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Last Year at Marienbad

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 23, 2009
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted June 14, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
My own personal mysterious love affair with Last Year at Marienbad goes back many a year to my college days. I first saw the film on a Friday night "art house" University movie night, and I was blown away, baffled, and intrigued in equal measure. I managed to see the film again in my late 20s at another art house and it had much the same effect on me. When home video came along in the 1980s, Time-Life had a little boutique collection which included the film, culled from what looked like second or third generation 16mm masters, but alas when the VHS tape arrived, it had no sound (some people might say that could only help make the film more comprehensible). I did manage to get a pan and scan video with actual audio somewhere along the line, but this is one of the great unsung classics of foreign film that has really cried out for a complete restoration and proper presentation. Luckily, Criterion once again comes to the rescue with a handsome (if insanely difficult to open--more about which later) package full of great supplementary material and a beautiful transfer of the film itself.

It's rather daunting to even try to write about Last Year at Marienbad, certainly one of the most discussed and critiqued films of all time. I've known people who adore the film, and people who despise it, all of them abundantly intelligent with a good background in both movies in general, and the French New Wave in particular. It has always struck me as somewhat odd that Marienbad's director Alain Resnais never seemed to rise to the worldwide public consciousness level of his countrymen Truffaut or Godard, both of whom were of the same generation and helped pave the way for the post-War French film industry. The fact remains that, whether or not you're familiar with Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad is a singular experience, for better or worse (depending of course on your own personal reaction), unlike anything you've probably ever seen before.

Resnais made his reputation with films that had at the very least a political subtext (Night and Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour), so one of the first really interesting things is the complete lack of any political posturing in Marienbad, other than the perhaps subtly hinted at critique of an indolent post-War generation. This is a film ostensibly about two people, cryptically (and obviously symbolically) named X (Giorgio Albertazzi) and A (Delphine Seyrig), who may or may not have met at a European resort the year before. That's the entire "plot," as it were, in a nutshell, but for a film that seems intent on surface, on the outer, on the discrepancy between the physical world and our interior monologues (which are frequently at odds with what's going on "out there"), Marienbad is a virtual treasure trove of subtext and import. The fascinating thing is, like the Heisenberg principal in a way, each viewer can come away from the film with radically different interpretations of what they've seen, and each of them would be equally "correct," having altered the film's meaning simply by interacting with it personally. The mere formalism of the film--tableau after tableau, poses without emotion, enigmatic snippets of conversation that never really add up to a traditional dialogue--make the movie more or less about movie-watching itself. What do you think is happening, Resnais and his scenarist Robbe-Grillet, seem to be asking each and every one of us who watch the film. The film itself offers no easy answers.

If you've never seen Marienbad before, pay attention to a few fascinating details along the way. For example, note how it's virtually seven minutes into the film before we see a human being, and then, it's an audience member, a member viewing a play which seems, in retrospect, to be almost an enactment of the central enigma of X and A's putative relationship (Resnais is also on record stating the film, and therefore the play in microcosm, is really about rape, and evidently there are some "definitive" essays detailing this view, but I have to wonder if Resnais' famously impish sense of humor may have come just a little into play in this gambit of analysis). Also note the self-reflexive tendencies of the film--the opening voice over, which one initially assumes is of the male protagonist (X), turns out to be the actor in the play, and yet, X picks up pretty much right where the actor's monologue leaves off (and note how the monologue is all about environment, structure--the "outer" world). It's several more minutes into the film before we ever hear a woman's voice, something Marienbad exploits on a meta level when the film's point of view changes rather abruptly from X to A as the film reaches its climax.

Note, too, the almost non-stop (some would say obsessive) use of mirrors. Mirrors line the rooms the cameras track through in some of the most fluid movement ever captured on film (and a technical achievement of no small order, not just in terms of the camera avoiding filming itself in the mirrors, but especially when you consider the crew following the cameras had to hobble around on their knees in order not be seen in any of the mirrors). How many times do we see Seyrig reflected? How many times do we actually see any of the characters as reflections, rather than "actual" beings. Again, this is a film about appearance, about fa├žades, about impenetrable shells that may or may not contain meaning.

