The Invention of Marienbad
Is Every Art Film Science Fiction?
Part 1: Melies | 2: Sex Slaves | 3: Marienbad | 4. The Krell | 5. Citizenfour
By Dan DeWeese
Thus The Invention of Morel. In Casares’ 1940 novella, a fugitive from justice has washed up on a strange island. Hungry, thirsty, and dazed, he is further disconcerted by the island’s strange qualities. Vegetation grows suddenly, dies as quickly. The tides are impossible to predict, and seem amplified by a force he can’t fathom. The island’s lone building is inhabited by a group of vacationing friends, but then they disappear…but then they return. The Fugitive (as he is called in the book), spying on these vacationers, falls in love with one of them, a woman named Faustine—Casares’ stand-in for Brooks. When The Fugitive risks his safety by appearing before Faustine, though, she ignores him so thoroughly that he eventually realizes she doesn’t see him at all. Is he invisible? Dead? Is he alive, but watching vacationer-ghosts? He can’t figure it out.
The solution, it turns out, is both simpler and trickier. (And because this book was published in 1940, I’m going to discuss it. Leave this page now if you’ve been holding onto Morel since 1940 with the intention of reading it fresh.) One of the vacationers, a man named Morel, has invented a device that records reality, and another that plays the recording. What The Fugitive is experiencing is a recorded reality playing in a loop on top of his own reality. The weather in the recording blends with the island’s actual weather; fish dead in a fetid pool live again, cruising clean water; doors cannot be opened (because the “recorded” door remains closed), walls cannot be broken down; Faustine takes walks, laughs with her friends, argues with Morel. When the tide goes out, the projector, powered by the water, goes silent, and the vacationers disappear. When the tide returns, the projector kicks in, the vacationers again populate the island, and The Fugitive resumes tracking Faustine—pining for a woman who will never know he’s there.
I won’t reveal everything. Layered realities are just the The Fugitive’s eventually-realized context—there is still the issue of his stakes-raising response. What is interesting in the broader context, however, is reading a piece of fiction from 1940 that already, and quite cleverly, invokes the problem of mass-distributed moving images, the desire they provoke, and the confusion that results. The confusion of desire that attaches to images rather than to actual people is so common now, of course, that we don’t even consider it confusion—it’s just how life works. But Casares anticipated, in narrative form, much of post-WWII media criticism, with particular resonance to be found in the “Frankfurt School” theorists’ post-war readings of art and culture as human behaviors increasingly replaced by a mass media culture industry. (Theodor Adorno felt industry had sucked the life out of culture, but continued to press culture’s zombie corpse into service to rake in money. I would name a specific example of this, except that Adorno would probably prefer we think of a general example: everything.) We live drowned in layers of media now, in a green-screened reality in which, no matter where we walk or whom we talk to, the background, foreground, or flashing intermediate space features images crafted elsewhere, by others. What started as physical billboards in the “built environment” of cities is now a virtual environment that floats past on television screens, computer monitors, and phones, regardless of where you are. Even bothering to distinguish between those devices feels increasingly anachronistic.
he media critique, however—though relevant—is not my main concern here. What makes The Invention of Morel significant in the history of speculative cinema is its relation to Alain Resnais’ 1964 film Last Year at Marienbad:
I first saw Last Year at Marienbad on a low-grade VHS tape. In those pre-Internet days, when you put Marienbad into the VCR and pressed play, you had no recourse to assistance during what transpired next. Well-dressed French men and women walked quietly through an ornate hotel and garden—but the hotel and garden did not seem consistent from sequence to sequence. Voice-over delivered with a hushed urgency didn’t clear anything up, in fact only made things more confusing. Did the woman at the resort know the man who claimed they’d met before, or was he conning her? Was she denying she knew him? Did she believe she didn’t know him, because she was repressing some awful experience? An assault? A betrayal? Why did the man keep playing—and losing at—some odd game with the woman’s husband? Was this an art film? A science-fiction film? Some kind of impossibly restrained horror film in which the horrific event had already occurred and no one would talk about it?
The film ends without an answer. First-time viewers had to decide whether to watch the film again, looking for clues, or never to watch the film again. There was no Wikipedia page that was going to resolve the issues.
Nowadays, Wikipedia cruisers might still note an interesting connection—but lack of symmetry—between the pages for The Invention Morel and Last Year at Marienbad. On the Morel page, an external link is listed for “Its possible influence on Last Year at Marienbad.” On the Last Year at Marienbad page, however, one must read down into the small-print purgatory of the references to discover similar speculation. In both cases, what’s being cited is a 2000 article by Thomas Beltzer in Senses of Cinema, in which Beltzer notes reading, on the dust jacket of a different Casares novel, the claim that Morel was the source material for Marienbad. Beltzer then confirms this by, as he puts it, “consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that ‘The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film script for Last Year at Marienbad.’”
That Beltzer assumes the Encyclopedia Brittanica is definitive we shall pass over without comment, instead noting the further circumstantial support found in a Paris Review interview from 1986, in which Robbe-Grillet himself invokes Morel. When asked by the interviewer about similarities between Robbe-Grillet’s novels and detective novels, Robbe-Grillet responds:
Do you know Borges’s preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Moral [sic]? In it, Borges maintains that all the great novels of the twentieth century are detective novels, and he mentions Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Kafka’s The Castle, and many others…
If the perceptual explorations of science fiction, minus the science fiction, result in “art cinema,” is every art film secretly a science-fiction film? One hesitates to answer yes to that question—and this is the hesitation that may be the beginning of teasing apart the difference between “science-fiction films” and “speculative films.”
What Morel invented is in many ways what movies seem to want to be: crafted, recorded sense-experiences so immersive that when they unspool within our own reality, we grow fond of them. Though our current movies are limited to sight and sound, that seems to be enough to trigger our emotions. This puts us in the same position as The Fugitive, of course: we react to, and sometimes vainly chase, fantasies. Which is too real to be science fiction.
Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999).
Dan DeWeese is the author of a story collection, Disorder, and a novel, You Don’t Love This Man. His essay about speculative cities appeared in a recent issue of Oregon Humanities.