Archive for the Critical theory Category

Cognitive film theory

Posted in Audience Response, Cinema, Critical theory with tags , , , on July 25, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

While doing some bibliography research for my UAL Ph.D. application, I found out about cognitive film theory.

Cognitive film theory was born in the late 80’s from a dissatisfaction with dominant film theory that tended to analyse films either from an ideological viewpoint, be it marxist, Althusserian, feminist, Lacanian or such, or as a codified language through the use of semiotics. Cognitive film theory tends to focus on the experience and reaction of the film spectator, on the relationship between film content proper, context in which the viewing experience takes place, and viewer psychology. Scholars of cognitive film theory include David Bordwell, Noel Caroll, Per Persson, Carl Plantiga, Greg M. Smith.

The cognitive approach is interdisciplinary and varied rather than a unified methodology and its scholars draw from from various disciplines including philosophy, empirical psychology, neuroscience. Its founder Caroll focuses on ‘look[ing] for alternative answers to many of the questions addressed by or raised by psychoanalytic film theories … in terms of cognitive and rational processes rather than unconscious or irrational ones’ ( his own words from ‘Engaging the Moving Image’). Greg M. Smith and Per Persson favour a cognitive psychology approach, and their books study the cognitive and emotional responses of the film spectator.

According to an article Caroll believes that film cues the spectator’s emotions primarily through narrative, and studies this process within different genres: horror (‘The Philosophy of Horror’ (1990), but also suspense, humor, melodrama (‘Engaging the Moving Image’).

On the other hand, Greg M. Smith believes that the “primary emotive effect of film is to create mood” moods having longer duration and being elicited more throughout most films, whereas emotions are intense, brief, and intermittent. Smith also argues the emotions depend on moods as “orienting states” that prepare the viewer for specific emotional responses. Smith believes that mood is primarily created by stylistic devices rather than narrative.

I can only write this very simple overview because I haven’t read any of the books yet, but the focus of this theory on the audience’s emotional and intuitive response to film seems related to my moving image practice, and I plan to study it further after the MA. I’m especially interested in Greg M. Smith’s concept of mood as a product of aesthetic choices rather than narrative devices.

Reference books I included in the bibliography for my Ph.D. application were:

Allen, R. (1995) Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008) Film art. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Persson, P. (2003) Understanding cinema: a psychological theory of moving imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plantinga, C. & Smith, G. (1999) Passionate views: film, cognition, and emotion. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Smith, G. (2003) Film structure and the emotion system. New York: Cambridge University Press.

‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

Posted in Critical theory, Psychogeography, Surrealism, Urban Exploration with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

Ghost Towns in the USA: Detroit and New Orleans.

Posted in Critical theory, Parallel theory, Photography, Urban Exploration with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

On Triple Canopy website, I found a presentation by Bryan FinokiThe anatomy of ruins: New American landscapes: varieties of blight, idylls of desolation, the lifespan of decay.

It presents the new phenomenon of Ghost Towns, caused by economic recession (Detroit) or natural disasters (New Orleans). The case of New Orleans is also not purely natural because it is the lack of State investment in public infrasctructures that made the city unprotected from known natural threats. Therefore, as argues the author, these images are in all cases a symptom of the failure of Capitalism. He links these Ghost Towns to Naomi Klein’s concept of ‘disaster capitalism’, that is the strategy of private corporations exploiting natural catastrophes and lack of governement infrastructures as opportunities for profit.

The author says that these images of no man’s land have become contemporary icons expressing our ‘infatuation with our own destruction’ and the ‘phantasmagorias of the End Times’.

An article about the destruction of Michigan Central Station, Detroit.

Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

Posted in Audience Response, Critical theory, Photography, Reading notes with tags , , , , on January 16, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

In his book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes asks himself what gives a photograph impact. Why do some photographs command our attention while other just do not draw us so powerfully, even though we may still recognise an interesting subject and/or technical qualities in them?

Barthes believes that a photograph talks to is viewer using ‘two languages, one expressive, the other critical’ (p20). What he calls ‘expressive’ is what I call ‘intuitive’. He goes on to define to define the specific discourse of the photograph within those two languages.

The ‘studium’ is the appeal of a photograph on a critical level, the way it can grab a viewer’s attention on a cultural level, mediated by moral, cultural and political references.

The ‘punctum’ is something, often a small detail in the photograph, that disturbs the neat interpretative order offered by the ‘studium’, thus creating ambiguity and different levels of reading. A photograph without this ‘punctum’ only has one level of reading, whereas the punctum brings a ‘duality of language’ to a photograph. For the punctum to work, it must not be a too obvious contrast within the photograph, but rather a surreptitious detail. Something elusive enough so that the viewer cannot easily name it or explain it. For Barthes, the impossibility to name something is ‘the best symptom of the feeling of uneasiness.’

