Thursday, December 6, 2007

Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad and the Semiotic film Context

In a 1966 Cahiers du Cinéma essay, Christian Metz states: "To ignore Jean-Luc Godard or Alain Resnais in 1966 is practically to exclude oneself from the cinema, just as one would place oneself outside literature if one refused to take Robbe-Grillet or Michel Butor seriously in 1966"[1]. It might be interesting then, to observe how Metz's work on semiology can apply to the works of people that one simply 'cannot ignore' according to him. Thankfully, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) was directed by Resnais and written by Robbe-Grillet, so it would seem only natural to look at how Metz's work applies to the film. While Robbe-Grillet is credited for the screenplay in Marienbad, the two works (screenplay and film) are nevertheless different entities. Leutrat talks about the 'two L'Année dernière à Marienbad' referring to Alain Robbe-Grillet's screenplay and Alain Resnais’ movie as 'twin works, at once divergent and complementary'[2]. Since Metz's work doesn’t directly apply to literature, but rather draws from it, I will concentrate primarily on the film part of L'Année dernière à Marienbad, with the occasional reference to Robbe-Grillet's work as needed. Since Resnais’ work is in a way an interpretation, or translation, of Robbe-Grillet's work, it might also be useful to see how one work translates to another. Here again, semiology comes into play. As Irene Ferreria de Sousa points out in her essay about cinema and Literature, 'semiology is the best tool to analyze the art of cinema and intersemiotic translations'[3]. While not going into a full semiotic analysis of the film, I intend to show that a semiotic view of L'Année dernière à Marienbad is a good tool for analyzing the work but the film’s apparent divergence from the standard semiotic formula is ultimately the most important element of said analysis.

To do this, I will start by looking at the aspect of time in the film and how this applies to the semiotic view of thereof. How do the elements of time shape its relation to the written work and how do they fit in a semiotic context. Following, I will look at the textual element of the film - how does Resnais' work interact with the various elements at play, be it the onscreen text (which there is very little of), the source text of the screenplay, the voice of the protagonists or the narration. Finally, I will conclude with a look at how the film fits within the semiotic formula - what (if one exists) is the crucial syntagma and how does Marienbad conform to or diverge from it.

To Begin, we can look at the element of time in L'Année dernière à Marienbad. Aside from the obvious presence in the title ('last year') that uses the past tense, the film deals largely with the characters' memories of time past that might or might not have happened. It deals with the past in such a way however, that it causes past to become one with the present, almost a part of it, to the point where the viewer is not sure anymore what happens now, or what happened then - last year- at Marienbad. This blurring of the lines between the past and the present is a perfect example of one of the fundamental differences between the written (textual) language and the filmic language. 'Whereas literature has a whole gamut of grammatical tenses which makes it possible to narrate events in relation to another, one might say that on the screen verbs are always in the present tense… by its nature, what we see on the screen is in the act of happening, we are given the gesture itself not the account of it.'[4] Despite this difference, filmmakers have come up with various devices to express passage of time or temporal relations - dissolves, calendar leafs and flashbacks/forwards are a few simple examples. Cinema, in a way, changes this inherent 'present tense' by methods that either hide it or allude to a different tense than the supposed 'present tense' of the filmic image.

L'Année dernière à Marienbad, however, does not use these methods. What little allusion to time that is done, is achieved through the textual element (mainly dialogue/monologue which will be discussed later in this text). Instead, the film presents scenes that happen in the past, future, or that never happened, in the same way that it presents the present. This does cause some disorientation. Metz refers to this as a 'cinema of tense uncertainty'[5] referring to the fact that we are never certain when the actions that we are watching are happening in relation to the others from the image alone. There are, in Marienbad the instances where X's voice recounts what we are seeing on the screen in the past tense, which appropriates the images a temporal relation. Despite this, however, the fact that we are not sure of the present during which X is saying these words (we do not see him start recounting the story and then see the images corresponding to the story) only serves to dislocate us further.

