Sunset Boulevard[1]

Proust, Kafka and Joyce would have been happy to read in Elle: "Do not be lukewarm. You must see the most recent film by the exemplary filmmaker Alain Resnais. You will have an inexhaustible topic for conversation during long evenings this autumn and you will find material for profound reveries." Because they are in it for something, it is the authors of the film who affirm in a handbill distributed for free at the entrance to the cinema: "In the manner of what one has observed in other artistic domains -- the novel, for example, with Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner and many others -- the cinema here tends to liberate itself from traditional narratives procedures that have become obsolete." And the cinephile appointed by Paris Presse, Michel Aubriant, who has certainly read the handbill, declares spontaneously: "It is probable that many spectators will refuse to go along. . . . They will be those who detest it. Joyce and Faulkner also had their detractors."

You have understood well that if you do not like Robbe-Grillet, you are no longer worthy of having read Joyce, nor the others; if, on the other hand, you appreciate these authors (or if you have heard that you should), then you must love Marienbad.[2] This terroristic publicity has been poured out by the newspapers of all types, by the placards around the cinema ticket booths and, naturally, by the echo of less qualified imbeciles.

In fact, Marienbad has been criticized in different ways, and it is not necessary to confound all of the critics (and this problem can also be found with respect to all discussions of modern art). There are certainly those who disapprove of the film because they fall short and, in the particular case of Marienbad, there aren't any others or, rather, thanks to this constraining publicity, they have hardly dared to show their disapproval. But others can do so because they know more (without holding Joyce responsible for the paternity that one posthumously attributes to him).

If one can absolutely not recognize oneself as contemporaries and people concerned with this style of cinema, one can support the past or the future; by making a "Rightist" or "Leftist" critique, to adopt the vocabulary of political progress. This is a "Leftist" critique, of course. One thus leaves completely to the side those who loved it -- who believe they recognize here the avant-garde sage whom they can adopt without fear -- who had given him the Gold Lion.[3] We only find regression and artificiality in Marienbad, and with respect to his previous film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

If the situationists have judged what is true or false in modern art, it is because they know it well as participants, because they know what it must become, because they judge it by its future, by the more complete -- more complex -- form that will succeed it. Many people have become haughty because, for several years, they no longer say in front of a canvas by Picasso that "their little sister, who is six years old, could do as much." But this leads them to imprudent confusions in this respect -- and only the authentic avant-garde can fully distinguish what meaning art that wants to be modern can have.

It is easy to conceive that a filmmaker, in his work, refuses to make beautiful images; one could understand, for example, that he wants them to be anodyne. But this is not the case here. The images of Marienbad were intended to be beautiful, the decor, bizarre. And, nevertheless, as for the image as form, one can only find nothingness and, of course, pretension. Marienbad is clearly a return to the silent film, the aestheticism of 1925, the frozen gesture, habits, worthless mystery, sub-Cocteau stuff. It only lacks a snowball.[4] There indeed remains several fragments of [Alain] Resnais the honest documentarian, scrutinizing his unhappy mansion in a traveling shot. But to what good? Through the over-exposures, the under-exposures, the frozen pistol shot and the wind in the veils of Mademoiselle Seyrig -- a humorous course in what is no longer to be done. The same nothingness moreover characterizes the soundtrack: stupidity, insignificance and meanness. Resnais imitates his experiment of Hiroshima even more crudely than the foreign imitators who made Moderato Cantabile.[5] To the point of plagiarizing the excellent usage of the Japanese voice speaking in French to a French woman going to Hiroshima: he has used an Italian accent here. In itself, this is less bizarre and instead tends towards the comic. But the comic dimension is sublimated if one dreams that, straight away, it is a question -- the majority of the time -- of an interior monologue. This, here is the first man in the world who thinks in an Italian accent!