I find that Barthes concern with ambiguity and different level of meanings is similar to what interests me in particular artworks.

Relational Aesthetics

Posted in Audience Response, Critical theory, Reading notes with tags , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

This post contains reading notes from “Relational Aesthetics” (“Esthétique relationnelle”) by Nicolas Bourriaud, and discussion of some concepts. Bourriaud focuses on the relationship/communication between the artist and their audience via the artwork. He is particularly interested in a particular type of ‘participatory’ art where the audience is invited to take part in the making of the artwork but his more general ideas are relevant to other types of art as well. I liked this book because it makes central the question of the social function of art and its philosophical implications, something that I feel is too often overlooked in contemporary art.

(Page numbers are from the French edition.)

P12: Three philosophical traditions during the twentieth century: the rationalist modernism (derived from 18th century enlightenment) and the philosophies of liberation through the irrational (Dada, surrealism, situationism) are both opposed to the authoritarian state.

P16: art is a ‘social interstice’ in the marxist sense, that is an activity that, although it takes place within the capitalist system, suggests alternative exchange values.

P18: the concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ comes from a marxist/althusserian philosophy where existence has neither pre-existing meaning nor goal. The only real thing are the links between individuals, that always take place in a specific historical concept, ‘the sum of the social relationships’ as Marx puts it.

P26: Duchamp: “it is the viewer that creates the painting”. The audience creates the meaning of the work.

P44: Marx defines money as a value reference that is used to compare abstract quantities of different items, such as work. Art is an exchange activity that cannot be regulated by money or any other ‘common substance’ because it is the sharing of meaning in its raw state (“le partage du sens à l’état pur”).

P47: Bourriaud thinks modernism had a logic of opposition whereas art today is concerned with coexistence and negociation.

P59: Bourriaud lists artists that do not believe in the producer’s ‘divine authority’ to assign meaning to their work, but instead engage in open-ended, unresolved discussion with their audience. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

P62: Bourriaud says modernity was concerned with liberating the individual against group tendencies, and nowadays individualism is criticized. He thinks that today the emancipation of the individual is no longer the most urgent concern, but instead communication and relationship between humans. I completely disagree with that, I think the emancipation of the individual is the key thing against reactionary thoughts. Post 1970s reactionary thoughts distorted the notion of individualism, taking it away from ‘critically defining one own values for oneself’ (individualism in the philosophical realm) to ‘destroying all social solidarity and pitching individuals against each other in the economical realm’ (individualism in the economical realm). I believe art must support the notion of individualism in the context of defining one’s own values as a valid alternative to reactionary thought which encourages individuals to accept state ideologies blindly while at the same time shedding all sentiment of class solidarity (Thatcher, Sarkozy, Cameron …)

P71: reference to Nietzsche’s concept of art taking over the possibilities offered by new techniques to create ‘life possibilities’ out of them, refusing the authority of technology but instead using technology to create new ways of living, thinking and seeing. I like this idea in the context of digital art. To use digital technologies to create something meaningful (in a active way) rather than simply reflect on the changes technology itself brought to human lives (passive thinking).

P88: Bourriaud thinks that today’s mainstream ideologies do not value work in a non economical context, and do not assign any value to free time. I completely agree with this. Work is not valued as a way of creating meaning but only when it creates immediate profit. Bourriaud also says “to kill democracy, one starts by silencing experimentation, then accusing freedom of being rabid” (“Quand on veut tuer la démocracie, on commence par museler l’expérimentation, et l’on finit par accuser la liberté d’avoir la rage.”)

P91: As a critic, Felix Guattari is concerned with ‘subjectivity’. Maybe look into him further. However, Guattari, like Nietzche, only considers subjectivity and meaning from the point of view of the creator of the artwork.

P103: Mikhail Bakhine defines the concept of “transfert of subjectivation” as the moment where the viewer assigns meaning to the artwork they are looking at.

Duchamp in the 1954 Houston conference about “the creative process”: the viewer is the co-creator of the work. The “Art coefficient” is the “difference between what the artist had planned to achieve and what they actually achieved.”

P107: Marx criticises the classical distinction between “Praxis” (the act of transforming oneself) and “Poiêsis” (the act to produce something and transform matter): he thinks that both actions work together.

Guattari: “the only acceptable finality of human activities is the production of a subjectivity continually enriching its relationship to the world.”

p114: Bourriaud believes that the characteristic of artwork produced within totalitarian regimes is that they do not offer to the viewer the possibility of completing them; they are closed on themselves. He calls this “the criteria of coexistence”: the act of asking oneself, when looking at an artwork: ‘does this work offer me the possibility to exist alongside it? Does it authorise a dialogue?’

Research Paper ‘Director’s Cut’

Posted in Cinema, Critical theory, MADA Coursework, Moving image techniques, Research Paper with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

Click the link and it will send you to a pdf of my research paper Mental space on screen: through the examples of Last year in Marienbad, Stalker and Lost Highway as submitted for the MA.

