Magazine article Artforum International

Double Projection

Magazine article Artforum International

Double Projection

Article excerpt

IT IS HARDLY SURPRISING that Alain Robbe-Grillet should have moved from his particular conception and practice of the French New Novel to the cinema. In literary works such as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), this nouveau romancier delighted in patterned descriptions of nature so plastic as to appear at first reading entirely devoid of any subjective point of view or psychology. In a series of essays ultimately collected under the title For a New Novel (1963), Robbe-Grillet argued for a view of the world that abjured interiority in favor of a formal, almost mechanical technique that looked only at the surface of things in order to establish their exteriority and independence from mankind. In Jealousy, for instance, the narrator painstakingly describes the wooden balusters in the terrace railing in front of him. Eventually, a closer look at descriptions like this reveal that they are in fact more maniacal than mechanical--products of deranged psyches, obsessively displacing their neurotic impulses onto objective correlatives. Thus, a Scutigera of average size squashed on the dining-room wall, described at first in anatomical terms, morphs twenty pages later into a "'spider-centipede,' ... so called because of a native belief as to the rapidity of its bite, supposedly mortal," and later still becomes "enormous: one of the largest to be found in this climate," as big as a "dinner plate," suddenly coming alive and ready to spring.(1) These and other more disturbing transformations correspond precisely to the progress of the narrator's surrender to increasingly unbearable fits of jealousy to which he can give no other expression than these obsessive images. It is no doubt ironic that the very style that Robbe-Grillet vigorously defended in his 1958 essay "Nature, Humanism, Tragedy" as antihumanist and antimetaphorical would be refrained by the author only three years later as the inevitable product of a character "always engaged ... in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium." (2) It may indeed be precisely because of the inescapably subjective and maddeningly metaphoric nature of language that the New Novelist turned increasingly to the cinema, with its potentially unmediated representation of nature.

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It is even more ironic that the film for which Robbe-Grillet will doubtless be remembered is the film he did not direct. When, after his success with Marguerite Duras on Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Alain Resnais turned to Robbe-Grillet for a film treatment, the latter responded with a "direct shooting script" for L'Annee derniere a Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), "a shot-by-shot description of the film [with] corresponding dialogue and sound." (3) Robbe-Grillet's overly detailed scenario left Resnais so little creative space that the director claimed he "often had the impression of merely serving as an electronic robot in the making of the film." (4)

Their collaboration seems all the more bizarre given the intensely modernist approach to the relationship between trauma and memory in Resnais's first films. By contrast, Robbe-Grillet's text is rigorously postmodern, involving a series of images of three characters, X, A, and M (Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, and Sacha Pitoeff, respectively), in a Baroque chateau whose labyrinthine corridors mirror the logical impasses of its mazelike narrative. X's compulsive attempts to persuade A that they met last year (or some other year) in this (or some other) chateau are greeted with incomprehension and evasiveness. No single coherent version of this story can possibly be identified, only a series of simulacra, or repetitive variations that admit of no fixed origin or authenticity. Given the New Novelist's preference for a "perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions,"(5) captured in what he called the eternal "present tense" of the cinematographic image, it is impossible to discern any narrative logic or purpose to Robbe-Grillet's script. …

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