French auteur courted critical firestorms while taking fiction and film in new directions
To mark the centennial year of French New Wave filmmaker Alain Resnais, New York’s Film Forum has put on showings of his most celebrated movies, including Last Year at Marienbad. The screenwriter of that odd 1961 film is novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died in 2008 and whose 100th birthday is today, August 18.
This Wikipedia-style aggregation of dates does not do justice to the affinities between Resnais, a leader of modern French cinema, and Robbe-Grillet, the pioneer of the nouveau roman, a form that makes use of non-linear narratives and head-hopping, refusing to confine the storytelling to just one perspective. Robbe-Grillet set out to shake things up, and he succeeded. Viewers and critics may never agree on how much trickiness, pretentiousness, and metafictional playfulness is too much, and to call Last Year at Marienbad divisive would be an understatement. It holds the rare honor of turning up on lists of the best and of the worst movies ever brought before audiences’ eyes.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Envious
On the surface, Last Year at Marienbad is about of a bunch of rich people in an ornate hotel in a resort. Stylishly dressed men and women dance, drink wine, and enjoy fine conversation. The bar in this locale may remind you of the one in the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with its creepy servers and an ambiance both eminently civilized and coldly alienating.
Psychic tensions abound and find an analogue in organ music so relentless that it may drive you a bit crazy. That’s if you’re not already off your rocker from having tried to follow a male guest’s obsessive courtship of a woman and the interventions of a tall rival who favors dark suits and slicked-back hair. The actor playing the would-be seducer is Italian star Giorgio Albertazzi, the woman is French actress Delphine Seyrig, and the rival for her love is Swiss actor Sacha Pitoêff.
Envy and animosity soar until Pitoêff comes into Seyrig’s room with a pistol and shoots her dead, but then another scene begins and she’s not dead. Albertazzi talks with her on a balcony and grows so alarmed at the approach of Pitoêff that he topples backward and falls, taking a chunk of the railing with him. Then he’s unhurt, still eagerly courting Seyrig, and the balcony is intact.
Resnais said in an interview that he wanted the film to mirror the way that people really think, as opposed to the expository, structured archetype of thought presented in many stories and movies. Of course the way we process reality is often nonlinear and prone to all kinds of self-serving tricks. We pick and choose what to believe and shut out possibilities and realities as fast as they occur to us. In the scenario in which Albertazzi finds himself, you might well have thoughts or experience a stream of disconnected images where scenes and dangers rear their heads and then vanish, not caring whether they fit into a whole.
It is the filtering, processing, editing, and telling ourselves what we want to hear that make life bearable. Robbe-Grillet has found a symbol for this tendency in a motif. At a number of points in the film, we watch characters play a game of Nim, where the players lay out chits or matches or coins on a table and take turns removing them until the loser gets stuck with the last one.
Here is an analogy for two rivals for a woman’s love who dwell in their own minds and step out of that internality to try to shape shared reality as much as possible in ways favorable to themselves, until the loser is left with one unalterable shard of truth that no cognitive dissonance or self-serving lie can get around. You can convince yourself that you never heard what you heard or saw what you saw, but now there is a corpse! You lose.
In writing Marienbad, Robbe-Grillet found a visual vehicle for the themes of perspective that he wrote about obsessively in his novels and stories. In “La Remplaçant,” or “The Substitute,” a few threads develop at once. Students and a teacher in a classroom read from and discuss an account in a historical text of the exploits of Philippe, the French-born Prince of Saxe-Coburg, and Philippe’s band of mercenaries, as they grow embroiled in dynastic and political plots and intrigues of the late nineteenth century. When one of the boys reads the text, he does so in a tone-deaf manner that lays stress in the wrong places, emphasizing actions that the subjects take without offering a sense of context, of what unites any of the deeds into a whole that might lend itself to historical interpretation.
Meanwhile, a number of the pupils let their attention wander from the lesson to take in paper puppet hanging on the wall. While all this is going on, yet another boy languishing way below the classroom at the base of a tree fidgets and reaches up to try to grab branches over his head. When the students at their desks glance out the window, all they can take in are the tops of the trees and the sky. Robbe-Grillet moves with no transition from one thread to another. The boy at the base of the tree contemplates branches he cannot reach. Philippe and his mercenaries camp out on the banks of the Neckar River. The pupils in the classroom watch the puppet.
Robbe-Grillet has illustrated how people dwell on their own vectors, consumed with the importance of their experiences and viewpoints, and objectively speaking there is no reason for the vectors ever to intersect or any probability that they will. If the characters in the history book come to a bloody end, if a fire in the building kills the class and teacher, if the tree outside falls on the guy lounging down there, the development will fail to transcend the vector on which it occurs. Or maybe, given the infinitude of time, you can look to some point in the remote future to find a circumstance where the occupants of one vector might have a reason to care what happens to those of another.