Research Paper: Mental space on screen (Melanie Menard)


This paper explores how the different elements of a film work together to depict the mental space of the characters, that is, give the impression that the events shown on screen reflect their subjective experience, and the space shown on screen is a projection of their mental state. Through the examples of Alain Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad (1960), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), I show how similar techniques recur in films made in completely different cultural contexts, but that have in common to picture the subjective world of the characters. These techniques are: narrating events as the characters think about them, remember them or imagine them rather than how they actually happen; a labyrinthine set design where the inside and the outside contaminate each other; lighting and colours that reflect the mental state of the characters; rhythm that traps the viewer inside the characters’ subjectivity and, finally, sound that creates a mood of its own rather than illustrating or simply enhancing the images, with sparse dialogues becoming an integral part of the sound design.

Keywords: space, subjectivity, cinema, cinematography, sound

A few sections of the research paper were removed to keep word count down. Mostly I rephrased and condensed, which accounts for the somewhat dry style, and the lack of sometimes explicit transitions between ideas. The dry style is fine by me, it’s a research paper not a literary work, but I think more explicit transitions between ideas would have made the paper more reader friendly. However, I had a word count problem and decided to sacrifice a bit of fluidity in order not to cut out relevant ideas. I think the 2 last sections ‘sound’ and ‘rhythm’ are written more fluidly, with more explicit transitions between ideas. That’s because I wrote my paper backward so I was not so worried about concision when I wrote them (the last sections, more technical, were written first, and the first sections, more general, were written after).

However I cut out 3 complete paragraphs because they were interesting but not so directly relevant. I put them here.

1)This was cut out because it was a discussion where neither me, nor the person whose idea I was discussing, were really convinced of what we said. We were both formulating hypothesis to open up discussion, without being personally convinced of these hypothesis. So it was interesting but non essential.

Vida & Petrie (1994, p190) discuss Tarkovsky’s habit to shoot dream scenes in black and white in most of his films, and compare it to Stalker:

‘The choice of black and white for dreams may reflect the conventional idea that most people dream in black and white, but more probably implies, in line with Tarkovsky’s belief in the essential “reality” of black and white, that the inner truth of our experience is to be found within our dreams. In Stalker the basic pattern is reversed, with black and white creating the sordid reality of the everyday world of the future and color representing the potential escape from this offered by the Zone.’

This leads to an interesting issue. The only sequence in the Zone that contains monochrome shots (sepia rather than black and white) is indeed the dream sequence. If characters are dreaming, they may approach their inner truth. It is possible, then, that the Zone as a whole offers fake hope and illusion rather a gateway to inner reality, an interpretation that could be corroborated by the characters’ final decision not to enter the room. Maybe the Zone is, like in Lost Highway, the world of illusion and fantasy, rather than the world of hope and spirituality.

2)this was a transition between the ‘rhythm’ and ‘sound’ sections. It contained an interesting reference for further research, but was non essential to the subject.

Quoting Vlada Petric, Vida & Petrie (1994, p240-241) list ‘cinematic technique’ which can be used to simulate the experience of dream in films. Tarkovsky uses several of them, not only to depict literal dreams, but to ‘throw a dreamlike aura over virtually the whole film.’  ”Camera movement through space [contributing to] a kinesthetic sensation”, ”illogical and paradoxical combinations of objects, characters and settings”, ”dissolution of spatial and temporal continuity”, ”ontological authenticity of motion picture photography [which] compels the viewer to accept even the most illogical events … as real” together correspond to the combined action of discontinuity editing and slow rhythm described in this section. “Color juxtaposition [which] emphasizes the unusual appearance of dream imagery” has been discussed in the previous section. ”Sight and sound counterpoint” will be discussed in the next section.

3)In the conclusion, I discussed the philosophy of art of the 3 directors, and the way a film interacts with its audience. This was interesting but not directly linked to the subject, so was cut out.

When all these elements are combined, we get what Deleuze (1985, p35) calls a ‘conscience-camera’, that is a camera that ‘subordinates the description of a space to the functions of thought’ and ‘enters’ inside ‘mental relationships’. ‘Objective and subjective’, ‘real and imaginary’ then become ‘indiscernible’. The camera is no longer descriptive: instead it ‘questions, responds, objects, provokes, theorises, hypothesises and experiments’. This new nature of film allows new possibilities (Deleuze, 1985, p210): it ‘elaborates a circuit between the author, the film and the spectator’. This circuit has two ways of communication that work together: first a ‘sensory shock’ that ‘elevates the images to conscious thought’, then thought that brings the viewer back to the images and gives them an ’emotional shock’. This ‘coexistence’ between ‘the highest degree of conscience’ and ‘the deepest level of the unconscious’ is what makes, for Deleuze, the power of ‘Time-image’ cinema.

