When everyone has left you should walk out of the door and get into the car, and leave the distant gates of this country estate behind; until the next time; when you will drive down a different road, and enter some other house.
The place is sumptuous. It has large rooms and endless corridors; and there are objects everywhere; all the surfaces are decorated, and we see the gilded garlands, the enormous mirrors, the ornate chandeliers… its Baroque abundance overwhelms the eye; it covers the rooms like the illustrations in medieval manuscripts - there is too much to take in. The camera walks around the hotel, concentrating on the walls and ceilings it forces us to look at all this detail. Without such an insistent guide we would not see any of this; for in truth there is too much to absorb and we’d let it all float away; our eyesight subordinated to our thoughts, and our thoughts to our companions, all rich and mostly beautiful; thinking of her hips swaying in her long velvet dress; her ringed fingers glittering in her black hair.
The same scenes come round again. We are puzzled: why is the tour being repeated?
Gradually new things emerge: we see a theatre and its audience, who suddenly get up and walk around, greet each other, talk and drink; and some play cards. Words interlace the images, are broken up, repeated, until they slowly coalesce into sense: the audience are watching a play, almost a tableau vivant, and the same scene returns again and again, of a man unable to unlock the past with his words and to convince a woman to act against her instincts with his eloquence. The people get up and move around… but only for a few moments. The film is now shunted through a series of photographic stills: each character is freeze-framed and turned into a celluloid sculpture; we think of the plinths to put them on. Once these pictures have been taken the film goes on its way. At last we will find out what is happening.
We are amongst the rich and beautiful on a weekend retreat in an old palace, now a luxury hotel.
One woman wears some of the hotel decoration on her dress: the past has entered the present, flooding it with memories. At first we do not realise this, for we are unsure of what is going on. Why is the camera so attracted to the walls and ceilings, why does it force us to look at all these chandeliers and paintings? Why do words keep recurring, words like slab and marble, and references to the past, compared, we think, to something set in stone. And those few images of the play, why do they return to us again and again… What is going on? We wonder and are flummoxed; hoping someone will tell us what to think. Though our eye is excited when the humans appear: the building comes alive with contrast and movement - a great house needs people like a curry its cumin and coriander.
The talk goes beyond mere phrases, and we begin to hear ordinary conversation; of people away on holiday; a fall in stocks and shares; Anna’s new boutique… We hear people filling up the time with the detritus of their every day concerns. Some play cards, that seems all they do, and we are aware of a secret love affair, but are confused by the words the man uses: they are the same as the character in the play.
People meet and talk and a man approaches a woman. They have met before he says, and they agreed to meet again one year later; to resume their love affair. It was in Fredericksburg, he tells her, that was where they met. She replies she has never been there; has never seen him before; is sure they do not know each other. His certainty wobbles a little and he says maybe it wasn’t Fredericksburg, it could have been here, but he is adamant on the main point: they know each other, and when they first met they fell in love.
At first the woman finds it amusing; she is intrigued by the man’s persistence, and his odd charm: he seems a little different from the other men; there is something of the aesthete about him. Soon, though, he starts to unsettle her; for he is obsessed with that first meeting. He can remember with the utmost clarity every scene, and many of the words they said; although there is one episode he wants to forget – he may have forced himself onto her in the hotel bedroom.
Has Freud walked through the door?
The woman says she doesn’t remember. He shows her a photograph of herself sitting on a bench; though of course this doesn’t prove much (later there is a strange card game with seven of these photographs – has the man’s mind invaded the film? Are we watching the inside of his head…). She insists he has mistaken her for someone else; though later, we think, she must believe he is living inside a fantasy; with she its fairy princess. Towards the end of the film there are moments when she wavers, and it seems possible they have met before; but these soon pass, though they fill us again with doubt. Maybe she has succumbed to his obsessive fantasizing; and believes now in the past he has created for her.
The film ends with an imminent departure; and a lover’s words drifting into the ornamental garden. It is night, we are looking back at the house, at the lights in a few windows; and his words are filling the scene. Suddenly they stop, the film has finished, and we leave the cinema wondering what it was all about; for no-one has told us very much at all.
