In Alain Resnais' 1961 avant-garde masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad, loosely follows the dreamlike encounter between a man and a woman, who may or may not have met a year previously. The man insists on this truth, while the woman (A) rejects it continually, forcing the man (X) to keep persuading her. From a Deleuzian reading of Marienbad, the philosopher's ideas of space and time as forms that the subject imposes on their environment is explored through the different chronologies that are displayed in the film. Furthermore, the concepts of masochism and sadism noted by Deleuze in Masochism are applied to the film in question - Marienbad is shown to be a film replete with the rivalry between masochism and sadism, with the film coming out much more cleanly on the side of masochism. Resnais presents a world rife with Deleuze's notions of masochism, while not sacrificing the film's incredible ambiguity and command of image.
According to Deleuze, masochism is not, as many think, the natural other side of the coin to sadism; instead, it is "a separate world, with other techniques and other effects" (Deleuze 1967, back cover). Masochism has a distinct set of images closely associated to it, including statues, women made of stone and "a suprasensual emotionality, surrounded with ice and protected by fur" (Deleuze 46-7). Calling on the origins of Masoch, which originates in Central and Eastern Europe, Deleuze is fascinated by the Slavic origins of masochism. At the same time, the hotel in Resnais' film (arguably the real central character) is set in the Czech town of Marienbad, and was filmed in several chateaux of Bavarian descent, and so its location already evokes the physical origins of masochism.
Deleuze's notion of masochism is quite different from sadism; while sadism follows Lacan's Law of the Father, "such that we do not know what it is, nor can we know," masochism offers maternal comfort which stands in opposition to sadism (Deleuze 73). In masochism, the hen-pecked man and the commanding mother figure are placed in a relationship to cut out the strong father figure. Deleuze seeks to transfer power from the father to the mother - in a masochistic act, it is "the image of the father in him that is miniaturized, beaten, ridiculed and humiliated" (Deleuze 53). Despite the abstract and uncorporeal nature of Marienbad these notions can most certainly be found - there is no physical violence and no chastising of any sort, but these same implications are there. In one scene, A is displayed in overexposed footage walking towards X, arms out and stretched wide in a material, comforting gesture. This makes A seem much like the kind of mother figure X would fantasize about; the scene itself feels like a victory of masochism over sadism.
Last Year at Marienbad is notoriously bereft of clear narrative, which makes it difficult to parse the battle between masochism and sadism as a part of the text. When weighing the three main characters of Marienbad against the spectrum of masochism/sadism, it is important to realize that they are both distinctly opposing forces which nonetheless interact like a Moebius strip; Deleuze once said of the film that "the two great theatre scenes are images in a mirror (and the whole Marienbad hotel is a pure crystal, with its transparent face, its opace face and the exchange between them" (Deleuze 1985: 102). The two sides of the mirror are the two ends of the Moebius strip, acting as two surfaces but really being one. To that end, sadism and masochism constantly fluctuate around the film and the characters' relationships - no one character establishing themselves as either masochistic or sadistic.
In conclusion, Last Year at Marienbad explores Deleuze's concept of masochism and sadism through its fluid, interesting depiction of the characters' vague relationships and their placement in time and space. The hotel itself is indicative of Deleuze's sadism, the superego which provides a great deal of pressure on X, the masochist; constantly attempting to achieve a sort of Oedipal release with A. By the end of the film, there is no real sense of triumph of masochism over sadism (or vice versa); however, because of the intentionally obtuse nature of the film, these kinds of concrete answers are not decided upon easily (or at all). In essence, the characters of Marienbad constantly fluctuate between actively hurting each other and finding release in pain, flipping between sides of the Mobius strip that Deleuze identifies.
Deleuze, G. Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967.
Deleuze, G. Cinéma 2: L’Image-temps, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1985.
Resnais, Alain (dir.) Last Year at Marienbad. Janus Films, 1961. Print.