Friday, October 13, 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

L'année dernière à Marienbad, France / Italy, 94 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Photography: Sacha Vierney
Music: Francis Seyrig
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff

It's tempting to fix the blame for the admittedly art-damaged Last Year at Marienbad on Michelangelo Antonioni and L'Avventura, which was released to wide acclaim (and derision too) the year before and which the following year, 1962, would be declared in a Sight & Sound poll of critics to be the second-greatest film of all time ever made. (Cooler heads have since prevailed somewhat and the 2012 version of the poll has L'Avventura at #21.) Both pictures are similarly aimless and pointless, er, I mean, ambiguous and ethereal, but the fact is, for all its artifice, I get a kick out of Last Year at Marienbad, and have so far remained mostly resistant to L'Avventura.

I use the word "artifice"—I'll even extend that to L'Avventura (though it is actually much more naturalistic)—and not the word "pretension," which is the one many may prefer. To be sure, I see the problem. Last Year at Marienbad is full of artfully posed mannequins wearing tuxedos and gowns, floating wanly about a mysterious French chateau with surrealistic geometric gardens, a wheezing cheesy organ providing soundtrack, and with no obvious point or even discernible plot beyond the cover story of a resort vacation: "The servants were mute," we learn from the randomly murmuring and often redundant voiceover narration, which is not always that informative (unreliable narrator, thy name is Last Year at Marienbad). "The games were silent, of course. It was a place for relaxation. No business was carried out, no plots were hatched. No one even discussed any topic that might cause excitement. There were signs everywhere: 'Silence' ... 'Silence.'"

Frankly, that sounds like a nice vacation to me, but for others, particularly of a fashionable European early-1960s Heroic Era of the Art Film bent, I'm sure it signifies a certain existential hell.

Or maybe that's purgatory (for the Catholic gloss)? The story, such as it is (start thinking allegory now) goes something like this: a man on vacation (Giorgio Albertazzi) is certain he has met a woman before (Delphine Seyrig), but she claims not to know him or to have ever been in the places he remembers. She never breaks this façade to him, but other scenes show she remembers. Meanwhile, a second man (Sacha Pitoeff) is beating all comers at Nim, a party game approximately one level of complexity above Tic-tac-toe. An evocative statue of Charles III and his wife in the chateau garden becomes a turning point of the plot, as characters struggle to understand its meaning and discuss it at length. That's about it.

Regarding those mannequin shots: some are freeze frames, with the action visibly stopping and starting, while others appear to be still photos. Still others appear to be actors attempting to hold their positions without moving. They are all inserted randomly, cut away from quickly or dwelt upon overlong equally randomly. They're like the "pillow shots" in an Ozu picture but with no sense of timing. Last Year at Marienbad and L'Avventura are both mystery stories if they are anything, sharing a similar sense for the emptiness of all modern human affairs. I suspect it's the cheesiness of Last Year at Marienbad that makes me like it more.

It is glamorous yet dreary, a confounding mood that I love, like a rainy afternoon full of light and glowing green vegetation, like reading in bed in the dim of a messy room. Francis Seyrig's soundtrack, which saws between a brooding organ and bursts from a discordant orchestra, has much to do with it. The ridiculously clinical precision of some of the geometries is another factor (in the screencap above, no other object casts a shadow because it was shot on a cloudy day and the people's shadows are painted in). The repetitions of the game which finally force you to try to understand the winning strategy, a purposeful distraction, is another. Everything is distracting because nothing is interesting, and nothing is interesting because meaning does not exist.

Last Year at Marienbad is also a lot like a dream, of course, something cinema has turned out to be particularly good at, with all the psychological realities of discontinuity, abrupt transition, confusion, uncertainty. In this way, dreamy, the picture is so artificial it's natural, even as it makes the implicit argument, with Andy Warhol, that it's actually more natural and authentic on some level to be so artificial. Yes, there are a lot of tuxedos and gowns, but somehow they signify less class to me than simply a human ideal of perfect adaptation—the abstracted good life. They are living the good life as it was understood then (and still is, pretty much) and mostly oblivious of the vacuum we read into the images of their lives—that the movie writes into them.

I'm even going to argue that its closing lines offer a kind of happily-ever-after that is alternately satisfying and a little creepy to this odd fairy tale of the man who remembered a woman and never could win the game. Which reminds me, before we get to those closing lines (spoiler alert), I want to say I think screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet has a great deal to do with making Last Year at Marienbad probably my favorite movie by director Alain Resnais. Hiroshima Mon Amour, which unfortunately we will be getting to presently, has always struck me as uninspired dreariness. Night and Fog, while powerful and essential, is disjointed and a little incoherent (from suppressed rage I imagine). There is a balance of gloom and sparkle in Last Year at Marienbad that may come of one of those unique collaborative circumstances. Here's how it ends, with this voiceover in scenes of indistinct darkness:

"The hotel grounds were laid out like a kind of French garden, devoid of trees, flowers, or any kind of vegetation. Gravel, stone, marble, and straight lines marked out rigid spaces, areas devoid of mystery. At first glance, it seemed impossible to lose your way. At first glance. Down straight paths, between statues with frozen gestures and granite slabs, where even now you were losing your way forever, in the stillness of the night, alone with me."

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jeff, thanks for redeeming "Last Year at Marienbad" for me. I originally saw it back in 1965, at Wilmington College, and was befuddled by it -- I was just getting out into the larger world that year, and I was too inexperienced yet to deal with an art object this arty. Don't think I'd ever seen it again, on TV or anywhere, but your review inspired me to visit the library and borrow the DVD. Watched it and really liked it this time, think I finally grasped the "plot" (such as it is), but was just plain moved by all the frantically static visuals, and the medieval-cathedral organ fusillades. I'm ready to cue it up again to savor more seeping statues.

    Interesting mini-sequel to me seeing "Last Year" at Wilmington, as later that term, in my Creative Writing class, our instructor had us read some Alain Robbe-Grillet pieces, and then in a class-critique session on our own writings, another student said my effort reminded him of Robbe-Grillet. He seemed to mean that positively, but I was still mystified by "Last Year", so I didn't know what to make of that. Now I can finally accept that praise, in my own mind-movie-version, "Last Century at Wilmington". -- Richard Riegel