This vision of the dual nature of film, intellectual but also unconscious, sensual, emotional or irrational, the later allowing a direct connection between the artist and the audience, is shared by Tarkovsky, Lynch, and Robbe-Grillet. Tarkovsky (2008, p176) states that ‘cinema is the one art form where the author can see himself as the creator of an unconditional reality, quite literally of his own world’ and ‘a film is an emotional reality’ perceived by ‘the audience’ ‘as a second reality’, which ‘allows for an utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work’. For Lynch (interviewed by Rodley, 2005, p140), films are ‘a subconscious thing’. In an interview together with Resnais, Robbe-Grillet (Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967, 170) says that art is ‘a reminiscence’ or ‘an illumination’ of ‘the world’ and that it ‘interests us because we find in it ready-made the things to which we feel impelled by the emotions reality has generated in us’, and Resnais agrees with him on that. Robbe-Grillet also says that ‘when an image strikes [him] in the cinema, it is always because [he] recognise[s] [his] own experience’ in it, and this shared experience is what makes ‘communication’ possible between the artist and the audience, through the medium of the work.

All sources for ‘mental space’ in ‘Last year in Marienbad’

Posted in Cinema, Critical theory, Reading notes, Research Paper with tags , , , , on December 14, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

Richardson, M. (2006) Surrealism and cinema. Oxford, UK: Berg.

P73, 167: surrealist cinema concerned with direct experience of real life

Kyrou, A.(2005) Le Surréalisme au cinéma. Paris: Ramsay.

P21,22,25, 234: same idea

Deleuze, G. (1985) Cinéma 2: L’image-temps. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

(Deleuze, 1985) p102:
“Les deux grandes scènes de théâtre sont des images en miroir (et c’est tout l’hôtel de Marienbad qui est un cristal pur, avec sa face transparente, sa face opaque et leur échange”

(Deleuze, 1985) p136: L’année dernière à Marienbad
« Le second niveau serait celui du réel et de l’imaginaire: on a remarqué que, pour Resnais, il y a toujours du réel qui subsiste, et notamment des coordonnées spatio-temporelles qui maintiennent leur réalité, quitte à entrer en conflit avec l’imaginaire. C’est ainsi que Resnais […] établit une topographie et une chronologie d’autant plus rigoureuses que ce qui s’y passe est imaginaire ou mental. Tandis que chez Robbe-Grillet, tout se passe « dans la tête » des personnages, ou, mieux, du spectateur lui-même. »

« La dissolution de l’image-action, et l’indiscernabilité qui s’ensuit, se feraient tantôt au profit d’une « architecture du temps » ([Resnais]), tantôt au profit d’un « présent perpétuel » coupé de sa temporalité, c’est à dire d’une structure privée de temps ([Robbe-Grillet]). »

« C’est que Resnais conçoit « L’année dernière », comme ses autres films, sous la forme de nappes ou régions de passé, tandis que Robbe-Grillet voit le temps sous la forme de pointes de présent. »

« De toute façon, les deux auteurs ne sont plus dans le domaine du réel et de l’imaginaire, mais dans le temps, nous le verrons, dans le domaine encore plus redoutable du vrai et du faux. Certes, le réel et l’imaginaire continuent leur circuit, mais seulement comme la base d’une plus haute figure. Ce n’est plus, ou ce n’est plus seulement le devenir indiscernable d’images distinctes, ce sont des alternatives indécidables entre des cercles de passé, des différences inextricables entre des pointes de présent. »

(Deleuze, 1985) p157:
« Il y a probabilisme statistique chez Resnais, très différent de l’indéterminisme de type « quantique » chez Robbe-Grillet. »

(Deleuze, 1985) p159:
« Resnais conçoit le cinéma non comme un instrument de représentation de la réalité, mais comme le meilleur moyen pour approcher le fonctionnement psychique. »

(Deleuze, 1985) p268: Resnais and memory
« Cette membrane qui rend le dehors et le dedans présents l’un à l’autre s’appelle Mémoire. […] Car la mémoire n’est certes plus la faculté d’avoir des souvenirs: elle est la membrane qui, sur les modes les plus divers (continuité, mais aussi discontinuité, enveloppement, etc.), fait correspondre les nappes de passé et les couches de réalité, les une émanant d’un dedans toujours déjà là, les autres advenant d’un dehors toujours à venir, toutes deux rongeant le présent qui n’est plus que leur rencontre. »

Leutrat, J. (2000) L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad). London: BFI

(Leutrat, 2000) p19:
That architecture can be the image of a psychic state is nothing new in cinema. One could cite numerous examples of architecture or architectural details being « symbolically » called on to represent the mental state of an individual or a group of people.

(Leutrat, 2000)P23: lightning cameraman Sacha vierny
While the ‘Scope format usually implies a certain immonility, something extremely static, Resnais had a field day with camera movement, low angle tracking shots. 

