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Marienbad électrique
by Tristan Bera, 2019

Last year at Marienbad (1961) by Alain Resnais is one of the most enigmatic and magnetic films in the history of cinema, as much for its impenetrable scenario by the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading exponent of the Nouveau Roman, as for the performance of Delphine Seyrig, whose timeless delivery and poetical, sophisticated presence are unforgettable for any film-lover. An incomprehensible film, it is nonetheless an essential one in that, even today, with its scent of mystery still as potent decades later, it continues to inspire artists and contemporary creation. Commissioned by the Paris Opera and the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Marienbad électrique by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster – the title of which is borrowed from the eponymous book by Enrique Vila-Matas dedicated to the investigative method of the artist – does not reveal the secret of the film or shed any new light upon it. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster deepens the film’s mystery, adds new references, other ambiguities and, in a personal manner, quite literally brings it to life. 

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (DGF, b. 1965) strove, from the outset of her career, to conceive multi-disciplinary works, with multiple approaches in terms of types of format, genres and themes. The exhibition, as a medium that allows different disciplines to co-exist and resonate together, is the corner stone of her oeuvre. Through her exploration of architectural, cinematic, literary and musical possibilities, DGF has helped to make it the means of expression par excellence of the postmodern avant-garde. It was in 2007 with her participation in Il Tempo del Postino, “the first visual arts opera in the world”, organised by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno at the Manchester Festival, that opera as a genre and a format, and stage performance first entered her repertoire and became a source of reflection in her visual arts practice. In 2012, DGF initiated a new series of performance works, apparitions collectively known as M.2062, which aim to define 21st century opera in the form of a “fantastical game of chess with altered rules”. In it, real and fictional characters from the 19th century (the white pieces) confront those from the 20th (the black pieces). M.2062 is a fragmented play which, travelling from museum to theatre and from town to town, depicts with each new occurrence, an exceptional figure or character, including the architect-prince Ludwig II, the writer Emily Brontë, the super-hero activist Anonymous and Bob Dylan, appearing with the transformed, made-up and travestied features of DGF during what can be experienced live, for the artist, as a trance and for the viewer, as a quasi-esoteric experience. 

Marienbad électrique is the last part of a trilogy of holographic apparitions devoted to opera, following Fitzcarraldo (M.2062) and OPERA (Q.M.15), in which DGF appeared, respectively in the guise of Klaus Kinski’s demented Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s eponymous 1982 film and as Maria Callas performing in playback well-known arias from Verdi’s La Traviata and Medea by Luigi Cherubini. For this third installment, through the ghostly projection in an isolated box at the back of the Palais Garnier on the right hand side, visible from the stalls and the boxes opposite, DGF takes on the appearance of Delphine Seyrig: a dark silhouette clad in black from the film by Resnais alternates with the white attired blond vampire of Daughters of Darkness (1971) by Harry Kümel. The image is accompanied by an electric sonata specially composed by Julien Perez which is reminiscent of the Valse de Marienbad by Francis Seyrig and Antoine Duhamel’s melody in Stolen Kisses (1968) by François Truffaut, the one that, like a siren’s song, accompanies Fabienne Tabard / Delphine Seyrig’s magical apparition before Antoine Doisnel / Jean-Pierre Léaud in the shoe shop as night falls. 

During the summer of 2019, Delphine Seyrig was much talked about on the occasion of the exhibition Les Muses insoumises. Delphine Seyrig, between cinema and feminist video organised at the Museum of modern and contemporary art in Lille (LaM Lille), curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Giovanna Zapperi, which looks at her feminist activism and her pamphleteer videos from the seventies co-produced with Carole Roussopoulos (Scum ManifestoMaso et Miso vont en bateau and Sois belle et tais-toi). With the latter and with Iona Wieder, in 1982 Seyrig founded the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir whose objectives are “the conservation and creation of audio-visual documents which it has thus been possible to collate concerning the history of women, their rights, their struggles and their creations”. But, coincidence or not, now that Delphine Seyrig’s activism is to be put on display in a cultural climate in which political commitment has become a necessity, what does it mean for Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and for us, in the face of her work, to return to the artificial persona of the actress-muse, the object of desire for the masculine gazes of such as Buñuel, Demy, Kümmel, Resnais or Truffaut, who have dominated the history of cinema and whose legacy is now being reconsidered in favour of other viewpoints, other visions of cinema and of society?