As for a syntagma associated with this kind of temporal relation, the most appropriate one according to Metz would be the autonomous shot and more specifically the subjective insert. I will discuss the subjective insert in greater depth later in the text, for now suffice it to say that the subjective insert ('image conveying not the present instance, but an absent moment experienced by the hero of the film. Ex: memory, dream, fear, premonition'[6]) is present throughout Marienbad. Most memorable ones are X and A's conversation by the bar (0'34'45") which is interrupted by the glass breaking/memory of A's white room (0'36'40") as well as the tracking shot through the corridors towards A's open arms multiple times (1'16'34"). What's important to note here, in both of these instances, is that while we are aware that the action in the 2 subjective inserts is not happening in the present time (the first is intercut with the conversation at the bar/glass breaking and the 2nd is accompanied by X's narration), we can't tell what time they are happening at for sure. They might both be memories of one of the protagonists, or they might not. They might be their fear that it happened or didn't happen the way they remember it or their unwillingness to remember it despite themselves.

Continuing on to the textual element of Marienbad we can begin by looking at the speech in the film. As observed previously, there is prominent narration throughout. Narration, unlike dialogue, can impose a meaning to the images, it can describe (in any tense not only the present tense) what is shown on the screen but it can also describe what is not seen. As Metz suggests, 'in order to get a better understanding of the talking cinema, one should study a certain type of "modern" film, particularly the work of the inseparable trio, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Agnes Varda.'[7] Aside from the fact that Resnais regularly uses screenwriters that are already well established in the world of literature, the 'verbal, even openly "literary", element, is given great weight in the overall composition which is nevertheless more authentically "filmic" than ever.'[8] Simply put, in Resnais' film there is no compromise one way or the other. The 'authentically filmic' nature of the film is not sacrificed in favor of a more literary style, and vice versa - the literary nature is not compromised just because the film is 'filmic' (which I assume to mean of significance in the film-world as opposed to the literary world, in this case).

The reason why such a film should be studied, is because one would want to avoid a situation where the inferiority of one element (either the filmic or literary) would cancel the validity of the other. Having a film of great literary merit with not much 'filmic' merit would devalue it in the film-world, despite receiving acclaim in the literary-world, and vice versa. If we are to regard the literary values of a film, it is useful to look at a film that is strong on both counts. And indeed, such is L'Année dernière à Marienbad, where 'the image and text play a sort of game of hide-and-seek in which they give each other passing caresses. The sides are equal: Text becomes image, and image turns into text.' [9] While this might sound like one element is imposing itself on the other, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather than imposing a literary quality on the image (thus invalidating or changing its significance) the text merges with the image and vice versa. What this results in is a perfect meld of both works of art - literary and filmic. It is this very nature that gives the work its very unique quality, as Metz states - 'the interplay of contexts gives the film its peculiar contexture'[10]

This contexture, however, requires a certain method in order to be achieved. When compared with other cinemas of the time, Metz refers to this cinema as a cinema of controlled diction characterized by a recitative approach. Comparing it to other cinemas of the time he makes the distinction between a 'cinema of passion' (Godard) and a cinema of premeditation and indirection (Resnais)[11]. This recitative approach is seen in Marienbad from the opening shot, with X's voice narrating over the images of the chateau's interior. This use of the off-screen voice is considered by Metz as a 'new form of aside' - a new way of communicating with the audience outside of the film that they are watching but coming from within it. Metz sees this new way as a 'revitalization of what used to be called "subjective images"'[12] which brings me to the final subject of this text, that is - the prominent syntagma in Marienbad, namely the 'subjective insert'.

I touched on the subject of the subjective insert syntagma briefly when discussing the notion of time in the film. Indeed, this type of syntagma is not only the most appropriate one for the temporal relation autonomous shots in Marienbad, but it is also the most prominent one in the film. When discussing its presence in films of the time, Metz states that 'its frequency has been doubly affected by modern cinematographic styles: With a Resnais…or a Fellini, it has multiplied, whereas in the films of the cinéma direct as well as in the fictional films influenced by the cinéma direct (those of Godard, for example), it has decreased'[13]. As previously discussed, the subjective insert appears at a relatively high frequency in Marienbad - but what does this frequency mean for the film. First and foremost, the subjective insert being an autonomous shot means that unlike the other types of syntagmas, it is composed of a single shot that constitutes a meaningful building block for the film (in contrast to the non-autonomous shots which are just parts of multi-shot autonomous segments).[14] While it is not impossible to convey meaning using a single shot, it is certainly more difficult to convey complex meanings, and one is restricted to a meaning focused on one single clear element (this of course does not apply to long shots à la Touch of Evil (1958) which would have more in common with a multi-shot autonomous segment despite technically being only one shot). The examples used previously have this same single-element quality to them - the glass smashes on the floor, A opens her arms in an embrace. While these are both meaningful to us they nevertheless have this very simple quality to them - we realize the glass smashed as a result of her bumping into the other woman at the bar, that she's opening her arms in an embrace, but we don't know more and we are never offered an explanation - they work by themselves as single mini-stories.

