The Depiction of Reincarnation in Western Movie, Part 1 – “Last Year in Marienbad”



This is my independent study project which focuses on how moving image have been used as literature. For this topic, I carefully selected three films in different time of era, made in three different western countries. Every one of them is either based on a book or a script written by a famous writer. And most importantly, has a story somehow related to reincarnation. I will examine and analyze how these films depict reincarnation – an idea originally from eastern cultures, and how it been adopted by Western filmmakers.

Link to other two films:

Orlando (1992)

Cloud Atlas (2012)

– Reincarnation

A philosophical or religious concept that an aspect of a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. It is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.

As a 1961 French New Wave film directed by Alain Resnais, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last year in Marienbad is famous for its fragmented, enigmatic narrative structure, “in which time and space are fluid, with no certainty over what is happening to the characters, what they are remembering, and what they are imagining. Its dreamlike nature has both fascinated and baffled viewers; many have hailed the work as a masterpiece, although others have found it incomprehensible.” (from Wikipedia page) The film has been well discussed for its narration and structure, time and space, reality and memories, etc. and etc. But rarely been connected to the concept of reincarnation, which could be a whole new way to read and analysis such a puzzle.

Let’s begin with a focus on the visual level of the film. Visually, it is a combination of multiple repetitions without reference of time: there are corridors, doors, saloons, gorgeous Baroque decorations, and many more as the sets. There are characters who wearing decent suits and dresses keep repeating their activities such as dancing, chatting, playing games, etc. Besides the visual elements, many of the dialogue are keep recurring as well. Unlike most of the traditional narrative films, there is no hint for a viewer to recognize how time past in this film. All the audience could tell is those characters stay in the same place every year, but with no clue which year it is when something happening. In other words, it is about a group of people repeatedly come back to a place in different time – same people, same world, different time. That’s exactly what reincarnation is: lives rebirth and come back to this world after death.

Secondly, the connection between the plot and the idea of karma. If we put the story into a roughly chronological order, it could be read as the man “X” met and fall in love with the woman “A”, X keep comes back to the hotel every year and persuade A to have an elopement together. They eventually did it at the end of the film. Apparently, filmmaker shattered the plot into pieces and put them into a very confusing order. All these fragments intertwined with each other and a viewer has no way to reorder them. Maybe the costume is the only clue to separate them into different groups since every combination of X and A’s costume can be read as they met in a certain time, but still can’t tell what the “original” order is. If one familiar with the idea of karma, this is a good example of how different lives interact with others and affect their future life. Because one action can lead to a reaction, one’s effect could be a cause for another, vice versa. What if the husband of A starts to seeking for her and tries all the way to get her back? If it can’t be done in this life, he will chase her to the next life – could that be the beginning of another cycle? The ending of the story became the beginning of another.

Lastly, without the reference of time, how could one tell if the story happened in last year or last life? This made me think about Waiting for Godot, the classical play by Samuel Beckett – if you have lost all sense of time, how could you tell if something happened yesterday or last week? The concept of reincarnation relates to time, but very much like someone has been trapped in time. If there is no way to escape from the endless cycle of karma, what’s the point to recognize time? Does it matter anymore if we will come back to the world anyway? Such a dilemma echoes with the plot of Last year in Marienbad, only emphasized the enigmatic, mysterious narration, and expands the labyrinth of the story even larger.

All in all, although it has not been a well-examined explanation, use the idea of reincarnation to analysis the plot of Last year in Marienbad makes perfect sense. Whether it is an intentional or subconscious choice of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the story itself can be read as a depiction of Saṃsāra in a western-based medium.

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