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Last Year at Marienbad was the prize head-scratcher movie from film school. Alain Resnais' stunningly beautiful, icily stylized art film might be summed up as "Boy sees Girl, Boy maybe met Girl before, Boy and Girl shift between contradictory planes of consciousness -- in immaculate evening clothes."
Bad high school English Lit teachers in always had us searching for errant symbols, as if understanding a great book were no more meaningful than an Easter Egg hunt. In just the same way, I'm not sure that our film school professors really had a handle on Last Year at Marienbad. I remember being encouraged to "solve the problem" of Resnais' enigmatic picture as if it were the cinematic equivalent of the Gordian Knot. Looking for clues in Monsieur Resnais' dreamlike trucking shots and repetitive narration is as about as rewarding as "reading" the elegant expressions on the face of actress Delphine Seyrig.
Last Year at Marienbad has just become available in Criterion's beautiful Blu-ray HD transfer, and once again the Collection's extras make the difference. The added value features are like the footnotes in a collection of Shakespeare works, carefully chosen by authoritative academics. We've read many critical reactions to the film's radical form. Tapping the filmmakers' original stated intentions confirms what we should have intuited all along -- Resnais' unique movie is intentionally constructed to resist conclusive analysis.
Most sources agree that the "story" of Last Year at Marienbad involves a romantic triangle among a group of wealthy guests at an Austrian retreat. As artificial as fancy dress mannequins, the Continentals stroll in slow motion, talk in non-sequiturs and pose in serene, static groups, like models in a fashion ad. None of the characters have names. The elegant woman played by Delphine Seyrig appears to be married to Sacha Pitoëff, a gaunt, staring fellow who shows little affection or emotion. Delphine stands alone while Sacha plays a strange parlor game, which he always wins. A handsome gentleman (Giorgio Albertazzi) repeatedly accosts Delphine, asking her to remember him from the previous year. He gently insists that they met and had an affair. Giorgio claims that she asked him to wait a year while she made up her mind. Now that he's back, Delphine seems unable to remember anything. This muted, stifled melodrama plays out as the actors drift through beautiful classic drawing rooms, or loiter at a balustrade over an enormous formal estate garden. They debate the meaning of a statue of what appear to be Roman Gods. As it turns out, the figures represent a French King and Queen, simply presented as ancient figures. Even the statuary has issues of identity and memory.
The time frame shifts constantly between similar but different rooms and gardens, either from "last year" or another place in time or thought. Near the finish, a few brief moments of romantic melodrama occur, in shots of overwhelming emotion and violence. But we can't tell if these events happened in the past, predict the future or are simply the characters' random thought-projections. Trapped in the perfect fashions and hairstyles, Delphine's eyes often seem to be crying for escape.
Criterion's extras reveal that author Alain Robbe-Grillet's intent in Last Year at Marienbad was to reinterpret his own nouvelle roman ("new novel") style in cinematic terms. Other New Wave filmmakers adapted existing filmic genres and styles but Alain Resnais ignores established narrative forms by filming Robbe-Grillet's script exactly as written. The film's radical style never looks arbitrary or slapdash, and the roaming camera offers few cues that might signal a particular shot's intention. We're told that Robbe-Grillet's books are heavy with architectural detail, which certainly comes across in the film's ornate 17th-century palaces; the locations are at least as important as the characters.
One interpretation is that the film is really about a rape that has fractured Delphine's personality, resulting in the temporal displacement effects. This reading seeks to "explain" the film's events as my film professors had desired, which to me doesn't add up. If Robbe-Grillet and Resnais had wished to fashion a conventional cause-and-effect narrative, why would they purposely make things so obscure?
No, the dislocations in time and place are the film. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais state that the shots and cutting are designed to mimic the actual process of memory, in which "images" from the past exist in disconnected fragments and freeze into still images. Key memories will replay and repeat as we run them over in our minds. We remember events without always knowing how they connect to other events -- and occasionally suspect that individual events might not have actually happened.