What is the effect of having more of these types of building blocks in a film than rather having more autonomous segments composed of many shots? Metz offers an explanation - he talks of this cinema that 'orders with meticulous patience a whole series of insistent, composed signs, not without making certain that their scrupulously unusual disposition will ensure a problematical and uncertain, although inevitably worked-at, deciphering;'[15] In short, having this kind of construction in a film gives it a problematic quality, one that requires deciphering, one that does not have an immediate meaning but rather one that asks the viewer to go beyond what's on the image or sound tracks to assign a meaning. It is a cinema that 'hesitates between ambiguity and riddle'[16] - it doesn't only require of the viewer to solve the riddle of meaning in the film, it also doesn't offer any sort of validation as to the accuracy of the solution - maybe the meaning-riddle's solution is the right one, but being of an ambiguous nature, it might also not be.

In this respect, what Resnais offers here is not so much the subjective insert (although one could read that into his film) but essentially a new type of syntagma - one that is potentially not documented by Metz and which doesn't necessarily follow one of his 8 possible autonomous segments. Similarly to his analysis of the Pierrot Le Fou (1965) sequence, where he identifies a passage 'that cannot be reduced to any one of [the 8 syntagmatic types] or to any variations'[17] of these types, one can see Marienbad as not directly employing the subjective insert but rather a modified, novel version of thereof. It is perhaps this novel type of syntagma that he was referring to when he was talking about the revitalization of subjective images[18].

To conclude, we have seen several aspects of Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad within the semiotic context. The first element was the time aspect and the whole notion of the tense (or lack thereof) in cinema. We have seen that despite the 'presentness of tense' in cinema, there is still an implied tense present in film in general and in Marienbad in particular. This tense is expressed using what, at first glance, seems to be the subjective insert syntagma. Following this, the textual nature of the film was taken into consideration - how does the text of the script interact with the filmic image and what meaning do they assign to each other? If anything, it gives the film a 'peculiar contexture' that is achieved through a recitative, that is to say narrated, nature and through a very controlled and premeditated cinema. Finally, we've seen that the temporal and textual elements give it a problematic and uncertain nature, albeit one that is intended and that is worked-at, encouraging ambiguity and difficulty in deciphering meaning. This quality of the film allows us to see that the uses of the subjective insert in the film are not so much the autonomous shot that Metz defined, but rather a new, perhaps yet undocumented, type of syntagma. It is in this inability to categorize, and apparently breakdown of Metz's theory that the film's greatest strength lies. This is not to say that it cannot be read according to the semiotic view, but the apparent difficulty in doing this and the problems that arise when attempting to do so are arguably the elements that give us the most insight into the film's nature.

[1] Metz, 1974, p187

[2] Leutrat, 2000, p52

[3] De Sousa, 1997, p611

[4] Robbe-Grillet, 1962, p12

[5] Metz, 1974, p200

[6] Metz, 1986, p46

[7] Metz, 1974, p55

[8] Metz, 1974, p55-56

[9] Metz, 1974, p56

[10] Metz, 1974, p56

[11] Metz, 1974, p199

[12] Metz, 1974, p220

[13] Metz, 1974, p180

[14] Metz, 1986, p46

[15] Metz, 1974, 200

[16] Metz, 1974, 200

[17] Metz, 1974, 217

[18] Metz, 1974, p220


Metz, C. (1974). Le cinéma moderne et la narrativité. Cahiers du Cinéma #185, 43-68,
republished in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, p185-227

Leutrat, J-L. (2000). L'année dernière à Marienbad. London: BFI Pub

de Sousa, I.F. (1997). Cinema and literature: Theoretical studies. Semiotics around the world: synthesis in diversity: proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley, 1994. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, p611-614

Robbe-Grillet, A. (1961). L'année dernière à Marienbad. Paris: Éditions de Minuit

Metz, C (1986). Problems of denotation in Fiction Film. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press, p35-65

Resnais, A. (Director). (1961). L'Année dernière à Marienbad [Motion Picture]. France, Italy: Argos Films