It is about a man in love, that love still excessively alive in its full freshness and vivacity. It is also about a woman who has lost that love. His emotions are concentrated on the short time they spent together, a few days or weeks on a summer estate, some years before. But their love affair has disappeared; and only his memories are left, which overpower him with their vividness. They hold him tight, they stroke and kiss him, they lock him inside a sumptuous house and its lovely gardens, where he holds a slim body in a velvet dress and sees expensive jewels in rich black hair. The place too beautiful for him to ever leave.
Now he is staying in another house, at a different time, whose contents stimulate the memory: a snapshot here, a phrase there, that sticks to the mind and rolls around it obsessively… and then he sees his old love… Except memories can be unclear; the past isn’t recorded but recreated within one’s own recollection; faces can lose their precision, and nearly all the words disappear, we are apt to get it wrong… But so wrong? It would suggest the man is mad, though there appear to be no other signs of insanity. Clearly something is not right. But the explanation could be straightforward: his love, although full of life and loveliness, only exists in the past; a state that has conquered his present, moulding it to fit those old shapes, today replaced by yesterday; this house by that one; and this woman by a woman he knew years ago. Image has replaced reality, and recreates it in its own form.
Nevertheless, there is a doubt: can it really all just be fantasy?
They are in the garden and they talk about a sculpture on the stone steps. He makes up a story about it, of how the man sees danger in front of them and is holding the woman back. She disagrees: the woman’s outstretched arm indicates something momentous high above them… Later he merges both explanations into the same scene; although he acknowledges the dog is a problem – he removes it for convenience’s sake. They keep returning to this sculpture; while the camera takes us all around it. On one occasion a man, the woman’s husband we believe, says that the sculpture is actually a symbol of Charles III (opening the Diet). At other times he punctures our hero’s romantic fantasies about the house’s artefacts with specific details; and in a game the husband says he never loses he beats him again and again…
Fantasies sometimes have to submit to facts and figures; although each of their stories contain an aspect of truth. This sculpture is more than just a symbol.
In the play at the beginning of the film the male character talks about the past as if it is something frozen, fixed in time like some marble figure; that, at least, is what the scene suggests. Later, we see more scenes from the play. We now realise that he is appealing to a woman he loves, trying to reawaken her feelings; to bring out her love buried in stone long ago. This is the clue we need.
The past lives its own life inside us; of which we are mostly unaware. Alive and fresh when still a baby it gradually loses its vivacity when it approaches middle age; no longer powerful enough to dominate the always encroaching present; which only summons these memories when it wants them. During this time we undergo constant change, our thoughts and feelings subtlety different from month to month; this creates an ever increasing divide between our present experiences and our past memories; the latter reduced to a series of photographs and images, that although occasionally powerful lack their original liveliness and punch.
Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and a few memories may occupy the present; taking over our minds, to determine our thinking from one hour to the next, day after day. They are overwhelming in their colour and lucidity. Now the past and the present are no longer diverging, or only by a little; for the memories are as alive as when they were first experienced. This holds back our feelings and thoughts, we lack an interest in the present, and do not develop as quickly as we should, we cannot move on, for we cannot put those memories to rest. Usually a black and white photograph we pull out of the drawer on rare occasions the past is now a colour print, kept in our pocket to be looked at continually. And we cannot throw it away! However, much we may want to.
Here is the explanation for our hero. For him the past is an old building that has been preserved almost in its entirety. He is this grand hotel; the people the present in it. They have met before, and they were in love; but such emotions no longer move her. She can hardly remember the feelings she once had for him. He is still in love and assumes she must be too; he cannot believe that this world in which he lives does not exist for her. Living so compulsively in the past he cannot grasp that she has remained in the present; that he is now an old stone figure, an antique to be largely forgotten.
After one year they agreed to meet; to give her time to leave her husband. We surmise that those hard, concrete facts of daily living proved too strong to overcome. The romantic impulse faded, and was gone by the next time they met. Her husband now clearly more attractive to her than this strange man who has not noticed that she has changed; so different on this weekend to the woman he once knew.
But still he persists. On and on he goes, even beyond the film, thus its inconclusive ending. Is it really possible that he will capture her with his fantasies, imprison her within the dreams of a past he doesn’t want to leave? Alain Resnais will not tell us. We have to think it out for ourselves.