(Leutrat, 2000)P24: camera operator Philippe Brun
« Albertazzi in very big close-up beside a mirror in which two actors were reflected […] behind him the wall is out-of-focus, but in the mirror the two actors are sharp.

(Leutrat, 2000)P25: Robbe-Grillet disagrees with Resnais’ choice of music
a music to set one’s teeth on edge. Instead of this beautiful, captivating continuity, I was after a structure of absences and scocks; with percussive elements in the widest sense, not just drums and cymbals. I’d imagined a composition based on the essentially real noises one hears in a hotel, in particular in an old fashioned hotel like that one. Lift doors, for instance, those metal doors on hinged rods that make a very beautiful sound if properly recorded; or then again the ringing of different bells: the porter’s, the chambermaid’s, etc… more or less strident or distant; and the whole thing composed with footsteps, isolated notes, shouts.

(Leutrat, 2000)P27: Francis Seyrig composer
« I realised that he wanted Wagnerian touches for the love-story side of the film, but also a 1925 feel, plus modern bits, all mixed together. »

(Leutrat, 2000)P27
Resnais wanted ‘functional’ but also lyrical music, the sound curve of which would reproduce that of the film. This image of the curve, of its plotting so to speak, is essential: it is something which seemed to obsess Resnais, and which functionsas a connecting thread in the ‘scenario ‘ of L’Année dernière à Marienbad. Music was needed that would blend with the décor.

(Leutrat, 2000)P27: Art director Jacques Saunier
We devised some panels and reworked certain sculpture which were carved in these panels, the motif of which made him think, he said, of the repetition of a musical phrase.

(Leutrat, 2000)P27 resnais:
I reckon there must be forty minutes of speech in Marienbad. It could almost be sung. It’s like an opera libretto with very beautiful and very simple words, which are endlessly repeated.

(Leutrat, 2000)P27 resnais:
I think one can arrive at a cinema without psychologically defined characters, in which the play of emotions would be in motion, as in contemporary painting where the play of forms contrives to be stronger than the anecdote.

(Leutrat, 2000)P29: death imagery:
the immobile servants ‘doubtless long since dead’; the compliment addressed to the woman, ‘You seem lively’; or the statement she makes, ‘You’re like a shadow’; or there again, this fragment of a couple’s conversation, ‘We live like two coffins side by side in the frozen ground of a garden’; and in one of the very last images as, framed in the distance X and A go off together, the curtains around the door under which they pass are like the drapes of a catafalque.

(Leutrat, 2000)P31: script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot
« in his shooting script Resnais spoke of ‘eternity’ shots […] shots that had no precise date, everything that was future time or timeless. »
Bernard Pingaut
« succession of static views, or travelling shots along the corridors, shots of promenades in the garden – dead time, a sort of pure description escaping the rigorous order of the narrative.

(Leutrat, 2000)P32: Jean Louis Bory
« Mouldings, dadoes, friezes, cornices, astragals and festoons… the baroque sensuality of the interior architecture and decoration of the grand hotel-palace contrasts with the exterior Cartesianism of the formal gardens – or rather, there is a play between them. L’année dernière à Marienbad is based on the kind of play which opposes, to the Cartesianism of conscious life, the baroque nature of our memory and our affective life. »

(Leutrat, 2000)P33:
In effect interior and exterior contaminate one another.

(Leutrat, 2000)P33: script supervisor Sylvie Baudrot
« a very long scene in which Delphine Seyrig and Albertazzi walk side by side down a corridor. We shot it in three different corridors. […] we’d put potted plants so that the continuity between the potted plantsmight disguise the passage from one section of corridor to another, but Resnais didn’t want to hide the fact that three different corridors were involved. »

(Leutrat, 2000)p36:
« the bedroom mantelpiece changes from one moment to the next: a mirror here, a snowy landscape there »

(Leutrat, 2000)p36:
resnais has strewn the hotel décor with representations of this garden, which served to decorate the walls. They encourage the idea that there’s no longer an inside or an outside, only spaces imbricated in each other.

(Leutrat, 2000)P37: the voice over at the beginning describing the setting
« thematically, it emphasises the funereal (lugubrious, black, dark, silent, deserted, empty, sombre, cold, oppressive »
the voices shifts closer and further from the camera, lacking a distinct origin.

(Leutrat, 2000)P54:
Resnais’ substitution in the rape episode of a series of ‘bleached-out’ travelling shots of the young woman »

Chion, M. (2009) Film, a sound art. New York: Colombia University Press.

