Ideally, criticism of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad should be totally superfluous. One would say: ‘A lot of money has been spent, a troupe of actors and technicians has been engaged, and three châteaux invaded to serve as decor, for an entertainment devised by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and presented in the form of images by Alain Resnais. There is nothing to be understood, there is no meaning in this spectacle, in these images; there are just images, just spectacle. That is all. It is very beautiful.’

It is no good trying to judge Marienbad according to some preconceived criterion of what a film should be like. One can only hope to describe it for what it is—a revolutionary kind of cinematic spectacle—and then try to decide for oneself what value to give it, whether its aesthetic premises are valid, and whether, as realised, it lives up to its intentions. Provided one accepts the premises there is nothing difficult about Marienbad: nothing, that is, which needs to be explained in the images themselves. What does need to be explained, however, is how and why this should be so.

To understand Marienbad, I repeat, is to understand that there is nothing to be understood. Paradox, or play on words? Consider what is normally meant by understanding a film—L’Avventura for example. One must first be able to follow the plot, and trace the connecting thread that binds one event to the next—to register the absence of Anna and the reappearance of the vamp. One must then be able to interpret the psychology of the characters and deduce a state of mind from a simple action that is recorded but left unexplained—like Sandro knocking over the ink-bottle on the young man’s careful drawing. Finally one must be able to get behind the fragmentary and elliptical evidence of the image, and see what in general the author was trying to say—about the instability of feeling, or the difficulty of loving and communicating. In other words one is looking for a meaning. With Marienbad this procedure is not only unnecessary; it is impossible. The plot is an enigma to which there is no solution; the psychology of the characters is rudimentary, because irrelevant; and the authors, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, have no general statements to make about people and the world. In short there is no meaning behind the images: there are only the images. And the sense of the film is in the images and their sequence, and not in any conceptual abstraction from them. There can therefore be nothing to understand.

This is perhaps an extreme way of putting it; for though nothing in Marienbad is ever clear and unequivocal, except the physical evidence of the image, it is none the less rich in suggestion and in hints of every kind which we are free to piece together as we like. But basically it is a spectacle, which demands of us only that we should submit to the fascination of the images and their peculiar logic, which is not that of the mind but of the opaque half-world where waking dissolves into dream, and reality and illusion, past and present, conscious thought and unconscious memory merge together in an uncertain continuum.

Marienbad is pure cinema, the cinema of the image stripped of all emotional and intellectual content. It fascinates the sensibility without engaging the personality or the mind. If the cinema is the new opium of the people, then this particular opiate is of a peculiarly harmless kind. Everything possible has been done to make Marienbad totally antiseptic, and preserve the purity of its images from any contamination with the spectator’s imagination to protect both the spectator from the film and the film from the spectator. Thus sterilised it cannot fertilise in the spectator’s mind further images to cross with those of his own experience. The images of the film are for ever alien images, unrolling in a closed world, in an order of their own choosing, and all we can do is let them pursue their course.

A hotel, an immense baroque palace, surrounded by a French formal garden full of neo-classical statues, fountains and balustrades: inside, more statues, stuccoed ceilings, chandeliers, mirrors, marble columns, hotel servants motionless as caryatids, and, finally, a clientele of the very rich and very bored, impeccably dressed, moving like waxworks and exchanging commonplaces about the weather, the events of the day, or of last year in the same hotel; this is the setting on which, throughout the film, the camera dwells with an obsessive intensity, and from which we do not for a moment escape. There is an ‘outside’, from which people came and to which they will return, but the reality of outside does not impinge on the frozen existence of the hotel: it is a fantasm against which the clients inside are protected by the gardens, the statues, the columns, mirrors, motionless servants, and each other. It is a world to which only one spectator in a million would claim to belong, the sort of place where you, an ‘outsider’, instinctively feel for your tie and check your flies to make sure you are not indecently dressed, and where there is irony and contempt in the way the servants call you ‘sir’. Not a world to which you feel you can belong. In fact a deliberately alien world.

A man walks along a corridor, across a hall. His voice, in interior monologue, is only half audible above a background of organ music flooding the sound track with a confusion of noise, but his words seem to describe his own movement across the hotel: ‘Once again I advance, once again, down these long corridors, across these salons, these galleries, in this construction of another age, this immense hotel, luxurious, baroque . . .’ except that what he describes is never quite what he must see at the moment, nor yet what the camera shows which is slightly different again. In one of the salons a play is being performed before a rapt audience in evening dress, and as the man enters his voice merges at the same intensity and in the same tone with the dialogue of the actors, and the words of the players seem to echo those of the opening monologue. Meanwhile the camera looks now at the stage, now at the audience, so that we are not instantly sure when we hear a voice whether it is that of the actor or of the man, X, whom we have followed along the corridor into the salon. Until we recognise the accents, slightly foreign for X, ‘comédie française’ for the actor, we are thrown off balance, not sure exactly what is happening. Later, when there is more scope for the intermingling of different visions, past and present, real and imaginary, the confusion will be worse, and only the unobservant and over-confident spectator will dare to assert categorically that he knows where he is. The more observant is forced to admit, even at this stage, that he only knows that he doesn’t know, and that there are several ways in which even the opening scenes could be interpreted, none of them completely convincing. The long opening track down the corridor counterpoints, it seems, the actual vision of an object with images of that object in X’s memory, and the fact of an event with words once used, but in the past, to describe it—not only memories, but memories of a memory. Or so one is led to interpret it in the light of what comes later. The shot of the salon with the merging voices might be just a fantasy of the authors, or it might be that what we are seeing is not a single reality but different levels superimposed. The man’s personal experience as he enters the room and sees the play being performed fuses with a memory of the same play being performed on another occasion, and forces him to echo the words of the actor as if they were part of his own experience. But since he has already used the same words before it may be the actor’s voice which is unreal, and the whole scene is perhaps a figment of his imagination or a confused memory which makes him attribute to the actor, really speaking, sentiments which are only his own. Or perhaps something else again.