Strangely, the genre that most resembles Last Year at Marienbad is the 60s horror film, and especially the Eurohorror film. The opening scenes make more than one dialogue reference to death, suggesting that the guests at the spa / hotel / whatever are high-toned cousins to the undead phantoms of a picture like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls. Several early scenes "play" with the idea of a death-like "freeze tag" gag, in which a roomful of guests stop moving, as if time has elected to stand still for a brief moment. Chris Marker's brilliant science fiction picture La jetée carried this notion a step further, reducing almost all of its narrative to "still" frames.
The formal guests attending the plays and milling about the bar are also very much like the unseen ghosts of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Apparently stumped for an ending for his marvelous 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick deposits astronaut Dave Bowman in a Marienbad- like room removed from our notions of space and time. We hear electronically modified voices. Are they the ghostly voices of Marienbad's hotel guests?
Last Year at Marienbad's closest cousin in Eurohorror is Antonio Margheriti's underachieving but expressive Danse Macabre (1964), a Barbara Steele chiller about ghosts forever doomed to re-play their crimes of passion. Marienbad's long trucking shots down endless ornamented ceilings aren't far removed from the "corridor wandering" of Barbara Steele horror films.
Resnais would later use adapt his cinematic "memory games" to more conventional narratives. La guerre est finie is about an aging revolutionary, but the film's time frame skips about as freely as do the man's thoughts. The science fiction story J'taime, j'taime presents a time machine powered by pure memories. Resnais' film did more than rebel against commercial movie conventions. It and his previous picture Hiroshima mon amour spun film language off in a completely new direction. 1
Criterion's Blu-ray of Last Year at Marienbad gives this expensive film the quality presentation it requires. An earlier Fox Lorber disc was a dull eyesore that did considerable harm to Marienbad's reputation. Sacha Vierny's cinematography is never less than arresting in the sparkling new HD transfer. Resnais' entire film is a "psychological" special effect, but certain visuals stand out. A cocktail party plays with matched action cuts between different realities, as when a female guest turns to leave, and on her turn the entire location changes behind her. It's an ancient Buster Keaton experiment applied to a different context. Resnais' camera approaches the balustrade over the vast garden, where we see various groupings of people standing still, as in one of the vintage architectural drawings on view. We can't figure out what's so weird about the image, until we notice the illogical pattern of long shadows on the walkways ...
Criterion disc producer Johanna Schiller assembles an expert selection of features. Still a working director almost fifty years later, Alain Resnais is heard in a new audio interview. A new interview docu features input from people who worked on the film, including future director Volker Schlöndorff. The young German assistant was given a thankless assignment: keep pedestrians out of camera range in the background of the garden shots.
Another featurette gives us the critical viewpoint of film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, heavily illustrated. Two trailers are provided as well. The insert booklet contains a fine essay by Mark Polizzotti, and several articles and comments by the filmmakers.
Especially welcome are a pair of Alain Resnais short subjects. The Song of Styrene (1958) is a beautifully constructed ode to industry that begins with products of styrene plastic and works backwards through the processes that create them. The show eventually visits an ugly refinery and concludes on an image of a puddle of crude oil ... a visual that reminds us of the French protest thriller The Wages of Fear.
The second short film All the Memory of the World (1956) is a stylistic pre-echo of Marienbad. Resnais' camera prowls the myriad galleries and stacks of an enormous Parisian library, showing its functions in fascinating pre-computerized detail. A disembodied voice describes the library as a sentient organism serving as a repository for human consciousness and memory ... prime raw material for Alain Resnais.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour interpeted another nouvelle roman author, Marguerite Duras, into film terms. When directed indifferently, or with too few points of reference to interest an audience, experimental films like Duras' own Nathalie Granger can descend into deadly, mannered dullness. Often compared to Duras' work is Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, due out this Summer from Criterion. The three-hour, 21-minute 1975 film enjoys a reputation as a masterpiece.
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