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Forty-six years ago, Last Year at Marienbad opened in London. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet came over for the press screening, and I chatted to them in the lobby of the now defunct Cameo-Poly art house on London’s Upper Regent Street. Resnais was already forty years of age, a full decade older than Truffaut or Godard. Infinitely patient and courteous, he answered questions with a distinctive ease and lack of hesitation. Robbe-Grillet, known up to that point only for his experimental novels, such as The Voyeur and Jealousy, was far more mercurial and voluble, gesticulating furiously to emphasize a fact or opinion.
Robbe-Grillet claimed that the cryptic initials of the characters in Marienbad (A, X, M) had no special significance, “just as in Hiroshima mon amour, the lovers have no names.” He admitted that although many of the tracking shots in the film were outlined in his script, Resnais made them at once more complicated and practical. Robbe-Grillet’s opinions were precise and dogmatic—he hated Bergman (“too metaphysical”), loved Orson Welles, and thought Jacques Demy’s Lola the best film of 1961. On the literary side, he admired James Joyce (though Resnais smiled and admitted he had never read him) and Virginia Woolf, and immensely enjoyed the detective fiction of Graham Greene.
Resnais said that he traveled to Germany in search of a suitably baroque hotel for Marienbad. “We were very excited by the châteaux of Schleissheim and Nymphenburg, outside Munich, and as Robbe-Grillet could not accompany us, I sent him various photos of the rooms and gardens, and he chose the settings [he preferred] from those.”
Resnais also waxed enthusiastic about the 2.35:1 widescreen format, which he had used for the first time in a feature with Marienbad. “I like this better than the normal gauge because it’s less cramped and destroys any impression that the film is a documentary,” he explained. He talked of his pet project, The Adventures of Harry Dickson, based on the American dime-novel detective, which in hindsight remains an unrealized dream. Muriel, his ensuing film, would be shot in color: “Both Hiroshima and Marienbad have worked on a mental level,” he observed, “and I think one can only use color when a film is down-to-earth. And Muriel will be in a realistic key, so—in color!”
Robbe-Grillet passed on last year, but Resnais continues to make features (Les herbes folles was just screened at Cannes, to much acclaim) and still arrives for interviews in the same style of quilt coat that he used on that chilly London morning back in 1962.