It doesn't even look like a photograph anymore, this image. It's too strange, too iconic. All the models have been captured by the camera and turned into a kind of landscape, locked in time like unweatherable statues. The hedges and rectangular space give the impression that the people have been shrunken down into a board game of sorts (Chance, Sorrow). Three couples, three singles. The lone woman standing off by herself, staring directly at us, gives the sense that she knows exactly how important this moment is. She stands like a model before an artist working on an already legendary painting. "No one will know me," she thinks. "Nevertheless, I am immortal."
It's Last Year at Marienbad, yes, but also something else, something separate. Like the Mona Lisa or Starry Night, by the time we finally see this image in the film we can't really see it because we feel like we have already seen it—somehow, somewhere.
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
Imagine them that day, lined up on their marks, some black paint representing their shapes stretched out before them. . . The woman in the foreground a little off, her shadow disconnected from her body. Did Resnais or Robbe-Grillet tell her to do that, or was it an overlooked mistake? Or perhaps an act of sabotage. . . Maybe she was fed up, hot and tired from standing still for so long. . . "I'll show them," she thought, taking a small step back. . . The man standing with her smiles, noticing her defiance and wishing he was as brave—but only after the camera starts rolling. . . "I would have done it with you had I noticed in time," he tells her after someone yells Cut! "But it was too late." They shoot another take. The man stays in place. The woman laughs. Cut!
What did it look like in color? The painted shadows were probably too dark and too defined, lacking the fuzzy outline found when the sun paints our silhouettes. Did they, looking at their black outlines, think it was all a bit too odd, not knowing the composition and how the black and white photography would transform everything? Did they feel silly standing there, motionless, arms to their sides, as still as their frozen shadows? Or were they in another state altogether?
One cannot imagine any sounds while this was being staged and shot, no coughs, no birds chirping. . . Did the birds also stay frozen, wings to their sides?
Looked at another way, eyes slightly out of focus, the white is a reflecting pool, the figures hovering on the water's surface, the triangle topiaries turn into buoys, and in the distance some magic castle. . . An island in the middle, a small bridge across it in the distance, irrigation canals on each side. . . Or ice, yes! A frozen lake. There is more mystery here than a few misplaced and missing shadows. . .
This image is the whole film. Or perhaps another film altogether.
Some of these questions have answers.
Thankfully, I do not know them.
"My abuse consists of having photographed you without your permission. Of course, it is not like an ordinary photograph; this is my latest invention. We shall live in this photograph forever. Imagine a stage on which our life during these seven days is acted out, complete in every detail. We are the actors. All our actions have been recorded." —The Invention of Morel (1940)
The poem above is excerpted from Rossetti's "Sudden Light," which Borges quotes in his prologue to Adolfo Bioy Casares' masterpiece The Invention of Morel, a novella that has been described as the "model" for Last Year at Marienbad, as well as—less assuredly—a "possible influence." In her introduction, Suzanne Jill Levine says Bioy Casares' book, translated into French in 1953, "inspired" Robbe-Grillet's script.