Philosophical Films:


"Last Year at Marienbad"

Philosophical Connection

The relevant text is Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. By deducing in this slim volume his notorious "I think, therefore I am," Descartes lays the foundation for the radical separation of body and mind: The mind is in no way physical, and the body in no way mental or inspired. The entire physical world is an alien substance to the mind--mere matter, mere raw material. The mind is thus free to superimpose its own designs on nature, while disregarding any inherent structure or value in the things of the external world. It can rule like an absolute monarch. (Nietzsche clearly recognized a "Will to Power" in Descartes's radical Dualism of Body and Mind.) And rule is what the mind does in the French Gardens of the time, where bushes and trees were cut into pyramids, squares, and spheres, and where flower beds and paths were laid out in the form of mathematical grids. The architecture of the castles was similarly structured, and it is in this geometrical sort of artificial paradise that the triangle plot of "Last Year at Marienbad" unfolds.

The man with the slight foreign accent, who tries to lure the woman away from her husband and the histrionic life of the baroque resort hotel, is an outsider--a rebel against the formal conventions, ritual conversations, and lifeless parlor games that kill the time of the black tie crowd. The woman feels the allure of the man's desire, the call of the nature that is so thoroughly repressed in in the world of the Cartesian hotel, but she also resists giving up the structured and sheltered existence of the leisure class that resides in the measured spaces. The Cartesian paradise, after all, was created as a protection against the pervasive and threatening uncertainties of a wild world in flux.

The formally dressed rebel may be a Cartesian himself, however. Although he succeeds in convincing the woman to leave with him, there are suggestions that the the pair never really leaves the endless labyrinth of mathematically constructed hallways, flights of rooms, garden paths, and decorative facades. Carthesianism is inherently solitary--tendentially even solipsistic. While the seducer experiences the controlled world of the baroque hotel as confining, as a prison, he may nevertheless just dream up the affair with the woman. The "plot" with its constantly changing locations and uncertain time frames may really take place in the protagonist's mind. This Cartesian mind may be too deeply separated from the world to be able to escape from its own creations. "Last Year at Marienbad" may be a strictly inside view of a world where even a rebellion against its confines becomes a measured ritual, a ballet, a piece of ceremonial theatre like the drama that the hotel guests see at the beginning of the film.

Philosophical Background: Descartes and the Solitary Self

Interpretation of "Last Year at Marienbad"

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