The film's publicity says, "You would like to give a meaning to these images -- and you will find one." Why not? And, by the same token, a meaning to the commentary upon these images. A priori it isn't me who is against this. Unfortunately, the diverse meanings that the spectator can find in this film can be summarized in a quite sorrowful banality. Because, finally, it is quite obvious that such a banality would say:

-- Love is blind,
-- He who only hears a bell only hears a sound,
-- Life and death are two mysteries,,
-- It isn't necessary to spout like a fountain,
-- Women are fickle,
-- All the tastes can be found in nature,
-- What do I know?

It is a film to which one could loan many meanings, but not a single one would be interesting. The contents, if one can use this word in this context, of this film are insignificant, atemporal, more cut off from history, reality and life than a seance of Guignol. Quite unlike Hiroshima, which, if it wasn't exactly revolutionary, was quite sympathetically situated with respect to the current behaviors of people. The authors flatter themselves with delivering "a meditation on love." But their reflections being as empty as their means of expression, the film is a meditation on aphasia. And here is why this film is silent! As has been justly remarked by Marcel l'Herbier, who wrote with an obviously laudatory intention: "This is an impressive victory for a rare film in which the impressionism of the silent age resurges and transcends"; and an anonymous but no less enthusiastic reader of Arts says: "It is comforting to see a young director, while so many representatives of the New Wave have only raillery and pity for their predecessors, recognize [in the past] what he must, and what can be retained from those who have gropingly created an art for out time. Marienbad or the Recognition of the Silent Film." Actually, this is a film in which the authors have nothing to say, coldly and on principle. It is at the antipodes of what there is that is positive (which we have always indicated) in the critique of artistic pseudo-communication, a critique made by any authentic modern artist. Here, there is no communication, but the authors stupidly believe that they represent violence and do not embarrass themselves by emphasizing it. The king does not know that he is naked, and he is the proud display of a pompous nothingness. The imitation of the king is also police-like: one terrorizes the people by telling them: "Prove that you are intelligent and up to date, by finding out, all alone, why the devil our film is beautiful!"

There is a notable sociological point, however: the publicity-minded confession that there are as many meanings as spectators. In the customary vocabulary of the SI [Situationist International], one can designate this confession as a demagogical resignation of specialists who no longer even know how to control their own work, who can no longer even recall from which sectarian convention -- from which chapel -- it is necessary to understand their obscure discourse. Each person has the right to think what he wants, right? And everyone must see this film and be content with it. Such a platitude, even badly understood, leads one to spiritual Poujadism.[6] Moreover, it is possible that it is this perspective that Robbe-Grillet has always read the important and difficult works with which he claims kinship (Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner and the rest), slyly thinking that all this does not have meaning, but that he is smart enough to give meaning to what he has not understood, that one has left the choice of meaning up to him.

Since then, Michel Butor has created an opera at the intermission of which the spectators must vote to choose among possible endings. These are the necessities and perspectives of modern art that, in the plastic arts, are [represented by] Tinguely's machines and the mobile paintings by the bricoleurs who flatter themselves with "surpassing" the old conditions of the aesthetic environment. Another stage (I am imagining this, of course) will be surpassed in the second representation, when Michel Butor will content himself with revealing the elected end of the opera at its beginning, leaving to a second group of spectators the care of imagining the beginning that is fitting.

As for Marienbad, the ambitions of which -- as one sees -- are not slight, since the film must give to each spectator his share of basic truths: it is actually an empty film, but this does not mean that one can fill it up. For the spectators, such a lack of talent, imagination and strength corresponds to a lack of interest and amusement to a point that is rarely attained. Such nothingness only weighs heavily on the critic, who finds himself in it.