(Chion, 2009) P267: « temporal vectorization » means that a sound gives spatial cues from the way it varies
« We can also find a sound interesting when it offers no temporal vectors, either because it does not vary over time or because it varies in a chaotic and unpredictable way. Such sounds can contribute to a feeling of fixity, stagnation, or destructuration. For example, since Francis Seyrig’s organ music in Last Year at Marienbad has no discernible direction, it acts to create the feelinf that those long tracking shots in the baroque palace aren’t going in any particular direction either and certainly not leading to a predetermined destination. Another type of music – say, a very well-defined melody – could give these same tracking shots a sense of deliberate progression toward a goal. »

p423: « a verbal or musical sound event is synchronised with an abrupt change in lightning. »

P424:  « Resnais synchs the hoarse « No! » spoken by Delphine Seyrig with the lightning of two lamps on either side of a large bed. […]It is impossible to say which of the two events – audio or visual – is the diegetic cause of the other. There is no way we can take Seyrig’s « no » […] as the noise of the light switch […], nor can we understand [it] as the cause of these lights turning on or off. The lightning event does not cause the sound, and the sounds do not cause the lights to change.But synchresis is at work, and it leads to that question of who decides what. »

Resnais, A. (1967) Trying to understand my own film. In: Geduld, H. (1967) Film makers on film making: statement on their art by thirty directors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

(Resnais, 1967) P157:
‘The film is about degrees of reality. There are moments where it is altogether invented, or interior, as at the moments where the picture corresponds to the dialogue. The interior monologue is never in the sound track; it is almost always in the visuals, which, even when they show events in the past, correspond to the present thoughts in the mind of the character. So what is presented as the present or the past is simply a reality which exists while the character is speaking.’

(Resnais, 1967)P158:
Questioned about Robbe-Grillet’s interpretation of the film as X’s point of view as he attempt to convince A of past occurences, Resnais, following Truffaut’s dictum that “every film should be summarized in one word”, proposes the title ‘L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, or, Persuasion’.

(Resnais, 1967)P158:
Resnais originally consciously introduced some ‘psychoanalytic themes’ such as ‘ostentatiously large rooms, indicating a tendency towards narcissism’ and signifying ‘impotence’ but he cut them out because they did not conform to his idea of the character (he does not precise which one, one could perhaps suppose M, the possibly -husband), or ‘possibly’ because he was ‘too aware of their psychoanalytical significance’.

(Resnais, 1967)P158: A possible reading is that ‘the hotel is really a clinic’ and X is A’s psychoanalyst, helping her to accept events which she has deliberately repressed.
P159: Resnais continues on this interpretation: provide that we assume that A’s denegation in the beginning is genuine and not ‘sheer coquetry or fear’, from the scene where laces her shoe, ‘we can take that she has remembered’

(Resnais, 1967)P159: possible interpretation, X is death
‘Robbe-Grillet finally hit on the phrase “granite flagstone” and he realised that the description of the garden would fit a cemetery’
‘the old Breton legends – the story of Death coming to fetch his victim and allowing him a year’s respite’

(Resnais, 1967)P159:
‘In the first quarter of the film, things seem to have a fairly high degree of reality; we stray further and further from it as the film proceeds; it is quite conceivable that, at the end, suddenly, everything converges, that the conclusion of the film is the most real part of all.’

‘we never really know if the scenes are occurring in the man’s mind or the woman’s. There is a perpetual oscillation between the two. You could even maintain that everything is told from her viewpoint.’

(Resnais, 1967)P160:
‘For me the film represents an attempt, still crude and primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism.’

(Resnais, 1967)P161:
‘one has to know how much of one’s subjective reality one can share with others’

(Resnais, 1967)P161:
‘When I see a film, I am less interested in the characters than in the play of feelings. I think we could arrive at a Cinema without psychologically definite characters, where the pattern of feelings exists freely, just as, in a modern painting, the play of forms is more important than the “story”’

(Resnais, 1967)P162:
‘all the changes of costume correspond to different “layers” of time’

(Resnais, 1967)P163:
‘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.’

Resnais, A. & Robbe-Grillet, A. (1967) Last words on last year. In: Geduld, H. (1967) Film makers on film making: statement on their art by thirty directors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967) P164:
‘an image is always in the present’ (RG)

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P166:
‘what goes on in our minds is just as real as what goes on in front of our eyes’ (RG)

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P166:R
‘if you study Marienbad closel, you see that certain images are ambiguous, that their degree of reality is equivocal. But some images are far more clearly false, and there are images of lying whose falsity is, I feel, quite evident.’

