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Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Origins of Inception

Getty Images / Sygma / Sergio Gaudenti

Alain Robbe-Grillet and the Origins of Inception

“Unforgettable, true-to-life characters and a whiz-bang plot – a tour de force page turner!”

“A thrill-a-page, rollercoaster ride from start to finish!”

“Unputdownable!”

You’re not likely to see blurbs like these adorning the dust jackets of books by innovative French critic, novelist and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet. An author whose demanding works sought to challenge the assumptions we bring to both narrative fiction and reality itself, Robbe-Grillet sent his reader into labyrinths where time and space were fragmented, memory and imagination interchangeable, tidy rational conclusions always just out of reach.

Trained as an agricultural engineer, he worked as an agronomist before turning his had to writing. His first two books were panned by French critics but his third, “Jealousy,” garnered praise, not least from influential critic Roland Barthes. Published when Robbe-Grillet was 35, the novel features an absent, unnamed narrator who may be the husband of another character in the book, who may be having an affair with a third.

He brought similar inscrutability to what today remains his best known work, “Last Year at Marienbad,” a screenplay he penned for filmmaker Alain Resnais. The film concerns a man (again unnamed) at a social gathering in an opulent chateau who approaches a woman and claims to have had a passionate affair with her the previous year. Except she doesn’t seem to remember him. And the harder he tries to convince her that they’ve agreed to meet at this very chateau to carry on their affair, the more his memory is called into question. Are they actually meeting for the first time? Or is she the ghost of the woman he met a year before? Or another woman entirely?

The film offers no solution to these questions, but rather invites the viewer to luxuriate in rich, sometimes romantic, sometimes disturbing imagery as it slowly unfolds with a dreamlike rhythm full of subtly shifting repetitions.

Reviews of Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster “Inception” have remarked upon its perceived similarities to aspects of “Last Year at Marienbad,” a comparison the director doesn’t dispute but still seeks to distance himself from.

During an interview with KCRW in Los Angeles, Nolan said that he hadn’t actually seen “Marienbad” until after his own movie was completed – but that he enjoyed the film, and was certain that he must have been influenced by the countless other ‘dream’ films influenced by “Marienbad.”

(Maybe. Or maybe that’s just how he remembers it.)

“Last Year at Marienbad” made Robbe-Grillet famous, and he would be held up as the most influential writer of the 1960s French “New Novel” movement. Though he went in and out of favor with critics, he continued writing into his eighties and also directed several films, though none were as successful as “Marienbad.”

Robbe-Grillet died in Caen, France, Feb. 18, 2008 at the age of 85.