Thinking Cinema with Greenaway, Resnais, and Godard (part 1)

If this post had a subtitle, it might be ‘Travelling the thin line between brilliance and intellectual pretension.’  Picking up on my invocation of Peter Greenaway’s four tyrannies towards the end of my previous post, I want to examine two films that I watched this weekend, and suggest that they both represent refusals of these tyrannies.  Yet I find that demonstrating these refusals brings one to an impasse: does this understanding of cinema negate the legitimacy of ‘normal’ movies?


First, it is helpful to recall that Greenaway suggests that there are four tyrannies that govern film:


1)      the tyranny of the text

2)      the tyranny of the frame

3)      the tyranny of the actor

4)      the tyranny of the camera


This weekend I watched Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, which I’ll just refer to as Marienbad for hereon).  The film garnered quite a lot of attention upon its release in France.  The producers initially rejected it, so Resnais resorted to showing it in a series of small screenings attended by the likes of Breton, Sartre, and Deleuze.  Indeed, according to the presentation given by Ginette Vincendeau (I love bonus features), Deleuze found this film to be a prime example of time-image.


Vincendeau also presents the film as a series of four refusals, which, conveniently enough, line up quite well with Greenaway’s four tyrannies:


1)      the refusal of plot

2)      the refusal of point of view

3)      the refusal of chronology

4)      the refusal of naturalism


Roughly, it could be argued that 1 and 3 refuse the tyranny of the text, 2 and 4 refuse the tyranny of the actor, and 3 and 4 refuses the tyranny of the camera.  The tyranny of the frame kind of disrupts the neatness of this schema, but more on that later.  A brief note: for simplicities sake, I will use the letters assigned to the characters in the original book by Robbe-Grillet. X is the male narrator, A is the woman he speaks to, and M is maybe her husband.


The film’s plot, to the extent it can be said to have one, could be summarised as a man’s attempt to convince a woman that they had a love affair the previous year (or at least some previous year).  Yet there are constant challenges to this summary.  We’re never sure if the two actually have actually met before.  We’re not sure if it was actually a love affair or if it was some form of sexual violence.  If it was sexual violence, we’re not sure if it was perpetrated by X or if A is responding to some repressed sexual experience.  At times X seems to dictating the plot; scenes appear and he rejects them as wrong (with it never being clear if this is because the scene didn’t happen or because it’s not happening the way he wants it to).  The scenes cut back and forth suddenly.  Sometimes the background changes while the characters’ clothing remains the same.  Sometimes their clothing changes but the background remains the same.  To the extent the film has a present, we’re unsure if it lasts minutes or weeks.  Thus Marienbadeffectively casts off the chains of nineteenth century literature, which Greenaway claims sits in the seat of power in the tyranny of the text.


It is not very long into the film that we begin to doubt the reliability of X’s narration.  For one, A seems to find the retelling unconvincing.  Moreover, as mentioned above, we cannot trust the narration of a character who changes the story to meet his desires or dubious memory.  Marienbad, in rejecting the authenticity of the narrator, leaves the film without a trustworthy point of view.  This situation could be contrasted to Fight Club or The Usual Suspects, where, respectively, we join the narrator in the journey to his realisation or are tricked by the clever narration of the story.  The rejection of the character amounts to a rejection of the actor. This rejection is further demonstrated by the refusal of naturalism.  The characters move in an odd stilted fashion.  The character A frequently seems to obey X’s description of scenes, mechanically moving into position.  A scene in the ballroom depicts dancers moving all in step with one another.  As Vincendeau puts it, in regard to A, what we watch is not a bad actress giving a bad performance, but a good actress giving a bad performance intentionally.


At the end of the previous post, I explained that the tyranny of the camera suggests that for too long the camera has determined film.  Marienbad refuses this tyranny in its refusal of chronology.  The editing process is key; it constructs the story that circles the absence of a plot.  It constructs odd situations.  We find the character standing in a garden scarred by their harsh shadows, but the geometric trees lining the avenue cast no shadow.  So the editor participates in the refusal of naturalism as much as the awkward motions of the actors.


 The tyranny of the frame is the only form of slavery to escape Vincendeau’s schematisation of Resnais’ triumph.  I think the overcoming of the frame comes in the frequent use of mirrors to create shots containing infinite regresses.  The characters are seen disappearing into infinity.  I suppose it could be argued that this infinity remains bound by the frame, both of the screen and of the mirror, but I think it remains arguable that the frequent reflections manage to at least challenge the frame’s dominance.  Alternatively, perhaps the tyranny of the frame is cast off in the final scene where A and X escape the screen, leaving it empty save for the solemn figure of M.


This second option is underscored in an interpretation favoured by French writer Pierre Andelotthat.  It sees X as the only self-conscious character in a cinematic world.  X is thus attempting to liberate A, dare we say, from Greenaway’s tyrannies, defeating text, actor, and camera before escaping the frame.  This fits with the idea of X as director, instructing A and rejecting scenes until at last he frees A.  The couple renders the camera powerless which, as they elude the hold of the frame, refocuses on M, who remains victim to celluloid.


I found Marienbad a thoroughly enjoyable film.  Regarding the subtitle, it manages to destroy cinematic convention without slipping into self-indulgence.  The film is beautiful full of geometric shapes and movement that are as much a part of the film as the dialogue.


This post is getting quite long, so I’ll leave my thoughts on Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion and the discussion of my impasse to a future post.



  1. i don’t know if you knew this but i remember reading…somewhere (i really wish i could remember where, but i know that i read it) that Greenaway cited Marienbad as his choice of favorite film/greatest film ever made (again, i forget the exact language but the obvious gist is that it’s his #1). good article–i google alert “marienbad” so i’m obviously a little bit obsessed.

  2. I’ve read that a few places, but never seen the actual interview, lecture, or paper where he makes the statement.

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