Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - Directed by Alain Resnais

I’ve never been comfortable with any associations that were made between Alain Resnais and The French New Wave movement. Although his most popular films came out at the same time as Godard and Truffaut were taking off with Breathless (1960) and The 400 Blows (1959) respectively, the connection had to have been based on his being French and making innovative films. Other than that, his films share little in common with the movement. Night and Fog (1955) was Resnais’ coming out party, a painfully moving documentary on the Holocaust, filmed at Auschwitz, it was a haunting piece on the lingering aftershocks that such a horror can leave. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) was a beautiful love story between a Japanese man and a French woman who seem to be connected cosmically through both personally tragic moments, and larger scale horrors, like the bomb on Hiroshima. Somehow Resnais was able to make the connection between past and present in both of those films in ways that are original. I’ve always felt Resnais had more of a kinship in a way with Jean Cocteau, the surrealist director of Blood of a Poet (1930) and Beauty and the Beast (1946). The way Cocteau played with mirrors and time and space are reflective of what Resnais does with his masterwork, Last Year at Marienbad.

Though not as tragic or humanely compelling as his previously mentioned works, Marienbad is one of cinema’s great enigmatic puzzles. It’s a rule-breaking kind of film that was structurally innovative then and in its own way, still compels, exasperates, and inspires deep reflection of what film can be. Resnais’s film opens with a cryptic repeated voiceover as we’re introduced to a grand and stately hotel through tracking shots down the halls, replete with visions of the gilded and artful ceilings. There is almost no one seemingly occupying the place. After several minutes of this, we see people. We have no idea who they are or what their purpose is but they are watching a play of sorts. It's the presence of a noticeably artificial stage play presented to the audience that should be a clue to us as we watch Last Year at Marienbad. What we are about to see cannot be trusted. 

We’re introduced to a woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a man “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), and another man “M” (Sacha Pitoeff). We witness scene after scene of questions that X asks to A, exchanges of cryptic dialogue, moments between them that may have happened last year or may have not, remembered as if they just occurred a moment before, or didn’t at all. Then of course, M comes into the picture and throws the whole thing for a loop, creating a love triangle perhaps. Resnais directly plays with our consciousness of time in that he cuts directly from one moment that may have been to another moment that either may be, or may have been as well. There’s little delineation between what happened, what is happening, or what might have happened. It appears that M is married to A and their interaction reflects a jealous husband suspecting a cheating wife. My question is whether A knows X at all from any previous interaction. Sometimes it appears like they are remembering their happenings from one year ago, and at other times we think they’re meeting for the first time.

Of course the whole thing could also be interpreted as a grand ghost story. More than once, there are indications that one or two of the characters might be dead and that we are witnessing their ghostly interactions. Although there are numerous other people filling the old hotel, they feel distant from the action as if they are wandering aimlessly, filling up the scenery but not really there. Adding to the haunted house quality would be the weird/ghoulish organ music composed by Francis Seyrig, played nearly constantly over the soundtrack. Resnais’s film holds a kinship with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), where the reality of what we see cannot be trusted. Also several more recent films play with reality in its many forms like this: Shutter Island (2010), Inception (2010), and several of David Lynch’s films like Mulholland Drive (2001). Last Year at Marienbad still feels innovative and unique though because of its never ending ability to puzzle us and unlike the films I mentioned, it doesn't really tip its hand, as far as I can tell, leaving the viewer to bask gloriously in the mystery even after the film is over. It's a cold and distant film emotionally, but its artful and carefully composed shots, the smooth pans of the camera through the glorious hotel, the labyrinthine structure, and the haunting ambiguity are a testament to Resnais’s unique vision, making it an art-house classic that continues to beguile us.


Sam Juliano said...

Brilliant piece Jon!

NIGHT AND FOG may be the Resnais that has left the most lasting impression on me, but the subject matter in that case was a given. Cayrol's narration remains as haunting as any I've ever heard in a film, as you say in a stylistic sense it was a warm up for the director who then went on to create some of the cinema's great masterpieces including this 1962 treasure. Even Yoshida honored it with his own FAREWELL TO THE SUMMER LIGHT. You've done a buffo job in framing one of the cinema's most difficult films. It is definitely cold emotionally, but it's artful compositions are spellbinding and it's ghost-story like trappings weave a spell. I know: I am only scratching the surface here!

Jon said...

Thanks for your continued support Sam. Yes it is a difficult film especially thematically and structurally. But I do find it very entertaining and Resnais certainly provides the viewer with plenty to look at and digest. I saw it years ago on a pan-and-scan video, that certainly didn't do justice to the compositions. The Criterion DVD is beautiful though. Thanks!

Dr Blood said...

Is it a ghost story though really? Films like this make my head hurt and make me think about far too many things which I shouldn't do.

Jon said...

Dr. Blood - I'm not really sure if it is or isn't. It might be, but not in the traditional sense as we think of "Ghost Stories". Have you seen it and what do you think? I think it can be interpreted as such and I think there are references in the film to this effect.