignites a political revolution, a new scientific theory compelling us to change our theory of the world, an amorous encounter that turns your life upside down, a formal innovation that forces us to reassess the limitations as much as the possibilities of art. Suddenly and unpredictably something happens in the world that ruptures the existing structure by pointing to something that hither to had been deemed impossible or unthinkable as opposed to unconsidered.
Without this event the situation is left to repetitious reply governed by the forces that control the situation. In interrupting repetition which is what an event does and thereby rupturing the situation an event thus marks itself out as a fundamentally illegal occurrence whose fate it is to disappear as soon as it appears. Therefore if the event is to have any lasting effect and change in the world it’s happening must be affirmed by an outside party. This means the effect will leave behind a trace in its witnesses. A mark of some description.
Now, affirming or tracing an event turns out to be a tricky business. We can’t know if an event has taken place largely because it has to have taken place in a place that is unrecognised by the prevailing state. This means you can’t know an event has taken place because it happens outside the established order, that is the state. (of knowledge) An events being radically unknown means its very happening must be undecidable. Someone must make a pure decision that the event has taken place.
Teh event has a paradoxical relationship to time. If the event both appears and disappears together then it has been excised by time, this does not mean the event has no temporal effect. On the contrary an event literally splits time in two. Typically what an event does is it interrupts one time to introduce a new time. To which Badiou gives the name, the eternal present. The event is neither past nor future. What it does is make us present to the present. The event itself thus radically disappears between two heterogeneous times namely a pre-evental time and a post-evental time.
LYIMarienbad carries movement as Incessant and motionless. Movements whether by actors or by camera are defined by having neither begin nor end, contrarily caught up in an endless passing that is without time or future.
Look again at the opening shot – the endless meandering movement ultimately becomes reflexive of the film itself. Endless nature of movement further underscored by the narrators circular monologue which repeatedly fades in and out of existence mid sentence as though caught in an infinite loop so we are forever held back from knowing where the words begin and where they end.
Because of the stilted movement the guests will often cease moving part way through a direction, we are left with a sense of purgatory or even hell. The environs support this idea, for example in the garden where the people cast shadows but the trees do not.
However Ling wants to assert that LYIMarienbad is a film mostly about life. About the amorous encounter. the event of love. Internal encounter, amorous encounter between X and A. The endlessness of this encounter lies not so much in its being infinitely repeated or forestalled but in its being undecided.
Did A and X actually meet last year? And Did A agree to leave M for X? This undecided leaves room for the films violence. Did X rape A? Did M kill A? The film steadfastly refuses to answer these questions as subsidiary effects of Marienbads central undecidable event. Are X and A in love?
In as much as the entire film is contained within this amorous event, the only escape must be through a truly decidable act. That is, in deciding the undecidable. So either X and A are in love or they’re not.
One of the masterstrokes of the film is the fact that this decision belongs as much to us as spectators as it does to X and A. This ambiguity is beautifully played out in the statue of the man and woman in the garden that X points out could easily have been themselves. This moment speaks to the way the entire cast is represented as statures throughout the film.
So with this statue is the man holding the woman back to protect her from danger? This is X’s position. Or is the woman urging him forward encouraging him into something breathtaking? This is A’s position. Needless to say neither X or A can agree and after their lengthy exchange on the subject of the statue Resnais abruptly shifts the locale so they are no longer regarding the statue itself but rather its representation in the map of the grounds; which incidentally equally mirrors the removed position held by the Marienbad spectators with regard to the text central undecidable while the same conversation or a variation of it ensues.
Now at this point M makes his reappearance. He authoritatively gives the true interpretation of the statue. So M, who is the embodiment of the state of the situation thus attempts to re inscribe the unknown back into the field of knowledge. Yet, M’s explanation ultimately fails to touch on the undecidable nature of the statue, namely the truth of the figures in their actions. Also his explanation is actually a fiction invented out of true historical figures. His anecdote its real even though the figures he mentioned are.
In Badiouian terms the deliberate lie represents the fact that static knowledge cannot account for the undecidable. Hence the dreamlike environment of Marienbad. In situating itself inside th amorous encounter ie in the undecidable event itself, Marienbad effectively subtracts itself from knowledge. it is precisely this reason that LYIMarienbad appears to this day as a mystery, a perplexity, an enduring novelty.
As Resnais said, it is not a film to be known, it is a film to be decided.
What is the source of this undecidability? It comes from its frozen nature from being ripped out of time – the statue itself is not of the time period of the other structures of the film. This applies to teh statue, and X and A and the hotel and its guests. X and A are caught between several possible pasts and an equally possible future albeit one deprived of all certainty. The statue is caught between action and reaction and the image as it is with all cinema, is cut from its proper relational network.
Badious take on love departs from Lacans theory that there is no sexual relation. For Badiou there are two perspectives of experience of humanity. One masculine. One feminine. Of course, these definitions are not to be reduced to the mere biological. For Badiou nothing in the experience of man and woman is the same. This disjunction must be radically unknown simply because knowledge which is situated, must lie between the junction itself. So in order to say anything about sexual disjunction we need a supplement in the form of an event. This event is the amorous encounter. This brings together the incongruous positions. however the void is only ensured in the trace which is an undetermined, non discernible term. Teh trace can only have a grounding in the void.
Therefore for Badiou, love is that which makes a truth of sexual disjunction.
Love is what brings about the two. the two is not the two of fusion. Because of the absolute disjunction neither one can have any real experience of the other. the madness of love is the creation of a two where there never was a one. Prior to love there can be no real experience of sexual difference. Love is absolute fidelity to the two in the amorous declaration, I love you. Love is the process whereby we pass from the one to the two into infinity.
It is this eventual progression we see at work in the film. The divide between the lovers is the central theme of the film. When we get down to it we see that X whose role as narrator in the film has no real relationship with A. So his is a persistent and undeniably hopeless persuasion. A desperate plea for A to remember him and this conceded to their relationship. he attempts to bridge the sexual divide. To prove somehow, their connection. X’s attempts are fruitless because there is no bridge to cross the sexual divide.
It is only at the close of the film when X and A escape repetition by leaving together ie – when the event is decided one way or another that the two really emerge. This is made clear when X declares at th end of the film, A finally exists alone with me.
The alone with me is the very essence of the two according to Badiou. LYIMarienbad’s paradoxical end is really when the film starts, when something has been decided and the two move on together. These final words are declared, once the lovers have left the hotel together, over the floating image of the hotel as it recedes against the night sky.