Setting aside any attempt to "understand" Last Year at Marienbad, the film simply must be honored for its technical achievements alone, many of which must be credited to Resnais' brilliant cinematographer Sachy Vierny. Film had never seen anything like the incessant tracking shots through long corridors that Marienbad uses for the bulk of its brief, though dense, running time, allusions to which you can see in everything from Bergman's The Silence to Kubrick's The Shining. The nonstop camera movement seems to be particularly loved by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Magnolia, at least in the opening 40 minutes or so, has much of the same easy fluidity that Last Year at Marienbad utilizes to hypnotic effect. But it's not merely for show here (as some would argue it is with Anderson). Resnais seems to be making a point, however oblique, about the uncertainty of memory and what we're seeing, something he intentionally capitalizes on by jarring edits which disrupt both the geography and temporal placement we think we're in. A famous long tracking shot following A and X down a supposedly single hall was in fact filmed in several locations, just to add a disconcerting "weirdness" to the background element. In another equally famous shot, a beautiful outdoor garden filled with static people is somehow not quite right--and then suddenly you notice only the humans are casting (rather long, ominous) shadows--none of the trees are. It's this kind of subliminal mind game that makes Marienbad such an oddly unsettling experience, even if you can't quite put your finger on what's driving you slightly crazy as you watch it (at least for the first time). (For a slightly more fun subliminal moment, keep your eyes peeled for a "cameo" of sorts by none other than Alfred Hitchcock).

I must admit that I do have a problem with one aspect of Marienbad--the rather annoying organ-based score of composer Francis Seyrig (Delphine's brother, and one can only assume that may be how he got this gig). It's an interesting score, no doubt, but it is too demonstrative for such a "cool" film, and it frequently is at odds with the film's tableaux-laden ethos. Seyrig's string cues are just fine (as in the opening play scene), but the organ pieces are jarring and not particularly suited to the film's classicism, though that may in fact be exactly what Resnais was going for.

Last Year at Marienbad simply must be seen at least once by anyone with any interest in the history of post-World War II international film. Completely different than other French New Wave films, and yet just as, if not more, radical than its better known compatriots like Breathless, this is a film that mixes a neoclassical style with an absolutely anarchistic use of nonlinear storytelling mixed with completely (and deliberately) confusing editing techniques. You may end up being one of the despisers, but my hunch is, even if you don't particularly like the film, you're going to respect its ambitions and the very unique and palpable spell it weaves. If, like me, you're an admirer of Resnais and especially of this film, you're in for a treat with a mostly wonderful restoration that finally gives the film a proper pedestal on which to flaunt its distinctive, if bizarre, charms.

The Blu-ray

We finally get Marienbad in its proper 2.35:1 OAR and with a mostly magnificent high-def restoration from a fine grain master positive. The BD offers an AVC codec that provides lustrous blacks and whites with exceptional contrast and outstanding depth. There are some registration fluctuations, with attendant flicker, and occasional moments of damage, but they are very slight indeed, and certainly this is the finest this film has ever looked in any home video format. Vierny's incredible use of deep focus is exploited on this BD to incredible effect at times. Perhaps not quite at the level of Criterion's recent The Seventh Seal, this is still a very, very impressive transfer.

Unfortunately Marienbad's soundtrack has not fared very well, something that seems kind of strange when one considers the fact that much older films, with much more degraded images, still manage to eke out a decent soundtrack. This Criterion release offers both a restored and the original French soundtrack, in uncompressed PCM mono, but truth be told, I heard very little difference between them. There's slightly less hiss on the restored track, but both tracks still have occasional pops and slight distortion from time to time. There's nothing that's going to drive you absolutely bonkers here, but this is not a pristine soundtrack, by any means. English subtitles (in white) are offered.

Criterion has provided several nice supplements, though if any film cries out for a feature length commentary, this is certainly it, and this release strangely does not offer one (maybe the film is simply too complex and controversial for anyone to want to throw their hat in the ring). What you do get are an excellent interview with Resnais recorded especially for this release, an interesting making of featurette, and, best of all, a really fascinating video interview with Ginette Vincendeau, a Resnais scholar who goes into some depth about the filmmaker and the film. Two short, late 1950s documentaries by Resnais are also included, as are the original and re-release trailers. The foldout tray also has a beautiful booklet with an intelligent essay by Mark Polizotti.

Now about the packaging--the fold out tray is housed in a slipcover, a beautiful little white cardboard cover with embossed lettering. Unfortunately, the fold out tray is rather dramatically wedged into this slipcover--it took me almost 20 minutes of pushing and pulling, even resorting to using pliers, to try to extract the BD tray from the slipcover. It's especially frustrating when the slipcover is nice looking and we anal retentive collectors don't wish to damage it. If you encounter similar difficulties, what finally worked for me was slightly "rocking" the slipcover back and forth, almost bending it diagonally, which seemed to slowly loosen the fold out tray within.

Final Thoughts:
Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most important films of the mid 20th century. Some will argue that its import is only one of nonsense and critical fawning over incoherence. Others see in this film one of the most fascinating explorations of what it actually means to watch a film and try to extract meaning from it. This is not an easy film by any means (though it lacks the shock value of the opening scenes of Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, for example), but it is a uniquely provocative piece that will make you think about it, whether or not you want to. Anyone who values their own knowledge of film must take the time to see Marienbad at least once in their lives. Those facts, combined with a mostly stellar Criterion release, make Marienbad a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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