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Last Year at Marienbad
Last Year at Marienbad is oft described as a great cinematic puzzle, but that's not quite right. Puzzles are meant to be solved, whereas Alain Resnais's masterpiece is meant to wrap itself around your consciousness, touch your emotions and leave you moved and mystified. Whether you can satisfactorily decipher the film's story or map-out its timeline is of little concern.
Finally receiving the quality U.S. DVD release it deserves (thanks, Criterion Collection), the film holds the same power to haunt and mesmerize audiences that it possessed when it premiered in 1961. It also holds the power to divide them. While many once-divisive films from its era now sit securely on their canonical thrones, Marienbad continues to draw debate not only between those who recognize it as a masterpiece and those who think it's drivel, but between those who disagree on where its greatness lies.
Resnais must surely be pleased that his film still inspires such different reactions, confirming that nearly 50 years later, his goal remains achieved. The director's fabled collaboration with author Alain Robbe-Grillet was one of two men out to change the form of their medium and challenge traditional storytelling structures and techniques. They set their ever-morphing story of time, memory and passion in a high-class chateaux hotel in an unnamed location, a place that at one moment buzzes with well-dressed socialites and in another falls silent and empty, save for a couple characters desperately grasping at their lives.
Giorgio Albertazzi plays a man, identified in the credits and screenplay only as X, who claims that a year ago he met and fell in love with a woman, A, played astonishingly by Delphine Seyrig. But the thing is, A has no memory of anything X describes. As he insists, she denies. What makes the drama so fascinating, however, is that both parties seem doubtful of their position.
X acts supremely confident in his account of events, yet non-committal on key details such as where his story unraveled--was it Frederiksbad, Marienbad or maybe this very hotel (wherever that may be)? He remembers it all so clearly, except when he has it all wrong. He describes the past events in voice-over and we see them on screen, but the settings change and the details don't mesh. At one point, he grows angry at the visuals for not representing the memory he's describing.
In his essay contained in Criterion's release, Mark Polizzotti comments that Robbe-Grillet's screenplay painted X as much more of a heroic savior than he comes off as in the film. Indeed, just reading Robbe-Grillet's description of the story belies some rather drastic differences between his script and Resnais's interpretations. Robbe-Grillet may have intended X to be a firm master of persuasion, but Albertazzi creates an increasing sense of desperation, as if he might disappear forever if his idealized vision isn't true.
At the same time, Resnais pushes the perspective more and more toward A. We first see her in the background of a two shot, alone in a sea of minglers, staring off into space or at some great unknown. But by the end we feel we know her best, through the startling expressionistic editing that suggests an ominous, threatening presence (a rape, perhaps?) and ends with a broken glass. In another moment, a long journey through a great corridor culminates with a moment of over-exposed madness. She tries to run away--from X, from the pressure--only to discover herself trapped in a place of memory, as moments from the past and the present begin to stick together.
While none of the characters have backstories, it's hard not to conclude that A has more to lose. X never shows a personal connection with another character in the movie, whereas A's decision to go with him would mean leaving M, a calm, deliberate, daunting figure played by Sacha Pitoéff. He may be A's husband, but then again, he could be her guardian--A feels no need to explain the matter.
While the story is endlessly intriguing, the surreal, musical qualities of Resnais's visuals are what make the film so indelible. The film slides into its narrative first by exploring the architecture of its environment while a voice-over by X repeats phrases and builds a poetic mystery. Sacha Vierny's black-and-white cinematography floats through the setting as Francis Seyrig's organ score helps it glide along. We then move into a room where a play is taking place, but everyone appears frozen in motion, as they will intermittently throughout the film. As we hear the lines of the play they're watching, the motion and editing flow with the rhythms of the dialogue, cutting as the characters exchange lines, the camera moves to reveal the faces in the crowd and those on stage until we can at last break free from their stillness.
Like musical refrains with varying interpretations, we see images in new light, hear dialogue in new context and discover new story elements as we circle our way back to where we were before. Among the many games at the resort, the most memorable is a version of the game Nim (the 1 3 5 7 version seen in the film is now known as Marienbad). The guests, particularly X and M, play it with cards, matchsticks, dominoes, etc.--at one point a set of key props are laid out in the game's starting formation. No matter what anyone else tries, M always manages to win the game. ("I can lose, but I always win," he explains.) The other guests can stand around the table all day and speculate on the tricks, the strategy, the mystery of M's success, but in the end, like Last Year at Marienbad itself, it is simply there, easier to marvel at than to explain away.
