04 August, 2009

Movie Review: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

A hypnotic French voice, fluid and unemphatic like so many cinematic French voices, plays over the soundtrack, describing the architectural features of a vast, ornamental, palatial hotel--the stucco, the columns, the staircases, the clerestory windows, the stucco, the columns--as the camera glides through, we assume, the same hotel, focusing on nothing, seemingly lost. A gorgeous and ghostly hotel, labyrinthine, almost preserved in formaldehyde. An unemotional organ plays, and the voice begins to repeat itself; however, the man's descriptions are somehow at once very particular and tantalyzingly vague, rapid fire yet soothing, and since nothing sticks to memory in the hodgepodge of imagery, it's hard to tell what's being repeated, what's being changed, and what is entirely new.

The voice repeats itself again and again. Maybe the camera pans once more down the same halls it has already traveled, or perhaps not. The organ continues.

And so Last Year at Marienbad, the 1961 dream of director Alain Resnais, begins. It's the 93rd film in the 2010 edition of the TSPDT? list, and from what I gather, no one has ever said with certainty just what the whole film is all about.

As a recreation of a dream world, the film is masterful. Distinct characters appear with neither name nor relationship, play some pivotal part in the proceedings, and then disappear, sometimes for good. Background characters are often motionless, always silent. Conversations proceed one line at a time, with all background noise muted, and yet it's hard to tell what's ever being said, where any conversation may be headed, whether anything is factual or improvised, surprising nonsense. All that's important in any given scene is exactly what's being focused on--whether it's a statue or a speech--and when something else draws attention, everything else is free to change color, dimension, orientation. Maybe years are being spanned, maybe just hours--it's difficult to keep track--and the game the men play in the lounge is at once very simple, fair, and obvious but also impossible to win.

Last Year at Marienbad must be experienced passively as dreams are experienced. Like some dreams, it is beautiful, surprising, and ingenuous. In dreams, we take everything as it comes to us, moment by moment with no long-term memory. We experience emotions viscerally; when logic starts to enter the picture, we get frustrated and usually wake up. But if three plus eight is supposed to equal twenty-four, then it does. If we realize that by running really fast we can fly, then we do. If our dead grandmother is sitting in the kitchen of a house that no longer stands, we're eight years old, and our grandfather looks exactly like our old science teacher, then that's just how it is.

Like most dreams, there is a story in this film, but we all know how boring it can be to try to explain the plots of our dreams as if they were straightforward narratives. The events, twists, continuity, and transitions are never well defined, and in the end of our tepid attempts at surmising, we write it all off with, "You just had to be there. It was absolutely terrifying."

Last Year at Marienbad's story goes something like this: There's a theatrical performance at a big hotel with all these people, and after it's over the people start to socialize. A woman meets a man, and at first it seems like they're a couple, but then it seems like they've never met each other before, and then finally he starts trying to convince her that they had met once before a year ago, possibly at the same hotel, maybe at Marienbad, maybe somewhere else entirely. Not only did they meet, but they had a romantic relationship which was cut short. She doesn't remember. Maybe she doesn't want to remember, maybe he remembers wrong, or maybe he's just lying in an attempt to seduce her. But there's this other man who's probably her husband but could be her brother or who knows what else, and this man--who doesn't really seem to pose any problem--stands in the way of them rekindling whatever love may or may not have existed in the past.

And that's it. Thinking too hard about it is a fool's game. The passion, regret, suspense, and despair must simply be experienced rather than analyzed. And in that respect, the movie disappoints. Mulholland Drive was also set in a dream world, but in that picture the characters were vivid and evocative. Even random characters who didn't make sense to the plot were still colorful enough elicit fear, laughs, tears, and thrills. The characters in Last Year at Marienbad are uniformly stiff and bland, as if Resnais forgot the loud and unbridled emotion that dreams can contain, opting instead for one hypnotic but monotonous atmosphere that mistily fills every shot.

Last Year at Marienbad is beautiful, clever, and innovative. The picture above illustrates how the geometric disharmony of the cinematography complements the thematic ambiguity and structural contradictions. On all levels--sound, editing, cinematography, script, acting--the film is unsettling and strange, a uniform disharmony that somehow seems normal. The film sticks in the mind, and I'm sure every repeated viewing offers new reactions and surprises. Having seen it once, I can acknowledge that it should be required viewing for any cineaste but must also admit that it failed to move me on any deep level--something which even the most uninteresting of dreams often accomplishes.

Last Year at Marienbad
d: Alain Resnais w: Alain Robbe-Grillet
(Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sascha Pitoeff)
TSPDT? #93

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