The authors have sought the label "baroque." But "baroque" does not fit. And especially not in matching such poor verbal obscurities (as opposed to the richness of all surrealist poetry, even Dadaist poetry, Joyce, etc.) with images of rococo molding! Nevertheless, there exists a great baroque tradition. Directors such as Sternberg and Welles have already demonstrated this.[7] They knew how to pass through a corridor. And the pitiful plumes of Delphine Seyrig do not even manage to remind one of the women-birds (Louise Brooks, the extras in Shanghai Gesture[8] in their cages)! It was a bad recipe -- when trying to make a baroque film -- to content oneself with the baroque that was already-made, guaranteed. Otherwise, the flattest documentary on the architecture of Portugal would be more baroque than Mr. Arkadin. Louis II of Bavaria -- called to the rescue by the publicity for the film of the same time as Coco Chanel -- is a beautiful example of baroque-ism, not only in its mansions, but also in its conduct, to which Robbe-Grillet has surely never found a meaning! He cannot save the brave reviewers of Marienbad than he can give a delirious dimension to Marianne de ma jeunesse by any Duvivier.[9] To utilize such materials, it would have been necessary to have already attained a certain opening on its own. One remembers how Welles used the engravings of Goya, reproduced as masks, in the ball [scene] in Mr. Arkadin. It is necessary, in a certain way, to work at the same level. Therefore, a detail that is greatly significant to us is the fact that -- when this cretin named Robbe-Grillet proposes to invent a game (this would be an excellent idea), which, with the miserable slyness of a college student, he believes he has done -- all he has come up with is a minor parlor trick that is already known. And which is played incorrectly in the film.

This amount of pretentious errors obliges us to make a re-examination of Resnais. Thus it is not true (as we believed when we wrote an editorial note to Internationale Situationniste #3[10]) that, unlike the other "New Wave" directors who only know cinephilic culture, Resnais knows modern art.

"As soon as the cinema enriches itself with the powers of modern art, it enters the global crisis of modern art," the situationists wrote with respect to Hiroshima. Resnais had ambitions but it is now necessary to perceive that he knows nothing other than the milieu of modernist gimmickry, [that which lies] between the T.N.P. and Les Temps Modernes, the art of Mathieu and the thought of Axelos.[11] Despite the references he made to Andre Breton around the time of the release of Hiroshima, Resnais has shown his stature by depending on Robbe-Grillet.

With Marguerite Duras, who furnished Resnais with an honest text that was nevertheless far from a [genuine] discovery (and she had already shown her insufficiency, especially her lack of critical sense, by participating in the making of Moderato), Resnais had the chance to make something that was in the direction of what he sought: a cinema dominated by speech.

In his shorts films and up to Hiroshima, Resnais -- favored, if one can put it this way, by the frightening retardation of the cinema in comparison to the other cultural sectors -- slowly caught up. Hiroshima, which was incontestably at a modern stage in the history of the cinema, situated itself (with respect to general cultural evolution) at the stage of Proust. By continuing this movement, Resnais saw the obligation to make the cinema contemporary in his most recent film. But, by depending on the words of Robbe-Grillet, he was duped; he is dead. He confessed his cultural nothingness. He no longer understands.

The experiment is even more conclusive, if there was need for such, concerning the language of Robbe-Grillet. Those who still ask themselves about the "mysteries" of his prose, by remaining confined to the noble and respectable boredom of reading the books published by Lindon Avant-Garde Editions,[12] have seen his incredible emptiness when it is staged. The School of the Look only holds its spectacular office typographically.

Given the conception that Resnais has of the cinema (a conception of the cinema dominated by speech, which was used very well in Hiroshima), Robbe-Grillet's phrases were forced to be the central element of the film. This is why there are no longer any. And yet, what an enticing program one (almost) had: when the writing of the look encounters the cinema of language. This product of anti-matter. Robbe-Grillet, arrived much too late to destroy the novel, has destroyed Resnais. How could one not have been advised that, of all the individuals who write or can write in French, Robbe-Grillet would be the worst choice for such an enterprise? This proves that Resnais had respect for this sad and clumsy bluff called the "new novel." Which condemns him as an artist.

