"Now we're going to see something nobody understands", my friend said with great jollity. It was 1969 and the reason the mostly student crowd at Indiana University was thrilled to be disoriented was that they were mostly, well, stoned -- possibly tripping. My fellow grad student was a straight arrow in his substance intake -- his favorite psychedelic was Jack Daniels -- but only in that way, for he was becoming a fierce postmodernist in his embrace of French critical theory, something that was as thrilling -- I suppose, I never got it -- to not understand as the film we were about to see, Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad.
Resnais died recently at the age of 91. I had lost track of him, as I had of other idols of my youth, e.g. Dylan. Years ago I had seen one of his films in which office workers became white rats and Gerard Depardieu gave a recipe for lapin a la moutarde -- which I still remember. What thrilled me and has continued to weigh with great importance in my sense of culture were his classics, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), La guerre est finie (1966) and, of course, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961).
Now that jumbles of chronology and narrative point of view are common enough for TV (e.g. True Detective), one forgets that not that long ago straight, more or less omniscient narrative, the stuff of the 19th century realist novel, which was arguably the most important influence on fiction films, was to be expected. Sure, there were first-person narratives that sometimes went back and forth in time, but they were anchored by a narrator -- those tough-guy detectives in film noir. But Resnais dispensed with such anchors -- as he would with any anchor at all -- and left it up to the spectator to figure out where we were and who was telling us.
His most polished work along these lines was La guerre est finie, the story of a Spanish Communist, played by Ives Montand, who keeps commuting from France to Spain to organize the obviously futile resurgence of a Leftist revolution. He knows it's futile, but like a good existentialist hero, he soldiers on. Narrative point of view and chronology are handled smoothly here, in the manner filmgoers -- and TV watchers -- would learn to decode first in art film and eventually in the popular cinema.
Hiroshima mom amour tells three stories. The centerpiece, in narrative present time, is the affair between a French actress (Emanuelle Riva, the now-aged actress of Amour) in Hiroshima to make a film about the bomb, and a Japanese architect. Between bouts of lovemaking, filmed in the lyrical style that Resnais did not invent but did patent and has become de rigueur in romantic cinema, the actress begins to tell one of the other narratives, the story of her tragic romance with a German soldier during the Occupation, something she had never told anyone before. The architect says little of the horror that destroyed his city, the third narrative, except to insist that "you will never know Hiroshima." Finally, the actress discovers that in the telling of her story, particularly during those most vulnerable moments we call pillow talk, she was being purged of a pain she had guarded jealousy because, as she says, "I wanted to have an inconsolable memory."
Though chronology, linked to point of view, is handled deftly but without quotes, e.g. the blurry dissolves of classic cinema, this is not a cinematic exercise. On the contrary, it deals with the horror of World War II and its effect on the human heart. It is, in essence, a humanist film filtered through a modernist consciousness.
Not so Marienbad. There is a narrator: formal to the point of being stilted. And there are equally formal passages of cinematography. But, guess what? They don't match. We perceive that a man is telling a woman that they met last year at the Marienbad spa, a romantic, erotic meeting. But from the cinematography we sense that something else went on, something possibly violent, perhaps the erotic meeting was a rape. Nothing is resolved. Not even if such people were ever in Marienbad, if they met, if anything at all happened. And the reason for such lack of resolution is that, unlike the other films, there is no narrative center. The spectator looks for it in vain -- unless the spectator is high and is just grooving on the disorientation. Who is talking? Where do these images come from? What's going on? Marienbad is a totally postmodern movie bearing the key mark -- if such a thing can be said, which it probably can't -- of postmodernism: there is no center.
Today's alleged bold experiments with chronology and point of view in the popular cinema are weak by comparison. The much touted Memento (2000) tells a story backwards and, as the past is regained, the spectator learns just how fucked everything the amnesiac protagonist has done -- or will do, since we're moving back in time -- is . But there is a center, and, in fact, there is a chronological order that can be reconstructed at the end of watching the film, upset only by the old device of amnesia and by the film's clever, but shallow, reordering of chronology.
Resnais gave the spectator no such anchor. In the spirit of le dérangement systématique des sens, the very spirit that led the students at that sixties' screening to smoke or drop before they walked into the screening, he created something nobody would understand because, well, because understanding is highly overrated. We still get high. We still consume visual narratives that challenge reason and logic. But nobody has done it since with such elegance.