Robbe-Grillet’s obsession is with the coexistence of perspectives, or more often their refusal to coexist. Circumstances may make their meeting immediate and inevitable or may defer that collision to a hypothetical point in the future we can scarcely envision. Works in the former category include Last Year at Marienbad and the 1981 novel Djinn, in which a young man responding to a help-wanted ad comes across a child who had an accident crossing the street and gets sucked into an unfathomably weird ecological and anti-corporate plot involving doppelgangers, robots, absent parents, characters who die repeatedly, illusory places and people, noms de guerre, and scenes that recur from myriad viewpoints. At the other extreme are “La Remplaçant” and the 1957 novel La Jalousie, which in theory is about a jealous husband but whose subjects are rooms and settings first and people a distant second.
Yet the works are not at opposite extremes because you are never really free from the intimation of those ghostly other perspectives and possibilities even when the latter do not seem to impinge directly on your life.
The Critical Divide
Some readers and scholars in 2022 have no patience for Robbe-Grillet’s trickery and pretension or what they see as his callousness on a personal level. Alexandra Destais, a literary scholar and lecturer at the University of Caen, told Book and Film Globe that she takes a severe view of both the writer and the man. “In my opinion, his writing is cold, cerebral, and cut off from real life in pursuit of a formalism that pretends to represent a true human sensibility,” Destais said. She went on to disparage Robbe-Grillet as a “shoddy aristocrat” of the world of letters, without interest for our own time, and recalled with distaste an anecdote related to her by a now deceased colleague at the University of Caen, who said he was once at a dinner where Robbe-Grillet fantasized aloud about the sexual appeal of little girls.
Readers interested in experimentation and the reinvention of forms would do better to turn to the work of Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999), who has slipped into undeserved obscurity, Destais said.
Indeed, Robbe-Grillet got into trouble right up until his death for the treatment of women in his books and for his interest in sadomasochism. For some, this is more enough reason to consign him to the memory hole.
Another assessment comes from Roger-Michel Allemand, a critic and the author of works on Robbe-Grillet and other moderns. In an interview with Book and Film Globe, Allemand said that the author’s reputation rests mostly on his first three novels, Les Gommes, Le Voyeur, and La Jalousie. While those are not his favorites, they introduce the structural innovation for which the writer came to be known along with an element of “narrative uncertainty” that places confidence in the intelligence of readers, Allemand added.
“The meaning is not obvious, or provided in advance, and readers must themselves construct the layout and possible significance of what is related to them,” he said.
Robbe-Grillet does not insult readers’ intelligence. In Allemand’s view, his novels encourage people to be intellectually curious, to look behind commonly accepted representations of reality in the course of investigating a world full of inscrutable things. It is no coincidence, he said, that Robbe-Grillet enjoyed perhaps the most intensive public interest in the middle of the 1970s, when what people knew as the “three glorious decades” following the end of the Second World War came to an end amid the shock of a global oil crisis, and inhabiting other perspectives, if only to understand them and seek means of resolution, became as critical as ever. The message still matters, Allemand believes.
While Robbe-Grillet has fallen into what Allemand calls a “purgatory” of semi-obscurity in bookstores and universities, where he runs afoul of reigning sensibilities, aspects of his story are nonetheless inspiring.
“He bears witness to a time in the not so very distant past where a child of a poor family could succeed and enrich himself, not by playing the stock market or going into business, but through the talent of his pen, and later of his camera, become a modern-day aristocrat, and win election to the Académie Française,” Allemand said.
The stance of some feminist critics who find it appropriate to cancel Robbe-Grillet is an attempt to apply certain standards and dogmas retroactively.
“I find it mind-boggling that in our time, in the name of ‘political correctness,’ one might judge literary works to be dated without any critical perspective and in service to moral values that were not current at the time of the works’ creation,” Allemand said.
“Please do not find in my comments here any complacency with regard to acts that are morally reprehensible or illegal. My position is simply that of a thoughtful reader who resists the confusion these days about the criteria” for judging works, he continued.
People who were close to Robbe-Grillet have affirmed to Allemand that the author never committed any illegal acts. Nonetheless, Allemand criticizes Robbe-Grillet for having dismissed the campaign against pedophilia as “ridiculous” in a 2001 interview and for stressing that consent is what matters above all in intimate encounters. It’s impossible for a child to give consent on any kind of informed basis, and when making these comments, Robbe-Grillet mixed up the imperatives of speaking as an artist and analyzing a legal and moral issue, Allemand said.
“Art does not absolve the artist of responsibility,” he added.
Acknowledging Robbe-Grillet’s importance and the unfairness of many of the attacks on him in our time, Allemand sees flaws in the famous writer’s public persona.
“More generally, he preached to the choir,” said Allemand. When Robbe-Grillet praised other writers, even ones as important as Flaubert and Kafka, he did so in a manner that placed their work in a tradition leading, ultimately, to Alain Robbe-Grillet. Even when he praised fellow members of the movement for a nouveau roman, he also sometimes had nasty things to say about others, Allemand added.
“In the end, he did not love anyone but himself, or to put it more precisely, he did not love himself well enough to love others, and that character trait displeases me,” Allemand said.