«I am using an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain human weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway the emotions of my audience – make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, be outraged, be shocked, be charmed, be transported – or bored. So either I am an imposter or – if the audience willingly suspends disbelief – a conjurer.»
The late Ingmar Bergman wrote that in 1957, about his film of that year, Wild Strawberries. A film, for Bergman, began with something vague, often a hazy event that evoked a mood, a fertile mental state. He explained that he wanted to make films “about the conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms and characters” he found significant. As the son of a clergyman, Bergman became captivated by religious issues: “They go on every hour of every day, although not on a sentimental, emotional level but on an intellectual one.”
The American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that “if the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.” Yet Wild Strawberries, along with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), Federico Fellini’s 8 1 / 2 (1963) and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), are all outstanding examples of the modern European film of the 1950s and 1960s. Their basis was post-war Italian neo-realism in the cinema, which was an expression of the many illusions destroyed by the second world war; they also alluded further back to the European avant- garde between 1910 and 1920; they revolutionised the language of film and had new ways to look at the world.
Antionioni in The Eclipse (1962) dealt in tense border situations and dehumanised landscapes. He created vacuums and landscapes in which the characters and action are transformed into an abstract interior; the displacement of the bodies is more important than any sequence of events. He highlights the banal everyday vacuum. He went to great lengths to show bodily fatigue, longing, waiting, despair. The characters’ inner selves were illustrated through physical behaviour. He showed what came after the experiences, when everything that could be said has been said, although did not regret the world’s communication problems. He saw that the world was full of all possible colours but people remained colourless; the world still awaits “its inhabitants who are lost in neurosis”. The work of the auteurs (1) was about thought, about reflection. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in What Is Called Thinking?, “Man can think in the sense that he possesses the possibility to do so. This possibility is no guarantee that we are capable of thinking.”
The most significant and radical of those films was Last Year at Marienbad, the work of director Alain Resnais and scriptwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, which created new and active audience participation. Instead of being based on cinema’s traditional action and linear stories, it was based on montages of “time images” (a term coined by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze), on time itself. With society in flux and the advent of the media world, it became hard to distinguish the real from the imaginary. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were not alone in wanting to “expand the system of flashbacks and hypotheses into a generalisation of the mental image” (2).
Marienbad opens with a series of takes of the baroque interior decor of a former castle, now a luxury hotel. A man’s voice is intermittently heard when not drowned out by organ music. After a time, we see people around the lounge. The main characters are Man X, Woman A (and her husband, Man M). X is trying to tell A what happened last year at a similar place. Fragments of conversations and the games of tuxedo-clad men blend in. The film alternates between flashbacks of X’s memories (or are they A’s?), of a rendezvous. But X’s memory becomes hazy when he reaches the climactic event of their previous meeting – was it a rape, a sexual encounter or a murder?
Marienbad, like David Lynch’s new film Inland Empire, is a series of confusing and complicating scenes and tableaux, almost impossible to interpret. Image and sound conflict; flashback is real and unreal. Many films are related to Marienbad. It is connected to L’Avventura, which also has characters searching in all directions, and an uncertain story. The game in the lounge is like Bergman’s chess game between the knight and death in The Seventh Seal (1957). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet themselves were probably inspired by the enigmatic qualities of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), and Stanley Kubrick in turn was inspired by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet for his real/unreal hotel in The Shining (1980).
Resnais and Robbe-Grillet believed that Marienbad has no solution and all interpretations are equally valid. The diversity of potential interpretations is impressive: some critics postulated that it was about memory – recollection of the truth or a rewrite of a traumatic memory? Or a dreamlike delirium? Others interpret the film as an essay on storytelling, rhetoric and communication. A more psycho-analytic reading identifies the castle’s enormous spaces as narcissistic; the soundless shot as an expression of impotence; and the characters as incarnations of Freud’s id, ego and superego; a battle between lust and the death drive. Further interpretations regard the castle as a graveyard. The film may also be a fable about Europe’s disappearing aristocracy. Some have significantly interpreted it as bourgeois civilisation’s emergence into capitalist society, with its empty rules that constrain people to live inside a game, in perpetual repetition of the same conversations and events.
The film’s uneasy mystery revolves around the fear of the vacuum, barely concealed by the forced repetition of words and pictures. The director and scriptwriter are obsessed with cataloguing things and events, changing perspectives, costumes and scenes. Every hysterical cry, perplexing moment or dizzying flash points directly “into the abyss of humanity” (3). You are made to think about possible interpretations, about assessing those interpretations or even assessing the process by which the interpretations are assessed. You are certainly made to think.
The French playwright Antonin Artaud (1896- 1948) regarded film as a form of neurophysical vibration; the picture produced shocks, neural waves that provoked thought, which “had not always existed”.
He wrote: “For me, sexuality, oppression and the subconscious have never provided sufficient explanation for inspiration or spirituality.” Cinematic thought demands a dissociative power introduced by disconnecting pictures, using multiple voices, internal dialogues or one voice inside another. Robbe-Grillet used the incomprehensible as a device, Resnais used the indeterminate and Jean-Luc Godard used concepts or approaches that approximated the mutability of modernity, since any belief in a unity of montage had gone.
If the filmmaker wants thought to be a film’s aim, he has to show the functioning of thought. His images can stop the world, animate the visible and shake up conventional thinking. This can happen when filmmakers manage, through the senses, to provoke individuals to see something intolerable in the world. It is not because the world can sometimes seem unfair that one feels the powerlessness of thought. Because the intolerable is, according to Deleuze, “no longer a serious injustice, but the permanent state of the banality of the quotidian” (4). Antonioni truly mastered the depiction of that. Powerlessness is actually a part of thought, which begins in the connection between the human being and the world, or between the human being and the intellectual, religious problem with which Bergman struggled.
Can great films provide a way back to the world of human beings through what we see and hear? Some auteurs focus on the body, or the flesh, as Francis Bacon would call it. Can these films accurately reproduce a belief in our world? Beyond the illusion-making of film, cinematic thought – thinking in pictures – recreates belief in the real world. The many interpretations of a film, as we saw with Marienbad, should lead the abstractions of thought on to an, albeit temporary, foundation. In his recent work Histoire(s) du cinema (5), Godard says (between film clips): “Don’t hurt yourself, because we’re all still here.” That’s the film itself talking, and with the gentleness of angels.
Godard reminds us that we are still here and in the world, that we still connect to the progression of the story and that, being thinking presences, we do not want to let the story or the film be forgotten. This community unites the little stories of the lonely. Film images refer to the togetherness of being that is thought, and the human soul. Bergman has a scene in The Best Intentions (his 1991 script), when the queen of the castle tells the priest Henrik Bergman that she doesn’t believe in a god “up there” but asks if it could be possible that god is among us human beings down here? Bergman’s father says yes.
(1) François Truffaut and the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma asserted that the director should have absolute control over the production of a film as part of a politique des auteurs (authors or originators). (2) See Laura Rascoli, The Cinema of France, Wallflower Press, 2006. (3) Ibid. (4) Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, University of Minnesota Press, 1989 (first published in 1985). (5) Jean-Luc Godard, Historie(s) du cinéma, Gaumont Vidéo, recordings from 1995-98, chapter 1, “Une histoire seule”. See also Cahiers du Cinema, Paris, July/August 2007.