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P166:RG
‘The use of décor is characteristic. When the room has an extraordinary complicated baroque décor, or the wall are heavily encrusted with wedding-cake ornamentation, we are probably watching a rather unreliable image. Similarly when the heroine takes 300 identical photographs from a drawer, the image is improbable and must be more imaginary than objective. Perhaps, if we were speaking in terms of a strictly objective reality, we might say she only took one picture out; but she wished there were 300.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P167: RG
‘The question is whether the uncertainties aroused by the images are more intense than all the uncertainties of everyday encounters or whether they are of the same order. Personally I believe that things really happen as vaguely as this. The theme is of a passionate love affair and it is precisely these relationships which comprises the highest proportion of inconsistencies, doubts and phantasms. Marienbad is as opaque as the moments we live through in the climaxes of our feeling, in our loves, in our whole emotional life. So to reproach the film for its lack of clarity is really to reproach human feelings for their obscurity.
[…] It is strange how people will quite willingly accept the plethora of irrational or ambiguous factors in everyday life, yet complain bitterly when they come across them in works of art. […] They feel the work of art is made to explain the world to them, to provide them with reassurances. I am quite sure that art is not meant simply to reassure people. If the world is so complex, then we must recreate its complexity. For the sake of realism.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P169: R on the scene where the balustrade crumbles, it looks like from the Fantômas series.
‘It is one of the lying images. […] It is an image of the future, probably imagined, under the stress of her anguish, by the young woman, it is quite naturalthat she should have recourse to popular novels.’
Robbe-Grillet says the extreme ‘theatricality’ of the dialogue reinforces this impression.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P170: RG
‘I think that the artist replenishes himself directly from the reality and that art interests us because we find in it ready-made the things to which we feel impelled by the emotions reality has generated in us. I don’t think we really derive our inspiration from art, not during our creative moments. […] The real schock is produced by the world and art is only a reminiscence of it. An illumination, perhaps. […] When an image strikes me in the cinema, it is always because I recognise my own experience, otherwise communication would be impossible. Every work of art would be purely subjective and absolutely no contact with anyone else would be possible.’

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P171:
Robbe-Grillet’s script already contained ‘numerous specifications as to editing, composition, and the camera-movement.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P171: RG
‘the only time is the time of the film. […] There is no reality outside the film. Everything is show. Nothing is ever hidden.’

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P172: The long over-exposed tracking shot which concludes with a repetition of the last part of the movement, and the quick succession of shots where A is alternatively sitting on either side of her bed, were not anticipated in Robbe-Grillet’s script.

(Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967)P173: RG
‘In Marienbad the important thing is always a sort of hollow in the heart of the reality. In Marienbad it is the “last year” which provides the hollow. What happened then – if anything – produces a constant emptiness in the story. […] In Marienbad at first we think that there is no last year, then we realise that last year dominateseverything: that we are definitely caught up in it. At first we think that Marienbad did not exist, only to realise that we have been there from the beginning. The event which the girl repudiates has, by the end of the film, contaminated everything.So much so that she has never ceased to struggle against it, to believe that she was winning, since she has always rejected everything, and, in the end, she realises it is all too late, she has, after all, accepted everything. As if everything were true – although probably it isn’t. But true or false have been emptied of meaning.

Liandrat-Guigues, S. & Leutrat, J. (2006) Alain Resnais, liaisons secrètes, accords vagabonds. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma.

(Liandrat-Guigues & Leutrat, 2006) P40: Marienbad is a black and white film, where most images tend to on the lighter side, very legible with bright lightning that does not leave ambiguously obscured corners. Resnais tends to alternate between visually light and visually dark films, the “clear line” movies (to reuse Floc’h’s expression, quoted in Liandrat-Guigues & Leutrat, 2006, my translation) taking place in the upper-class and the dark ones in the lower middle-class.

(Liandrat-Guigues & Leutrat, 2006)P49: In the hotel garden, the luminosity is such that the trees and statues have no shadows. Yet the characters have shadows that have been painted. Jacques Saulnier comments that Resnais had this concept in mind from the very beginning. If, as Leutrat (2000, p50) puts it, the characters are ‘turned into stones (by their immobility, poses, rigid gestures, etc.)’ and also by those fixed painted shadows, there is a statue in the garden which appears ‘animated by the shots of it taken from different angles’, and its ‘change of location’ throughout the film. The characters postures also uncannily mirror this statue: ‘the hands of the female figure in the statuary group is extended, while her other hand rests on the man’s shoulder’ whereas in the scene where X pleads with A, his hand is ‘extended toward’ her while she ‘places her hand on his shoulder’.

P64: ‘Ces journées, pires que la mort, que nous vivons ici côte à côte, vous et moi comme deux cercueils placés côte à côte sous la terre d’un jardin figé lui même.”

(Liandrat-Guigues & Leutrat, 2006)P90:
According to Jacques Saulnier, Resnais had planned from the beginning that A’s bedroom would transform according to her acceptance of what is told to her: at first, the room is incomplete, bare of any detail because she rejects the very notion of XX. Then, progressively, the bedroom gets more and more precise until it reaches the appearance it had in reality. But immediately, A starts feverishly elaborating in her mind an hypothetic future, and the design of the bedroom becomes totally delirious.

(Liandrat-Guigues & Leutrat, 2006)P91: Francis Seyrig explains that the music contains several “themes” corresponding to various settings such as “garden” or “hall” and changes as the character move in the hotel. The music “mimicks the editing”.