These criticisms are not made in the spirit of "film criticism," to oppose Marienbad to other, currently preferable films. But they are the sad confirmation of the premature end -- due to a wandering astray -- of an evolution that had been interesting. If Robbe-Grillet had invented the goose game, Resnais would have fallen into the well.[13]

This failure only valorizes the systematic imposture of false cinema-verite (Chronique d'un ete),[14] the totality absurdity of its pretense to objective investigation, whereas [in this film] one screened the people, the questions posed and the framing, the weak percentage of which subsisted in the montage and the order that will give it meaning. This cinema-verite only provides a cruel truth about the only thing that one has not thought to fake, because one is oblivious to it: the imbecility of the vocabulary and lives of the friends of the sociologist-investigator.

In the cinema or elsewhere, one cannot hope for a particularly clear awareness of the problems on the part of the people who have understood nothing of the totality of the problematics of our society, [or] our era. If they were intelligent, they would have known this. We have seen the results.

The maximum possible originality for the intellectuals who, these days, come to partially replace the habitual specialists and industrialists in the cinema is only the semi-originality of their particular stupidities (in the same way that the stupidity of Hitchcock is the current stupidity of the regular artisans of the cinema). I think here of La Fete Espagnole, made from the novel by H.-F. Rey and with his collaboration.[15] There is a certain bizarreness in this film (the ideological conversation during the meal with the American journalists) that is quite typical of the mode of life of what one in France calls a Leftist intellectual. One finds in this film -- which does not have the air of being made by the merchants of production -- the sincerity of a Leftist intellectual. But what are the limits of this sincerity? As soon as the bad faith and equally typical ignorance of Leftist intellectuals begin. Total ignorance of the Spanish Revolution (none of the vital struggles in the Republican camp are shown, except for the hard-drinking, idiotic and sadistic anarchists, who made the law, a Trotskyist who plays the boy-scout[16] as soon as it is a matter of countering the Communists, etc.). False cynicism about false love -- the deserter from the war, [when] it is not wars to be deserted that are lacking -- about which one does not even have the customary melodramatic resources to make us wait to see if the deserter will triumph over sordid life or will bourgeosify himself. This was already done at the beginning of the film.

With the result that the people who claim to speak of questions that are as important as the reality of everyday life or the Spanish War have hardly any advantage over Robbe-Grillet, who are much more boring, but who have the strength to not speak of anything.

But we, who do not have the habit of taking sides in today's official cultural debates, have said that Resnais' first film confirms situationist theses on the destruction of the spectacle, although it was obviously conceived outside of these theses ("the fundamental trait of the modern spectacle is the staging of its own ruin," Internationale Situationniste #3). With the fall of Resnais into the most redundant and shabbiest of spectacles, one is forced to conclude that these are precisely the theses that Resnais lacked in his subsequent development. And there is no longer a modern artist conceivable outside of us.

Michele Bernstein

[1] English in original. Sunset Boulevard is the title of a 1950 "film noire" co-written and directed by Billy Wilder.

[2] Last Year at Marienbad (1961), directed by Alain Resnais and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

[3] Prize for filmmaking, awarded in Venice, Italy. Resnais won it in 1961.

[4] A reference to a scene in Jean Cocteau's film Le Sang D'Un Poete (1930).

[5] Directed by Peter Brook (1960).

[6] Pierre Poujade (1920-2003), a right-wing publisher and politician.

[7] All of the directors and films mentioned favorably in this passage would be used, much later, in Guy Debord's film The Society of the Spectacle (1973).

[8] English in original.

[9] Julien Duvivier (1896-1967) was one of the "Big Five" French directors to emerge in the 1930s.

[10] "The Cinema After Resnais."

[11] T.N.P. is the French National Theatre; Les Temps Modernes a journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre; Mathieu is Georges Mathieu, a painter; and Axelos is Costas Axelos, a philosopher.

[12] Editions de Minuit, directed by Jerome Lindon.

[13] A parlor game played with dice.

[14] Documentary released 1960, made by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

[15] La Fete Espagnole (1961), made from the novel by Henri-Francois Rey (1958).

[16] English in original.

(Written by Michele Bernstein and published in Internationale Situationniste #7, April 1962. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! August 2007. Footnotes by the translator.)

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