Metz, C. (1974). Le cinéma: langue our langage? Communications #4, 52-90, republished in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, p31-91

Metz, C. (1974). Étude syntagmatique du film Adieu Philippine,
de Jaques Rozier.
Image et Son #201, 81-97, republished in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, p177-182

Gangster Morals in the post-Godfather era

In the commentary for the DVD edition of the first season of The Sopranos, series creator David Chase refers to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) as "The Koran"[1], expressing his admiration for Scorsese's work but also his usage of the film as a kind of 'guidebook' for all things Gangsters and Mafia. While Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is a sort of standard as far as modern gangster movies go, it is interesting to explore how films in the post-Godfather world deal with the subject. While Scorsese's Goodfellas set the initial tone of where Gangster movies were at and where they were heading, it wasn't until The Sopranos that the subject really infiltrated mainstream to the point that it has following the series' completion. By examining elements of both Scorsese's Goodfellas and Chase's The Sopranos, I intend to show that post-Godfather 'gangster' films not only blur the distinction between right and wrong, but they further use this blurring to show the severity of the subject in the social context in which it exists.

To do this, I will first examine the subject of comedy in action and violence - how and to what purpose is humour used in the gangster film context? Following this, I will turn to the subject of the family and more specifically the woman character. While gangster films are usually rather patriarchal, the woman's role has evolved and changed with time than the one it was in the Godfather days. Finally, I will look at the social aspect and the morality of the gangster film. How does the subject fit in (or doesn't) with today society's moral values? How does it abide by or go against them and what significance does this have to the blurring of the line between right and wrong?

To begin with I'll consider the subject of comedy. Both Goodfellas and The Sopranos contain their share of comedy in what is for all intents and purposes a relatively serious and severe subject matter. In Goodfellas the most obvious example is the scene in which Joe Pesci recounts his story to Ray Liotta and then inquires about the nature of his 'being funny' ("Funny How?"). As Kinder notes, Pesci's story 'may or may not be intentionally funny and purposely makes both [Ray Liotta's character] (and us) uncertain as to whether it's dangerous to laugh.' She refers to this as the double bind that makes us feel guilty when we laugh at the presence of humour in an otherwise serious and negative/morally objectionable matter.[2] The Sopranos on the other hand, has it's own brand of humour. 'Chase loves comedy. And "The Sopranos" rejoices in the strangest kind, from stupid jokes (Tony, Paulie, etc.) to malapropisms (Christopher, Little Carmine).' But in The Sopranos, like in Goodfellas, it is not used in vain, rather - the show 'leavens violence and sex with adolescent humor and malapropisms.'[3]

As we can see in both instances, humour is used to render relatively immoral and disturbing events in both cases as more accessible to the viewer and to diffuse the severity of the violent and immoral nature of the subject matter. On one hand, the viewer is prompted to laugh along with the characters or at the characters and enjoy the fact that they are laughing. On the other hand, they are laughing at material that is interspersed with elements of crime and violence that would otherwise evoke completely different reactions than laughter. So the humour serves not only to desensitize the viewer, but also to make them aware of this fact (assuming at some point they ask themselves 'should I be laughing at this?').

To continue on to the next subject - the family and the woman's role in the films. While The Godfather was very much family-centered, Goodfellas offers us a more practical and modern 'insider's look into the actual workings of a family involved in organized crime, even a small family like Henry's family.'[4] But while Goodfellas was a good start, The Sopranos becomes the epitome of family portrayal in the crime world. 'Before anything else -- "The Sopranos" is a show about family -- two of them. The amazing debut episode laid the foundation for the mirror-families theme; the next 12 pulled it apart, twisted it around, fractured it and pieced it back together.'[5] And indeed the parallels between the 2 families - the crime family and the biologic are there, but the more interesting parts are when the two do not align. On one hand we have something that most of us can relate and understand - the workings of a family - parents, children, relatives. On other hand there is the crime family - violence, crime, secrecy - and the two notions of the family conflict.