P130: Resnais on Surrealism
“Dire que je suis fidèle à la ligne surréaliste serait prétentieux.Mais disons que je rôde autour.”
“Je n’applique mes idées que d’une manière inconsciente – instinctive, surréaliste, proche de l’écriture automatique -, faisant en sorte qu’elles fonctionnent naturellement.”

P151: they don’t say who said this!!!
“Marienbad, ce sont deux ou trois thèmes qui reviennent, qui se developpent, qui sont repris. Si on regarde l’image, c’est entièrement musical.”

P162: further death references
A shot showing A in a flowing black dress is accompanied by the noise of a tomb being closed.

Brown, R. (2009) Last year at Marienbad. Cineaste. vol 34, Issue 4, Fall 2009.

(Brown, 2009) ‘a verbal tracking shot’ (about the introductory voice over)

(Brown, 2009)Sometimes the visuals follow the narration, at other times ‘the visuals actually contradict an event that X’ narrates. For example, a shot of A’s bedroom shows an open door while X narrates “the door was closed now” and ‘X angrily repeats “No! No! The door was closed!”’

(Brown, 2009)A scene of A and X standing at the hotel bar is interrupted by ‘a quick series of startling, soundless flash shots showing A in a white gown standing in a white bedroom.’ ‘In the midst of these shots, we see and hear X telling A, “One night, I went up to your room”. Then, A drops a cocktail glass that breaks and her terrified reaction is out of proportion to this mundane event. From then on, the possibility that a rape has taken place is introduced and ‘images of violence’ increasingly perturb the narrative (the crumbling balustrade, M shooting A). It all culminates in the possible rape scene with ‘X approaching A as she recoils in fear on her bed’. We see a ‘track backwards out of the room over which X’s voice-over insists that the act was not “by force”, followed by a fast return tracking shot through the hotel’s corridors.’ The sequence ends in an ‘overexposed white on white shot of A in her room, followed by nine varied repetitions of the end of the track-in shot in ten seconds. Brown (2009) highlight the ambiguity, that the ‘thrusting camera movement’ and the ‘loud and dissonant music’ ‘suggest rape’, while ‘A’s smile and outstretched arms suggest the contrary.’

I would suggest that the overexposure suggests A’s illumination when she remembers and is confronted to her memory, and the nine alternative end shots her confused attempt at deciding on what to believe amongst several possibilities with various degrees of truthfulness, repression and wishful thinking.

Robbe-Grillet, A. (1962) Last Year at Marienbad. London: John Calder. That’s the screenplay.

There are numerous instances where Robbe-Grillet (1962, for example p88) explicitly says that the décor must be ornamentated, suggesting a lying image.

A’s changing bedroom is described in detail by Robbe-Grillet (1962, p84-85, 91,92, 104, 121,122,127,132,138,139,146) including indications about the mirror moving from the chimney to the chest and the painting on the chimney, and the single bed turning into a double bed. The probable truth image is indicated ‘it is apparent that everything is now in its right place’ (p122)A’s anxiety then produces ‘a proliferation of ornaments’ (p135) then they disappear (p139).

The voice over (Robbe-Grillet, 1962) p17
‘this enormous, lyxirious, baroque – lugubrious hotel, where endless corridors succeed silent – deserted corridors overlooked with a dim, cold ornamentation […] transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls…’
‘flase door, false columns, painted perspective’
‘and there’s no way of escaping’ (bit of dialogue)
p146 ‘among this trompe l’oeil architecture, among these mirrors and these columns, among these doors always ajar, these staircases that are too long…’

‘choosing my way as though by accident among the labyrinth of similar itineraries’
Leutrat (2000) even suggests the whole hotel looks funereal.
p49: scenic indications
‘in all these images of the hotel, there are never any windows; or in any case, the landscape outside is never shown, or even the window panes’
p123: after she sumits to X, A sees the garden from a window for the first time.

(Robbe-Grillet, 1962)p56 disrepancies between verbal description by X and shown image

Robbe-Grillet (1962) repeatedly gives elaborate indications regarding non-continuity: he specifies consecutive shots where, for example, either the characters keep the same clothes, posture and position in the frame but the décor has changed, or the décor is the same but characters have inexplicably moved. He also indicates to reuse elements of décor or secondary characters previously seen in different circumstances.


Last year in Marienbad (1960) takes place in a luxurious spa hotel. A man, X (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman, A (played by Delphine Seyrig) that they met the year before in Marienbad and planned to meet again this year to run off together. A denies that they have ever met. A is accompanied by an older man M (played by Sacha Pitoëff) who may be her husband, although this is never confirmed. X keeps trying to convince A of his version of the events, and different hypothetical versions of past, present and future events are played out as the various characters mentally consider them.