What one should see, and what fascinates me in the work of DGF and in this work in particular, is what is formally absent and which nevertheless states its presence. In a comparative consideration of the work of DGF, on the subject of Last Year at Marienbad (a common passion that links the artist and the writer, a film freely adapted from The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, genially incomprehensible perhaps only according to Cartesian criteria) Vila-Matas wrote: “It was clear that, if one let oneself be swept along by the form, the voices of the actors, the music, the pace, the passion of the characters, it was the easiest film in the world to watch in the sense that it addressed only the spectators’ sensibilities, the capacity to contemplate, listen, feel and be moved, but laying aside from the outset, of course, all preconceived ideas, all prevalent commonplaces regarding cinema.” The apparition at the Palais Garnier, just like Resnais’ film, in reality conceals an aesthetic manifesto that is much more critical than its charming and sophisticated form would suggest: first of all, the eternal necessity to be moved and to contemplate, which does not ever prevent the demand for intellectual deconstruction, on the contrary, for it makes it more generous and sensitive; then, the need for ambivalence, which maintains a lack of definition, (but not uncertainty on the part of the spectator), and which preserves the complexity of the characters and therefore their freedom to remain undefined, and that of the most virtuoso works. Vila-Matas adds: “DGF knows that art is one of the highest forms of existence, on condition that the creator escape the dual trap: the illusion of the work of art and the temptation to don the mask of the artist. They both fossilize us, the first because it turns passion into a prison, the second by what it does to the freedom of a profession.”

In Stolen Kisses, Delphine Seyrig / Fabienne Tabard finally explains to Jean-Pierre Léaud / Antoine Doisnel who is infatuated with the novels of Balzac, that she has indeed read The Lily of the Valley but that, unlike Madame de Mortsauf, she is not an apparition. In the same way, the apparition at the Opera is not an apparition. Marienbad électrique is the expression of a certain mode of existence, that of artificial intelligence, something spectral, “immortal and moribund”, a prisoner of its music and of its duration, which, amid the luxurious décor of the Paris Opera, during the intervals in performances, repeats the same gestures in a loop for the benefit of wealthy spectators and for their supreme delectation. But this choreography operated every night by an automaton, with a touch of the fatal, a touch of the vampire, is the perfect illustration of the trap of realist interpretation and illusion set by the artist for the spectators. For Delphine Seyrig’s performances in both films offer, by design, artificial and inaccessible versions of the female genre (a mechanized doll in Marienbad, a vampire in Daughters of Darkness) – well beyond any social archetype of the sort propagated by patriarchal cinema – and yet they circulate something living. “One always tries to convey the image of a person in order to limit it. If I portrayed these characters, it is because I was offered them, and they were the most interesting roles. They come, then, from input exterior to myself. But I firmly intend not to let myself be limited.” Whether one is naked or made-up, one remains masked when one is an actor. If one reads between the lines, there is a lesson to be learnt in the film Blade Runner (1982) based on the work by Philip K. Dick, the plot of which is set in an imaginary future, in November 2019 (!), as the opening image of the film indicates, in which robots, replicants, beings entirely manufactured, develop lives of their own. It is a question, through art and fiction, of revealing the living within the mechanical, as well as of recognizing the agency belonging to those beings considered as minor or inferior by those who hold absolute power, the power to live and act, a power denied to them by society.

Marienbad électrique is ultimately the realization of The Phantom of the Opera of the 21st century, a postmodern or contemporary ghost-woman, the phantom of a phantom, the ghost of a fantasy; the apparition of a being objectified as a doll and automated, as Delphine Seyrig is automated in Marienbad, and who has her own autonomy; a “Future Eve”, both artificial creature and feminist creator; a holographic specter that creates the illusion and perception of life thanks to electricity and technology; an autonomous and animated work of art, a living Coppélia. 

This article was published in Octave, the magazine of the Opéra national de Paris - www.operadeparis.fr/magazine. The work Marienbad électrique was commissioned by the Opéra National de Paris and the Centre Pompidou-Metz and is on view during the Opéra Monde exhibition until December 31, 2019 in the Palais Garnier.