The Criterion Collection's new edition of Last Year at Marienbad presents the film as marvelously as it has ever looked on DVD. Transfered and cleaned up from a lovely print, there are very few signs of damage. The crisp, detailed black-and-white, anamorphic 2.35:1 image and quality compression let all the ornate details in the architecture show. I can only imagine what the Blu-ray version looks like.
You can't really compare this edition's quality to the greenish, washed-out Fox-Lorber disc that's been out of print for several years (and until recently demanded $100-200 for used copies). Its only true competition is Optimum's Region 2 edition, which also features sharp detail from a quality print, but includes ugly, burnt-in subtitles and a higher-contrast image that loses a lot of details to crushed blacks.
The Criterion transfer provides a sensitive palette of grays that bring dimension to the truly bright and dark components of the picture. Some reviewers have stated that the picture is "hazy," but the only moments that fit that description are clearly intentional, such as two notably over-exposed scenes.
The disc includes two versions of Marienbad's monaural French soundtrack: the "restored" version and the "original" version. Resnais, who explains the option in the release's booklet, believes that certain frequencies become squelched during noise removal, depriving the listener of the tone and passion in the music and actors' voices. As such, he prefers the "original" soundtrack. While the occasional faint click and pop can be heard in the original track, it certainly doesn't sound noticeably inferior to the restored version, which remains very loyal to the source. Both feature clear mixes, great-sounding voices and appropriate representation of Francis Seyrig's Wagner-inspired, sometimes harsh pipe organ score. This isn't a showy 5.1 track or anything, but I give the audio top marks for accurately presenting the film's audio track.
This disc marks the first Marienbad release with optional English subtitles, rather than forced ones that can't be removed if you speak French or want to focus on the visuals.
This two-disc set includes about two hours' worth of extra material (most of which is on disc two), as well as a 44-page booklet. I don't think anything could or should make the film easier to understand, and was happy with the variety of material, ranging from the film's production to various interpretations (although some of those interpretations could be better-elaborated). All features include optional English subtitles during the French-speaking portions.
The audio interview with Resnais, illustrated by still photographs and clips from the film, offers a warmly recounted tale of the film's production. Among many topics, Resnais marvels over producer Raymond Froment's dedication to helping him achieve his vision, discusses his relationship with Robbe-Grillet and recalls a Venice Film Festival screening during which a hostile audience suddenly fell under the film's spell.
Once you hear Resnais's memory for 33 minutes, you can spend the same amount of time hearing the crew's version of the story in the featurette Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad. Resnais's assistant directors, script girl and production designer describe the process of making the film and how Resnais operates on set. We hear about the director's perfectionist attitude and how the remarkable visuals were achieved--including a special photographic process to achieve deep focus in cinemascope, single scenes that were shot across three different locations and the difficulty of shooting a long take with a wandering camera through a room of large mirrors. The piece is an entertaining collection of memories.
Ginette Vincendeau's 23-minute discussion on the film focuses more on audience response and interpretation than the other segments, and provides the best collection of opinions about what the film accomplishes.
Two delightful short documentaries by Resnais ice disc two's cake. Resnais started as a documentarian before moving on to dramatic features, and these two brief, educational films point to the visual style that he would soon perfect. Le Chant du Styrène, with its rhyming narration and colorful widescreen photography, is probably the most fun 13 minutes you'll ever spend learning about the production of plastic. Exploring the architecture, procedures and contents of the National Library in Paris, the 20-minute Toute La Mémoire du Monde illustrates Resnais' gift for moving the camera through space, as he explores the halls of archived memories.
Disc one features two versions of the theatrical trailer. The first is Canal's original, and the second a new version created for Rialto's rerelease last year. Note that the original trailer placed a lot of importance on the individualistic experience of the film. Its technique, the trailer argues, creates an immersive experience that's "better than 3-D"--a claim as true now as when it was made. The Rialto version is basically the same, with some parts taken out, some added cards about the rerelease and a slightly different subtitle translation.
Finally, the 44-page booklet contains three satisfying essays. Mark Polizzotti's What Year at Where offers a nice overview on all things Marienbad, both on and off screen. Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1961 introduction to the screenplay is perhaps most notable for laying out how the writer saw the story before it filtered through the director's eyes. François Thomas's The Myth of "Perfect Harmony" serves as an afterward to Robbe-Grillet's piece, revealing the collaboration held more conflict than the writer's original rosy account suggests.
An immersive experience for an already immersive film, Criterion's Last Year at Marienbad finally gives Resnais's masterpiece the release it deserves. This disc is my favorite release of the year so far and earns DVDTalk's highest possible recommendation. Of course, this being Marienbad,, your experience could be completely different.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.