Perhaps the most crucial elements of both Henry's family and that of Tony are their wives. In discussing the issue of gender in Hollywood Action-Adventure, Steve Neal talks of the crucial role that women have in the success of the group as a whole[6], and indeed both Henry's and Tony's success is rooted in their wives' wellbeing. In fact, 'the women of "The Sopranos" all owe a debt to Karen Hill of "Goodfellas."' Braco's character served to redefine 'the stock character of the Mafia wife' and was by no means just a 'meek housewife'. Seltz shows this same attitude to be 'one of the key differences between most mob stories and "The Sopranos": Though the males drive most of the plots and do all of the killing, the females aren't helpless bystanders.[7] So while all this serves to break away from the patriarchal nature of the mob families of yesteryear and situate them in today's more equal opportunity world, it still doesn't hide the fact that it is still a crime family and their husbands are still cheating on them, still putting them and their children in danger and still treat them in a manner which, despite being relatively progressive, is nevertheless few years behind the rest of society.

Which brings me to my last subject, that is, how does this all fit in society? Well, we've seen the mobster's wives who have 'all made certain moral compromises - looking the other way sometimes when the men fool around, enjoying a good life paid for with blood money'[8] but how do these moral compromises fit in the society where the respective stories take place? The way they do is by the mere fact that they are not fiction and are actually choices that real people do in real life. As such, any contemporary gangster film has to show this aspect of the subject if it is to match-up to the standard set by The Godfather. As Scorsese himself points out 'there's no sense in making another gangster picture, unless it is as close as possible to a certain kind of reality, to the spirit of a documentary'[9]. And what is this reality that one should strive to be as close as possible to? In the case of Goodfellas (and to an extent The Sopranos) it's the reality of the American dream, but rather 'it's the American dream gone completely mad and twisted'[10] In this dream, 'it's impossible…to recognize what's important and what's not', for Henry in Goodfellas, the fact that there's an FBI helicopter that might be chasing him seems important, but 'the correct stirring of his tomato sauce seems just as important'[11]

What's more crucial however, is that we get enthralled in these decision making processes when viewing the respective works and we forget the larger picture. We think about whether Carmela should leave Tony or not in The Sopranos but we forget that at the end of the day, he is a murdering criminal whether she leaves him or not. Our moral choices start working on a different scale than the one we would normally operate on in everyday life. Much like the members of the crime families and their actual families in Goodfellas and The Sopranos, we are inclined to develop a sort of second moral scale, one in which there is still right and wrong, but which is ultimately operating under the greater 'wrong' side of non-mobster morality. The strength of having this kind of effect on the viewer is of course the fact that it makes them realize that they've begun thinking on this scale, and it brings about to a greater appreciation of the nature of the subject. Of course, there is also the case where the viewer does not come to this appreciation and becomes completely desensitized to the subject matter - which one would assume was the fear that prompted the initial ban on portraying of gangster characters as 'heroes' in pre-Godfather Hollywood.

In summary, we've seen how post-Godfather gangster films use the elements of comedy and family to blur the lines between right and wrong. We've observed the changing role of women and their significance in modern-day gangster films. Finally, we've seen the significance of this moral ambiguity in the society in which it operates and its effects on the viewer. Ultimately the interpretation and reaction to the way the subject is portrayed falls on the viewer that is exposed to it. While a negative effect might have been a concern in the pre-Godfather Hollywood, one would think (hope?) that with the increased complexity of film across time, so did the complexity of audiences has increased to the point where they can discern moral decisions presented to them versus ones they actually have to make themselves.

[1] Gabbard, 2002, p11

[2] Kinder, 2001, p79

[3] Goodman, 2007, pE1

[4] Scorsese, 1989, p155

[5] Stark, 2001

[6] Neale, 2004, 74

[7] Seitz, 2000

[8] Seitz, 2000

[9] Scorsese, 1989, p151

[10] Scorsese, 1989, p155

[11] Scorsese, 1989, p160


Gabbard, G.O. (2002). The psychology of the Sopranos : love, death, desire and betrayal in America's favorite gangster family. New York: Basic Books

Kinder, M. (2001). Violence American Style: The Narrative Orchestration of Violent Attractions. Violence and American Cinema. New York: Routledge, p63-100

Goodman, T. (2007, April 2). A tidy finish? Fahgeddaboutit. The San Francisco Chronicle, p.E1

Scorsese, M. (1989). Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber

Stark, J. (2001). The Sopranos - DVD Review. Arts & Entertainment. Retreived December 8, 2007 from

Neale, S. (2004). Action Adventure as Hollywood Genre. Action and Adventure Cinema. London; New York: Routledge

Seitz, M.Z. (2000). 'Soprano' women: Hear them roar. Star-Ledger Sopranos Archive. Retreived December 8, 2007 from