With its long tracking shots through cavernous library hallways and its skeptical corresponding text (courtesy of writer Rémo Forlani), Alain Resnais' short essay film Toute la Mémoire du Monde imagines the Bibliothèque Nationale as a forbiddingly inhuman landscape in which man attempts to imprison "knowledge" in an effort to counter the limits of his own memory. Only in the act of individual selection - a single patron choosing a specific text - is there hope that this undifferentiated mass of knowledge can be redeemed, as the reader makes discriminating use of the collective national memory for the fulfillment of a constructive individual purpose.
Stylistically anticipating Last Year at Marienbad, Mémoire finds Ghislain Cloquet's graceful camerawork traversing a landscape every bit as static as the resort in the later film, while Maruice Jarre's score, built on ominous drumbeats and lyrical woodwind passages, plays behind the text with as much sense of foreboding as the feature film's famous organ charts. Then, the figures adopt similarly stylized poses to Marienbad's peripheral characters. When human movement does occur, it's confined to the mechanical gestures of library workers carrying out routine tasks, so that even two workers passing in the hallway walk by without any form of mutual acknowledgment. As in the later film, every hint of animated behavior is eliminated in favor of a flat, mannerist set of gestures, suggestive of a distinct effacement of personality.
Resnais maintains a tight correspondence between text and image throughout. As the narrator intones, "confronted with these bulging repositories, man is assailed by fear of being engulfed by this mass of words," the camera passes through endless piles of newspapers and manuscripts stowed away in an underground passageway which seem to defy any attempt to bring order to such an overwhelming mass of material. Then, Resnais manages to make the Bibliothèque seem at once immense and tightly constricted, as in a recurring image where he tracks in reverse through a series of doorways, all surrounded with wall-to-wall books. The endless number of identically claustrophobic rooms gives us both sides of the equation: the attempts of man to "imprison" (or more generously, organize) knowledge and the sheer mass of texts which make such a comprehensive task impossible.
Only in the film's final sequence does Resnais hint at any kind of redeeming function in the Bibliothèque's mission. He begins by following a library worker as he locates a specific title and delivers the book to the reading room, taking the viewer "through the looking glass" from the cramped stacks to the relatively airy public sections of the library. As the camera tracks overhead past a cross-section of humanity, a palpable sense of life creeps into the film for the first time. As the narrator notes, the book is redeemed "from an abstract, universal, indifferent memory," through the act of individual selection. If Resnais views the broader claims of the institution with some skepticism, at least on an individual level, he's willing to acknowledge the usefulness of the mission. As he passes across the roomful of readers and fixes his camera for the last time on a bookshelf, he gives final expression to the possibility that with knowledge redeemed at last from its prison, we are allowed to "catch a glimpse of a future in which all mysteries are resolved." That the Bibliothèque emerges from the film with all its mysteries intact means we're a long way from such a future, but it also means that Resnais has succeeded in giving cinematic expression to the irresolvable contradictions of France's great national institution.