Thursday, 13 August 2015

Last Year At Marienbad (1960)

Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Actors: Delphine Seyrig; Giorgio Albertazzi; Sacha Pitoëff
94 minutes

Synopsis: In a hotel, a man named X (Giorgio Albertazzi) tells a woman called A (Delphine Seyrig) that they met the year before and have been in an adulterous relationship away from her husband M (Sacha Pitoëff). A denies this as their reality continually distorts and the figures in the hotel's halls occasionally freeze in time.

Last Year At Marienbad, despite being firmly part of the European art cinema that would be dominant in the sixties, is still very unique besides them. It shows the elliptical nature of many of these films, the experimentation, the existentialism, and for those who despised these films, an absence of surface level "entertainment", but the result is bold in its execution even compared to the more bolder experiments of the era like Jean-Luc Godard's films. Films like ...Marienbad are "entertaining" to me for their experimentation, and melodrama is still there in these films only in bitterer and more post-modern forms. ...Marienbad is one of the few openly puzzle-like entries of the French New Wave, others I've seen even if they were unconventional in structure still retaining a clear narrative guideline or a clear theme. ...Marienbad is inherently disorientation, the meeting of a bold experimental film maker in Resnais meeting a bold author of experimental literature in Robbe-Grillet.

Large portions are a horror film in the robbing of its characters of control. X at times shows the ability to manipulate the film to his desires as the narrator, altering the world in his own image, but when his memory slips or brutality steps in he is powerless. A film of an unbroken, fluctuating dream, it traps its characters in an illusion. The difficulty one can find with such presentation can be lightened when you picture the scenes in the context, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, of the characters being unstuck in time. The only clear, tangible thing is the hotel the drama takes place in, set around the 1920s or so, and that there has likely been an act of adultery or unfaithfulness even if nothing has been committed physically or X is merely trying to instigate a fictional one. It's not out-of-place to reference Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) - if Kubrick's story is about a family being haunted by the ghosts in the hotel they are staying in, ...Marienbad be it about ghosts who are already dead or living statues being haunted by their never-ceasing cycles. A stasis is felt with amnesia effecting X eventually as much as for A. A horror film is apt as a description as, while it is depicted in beautiful monochrome by cinematography Sacha Vierny, the bearings of what ever happened if anything, or even if there was a last year, is less and less clear as the film goes along. As the film distorts its timeframe, various events are evoked subtly in the editing and shifts between locations and periods that show the worse scenarios that could happen, including sexual violence, that horrifies X and A equally.

It's redundant and irritating to merely view ...Marienbad as an "arty film", art for art's sake without emotional connection. The drama is varying depending on the viewer but there. Clues of the situation are there. The game played continually that X keeps losing to M suggests an inevitability of fate that will undermine X the same way as will happen to Max Von Sydow playing chess with the Grim Reaper. The duplication of a specific object pulls the film into science fiction and also shows the endlessness of this reality onscreen that X tries to break, though he is as much into question as scenes show him as being as monstrous to his own horror as he is in love with A sincerely. ...Marienbad is different to other films that share these themes and concepts because it doesn't placate to simple little treats for the viewer to indulge in which even terrible movies can replicate, entertaining or not. There is no cheap sentiment, no dumb laughs or anything easy for even a dreadful film to be able to achieve well. With ...Marienbad one has to work, but most of the work is accepting that it has no clear narrative end, left a mystery, and that its use of editing and tone will have to settled with at first.

Technical Detail:
Vital to the success of ...Marienbad is the location, shot with two German castles and French studio sets to make up the one looming environment, with its perfect symmetrical garden and elaborate decor, that becomes as much part of the puzzle of the narrative chunks. It is a literal labyrinth with no sense of true geography, a flux of rooms and corridors that could easily switch places. Corridors blur with other corridors and the scale overwhelms the individuals perpetually in evening suits and gowns. The cinematography by Vierny ground these despondent locations into one single, workable whole. It is exceptional, both in the visuals and the use of long camera pans, the camera as much a visitor inside the hotel lost between the characters. The locations themselves in their decoration, from the statues to floral carvings, bring a viewer to a level of aesthetic joy but there is a stilted decay, obsoleteness, to it all in the extravagance that is choking. As with the figures within these sets, awkward and straight-jacketed in their arch mannerisms and performances, this decor becomes a suffocating environment felt by the viewer too as it follows the camera.

The editing is also absolutely vital for the film's puzzle structure to allow ...Marienbad to work as the elusive film it is. Flashbacks intermingle with flash forwards, and time takes place in various forms at the same time as the character suddenly appear in one place to another in the same spots. Editing alongside the camera is one of the most important tools of cinema, its use and absence, if my amateur education in cinema has taught me anything. Films like this show why, with editors Jasmine Chasney and Henri Colpi perfect in constructive what was needed for Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's cinematic game. Interestingly Robbe-Grillet put many directorial and camera instructions in the script, which would be seen as taboo in any other circumstance like in modern mainstream cinema, but Resnais followed the instructions faithfully only adding his own touches including in areas not considered in the screenplay. The result is the marriage of two strong auteurist voices supported by talented individuals working on their puzzle. Out of both figures, Robbe-Grillet's films when he decided to become a director soon after would run with the same manipulations of time and identity biting at the extremes of this one.

The music, which intermingles classical and modernist compositions, stimulates further intensity to the material. Especially with the organ heard numerous times throughout this is the score of a horror film, its jarring nature against the compositions implicating audibly the trap the participants are in.

Abstract Spectrum: Abstract / Expressionist
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High

The ending resounds with an attempt to escape the hotel and the film's structure itself. The issue is, however, whether this escape is at all possible or if the overlaying repetition will start from the beginning again with X and A in their original places, like pieces in an elaborate board game or a toy construction. The results of each previous event has led to tragedy only to start again. It is only because the film itself ends that we don't see if anyone has escaped permanently.

But the film can be interpreted another way, and far from a cop-out, this deliberate lack of a clear meaning is powerful, because the idea is the hotel itself stuck in a time bubble, the outcome depending on the viewer as if they were in it as participants themselves. The conflict in the film is shown poignantly when X and A discuss, as X narrates, a pair of statues in the garden, the male protecting the woman or the woman pointing out a distant object or both. Like these statues its actively encouraged by the editing and chronological distortions to see scenes in multiple ways. My opinion of what ends the plot could be different from yours, and that is not problematic because the film is designed, like for the characters, for all viewers engaged with the film to appear back out of it through different "corridors" and exits. The result has never been replicated from any film I've seen yet and it'd take a one-off like ...Marienbad to be its mirror. The Shining comes off as its more genre based blood sibling with different intentions. Robbe-Grillet's own films from the few I've seen don't reach this level of abstraction but work their own grooves. David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE (2006) is the closest thing and is a film few will be patient with as with ...Marienbad.

Personal Opinion:
Is there entertainment is the film considering how its described? Yes, as a depiction of an endless fluctuating maze. Horror films dabble with mazes and endless cycles, but ...Marienbad has the most dreamlike and effecting. So do fantasy and science fiction movies connect to the film. If a genre is to be attempted haphazardly to be placed on the film, it's at least existential and opulent. A story of beings trapped in a labyrinth of time, a film of a film itself in conflict with itself. Far from navel gazing this is willing to have the film pull itself to pieces and while there is a way to interpret the theme as about cinema, it also works in the context of a person existing in deathless ennui, drifting through corridors not sure where they were the year before. Its only not entertainment if one comes into Last Year At Marienbad expecting a romantic comedy or Steven Seagal to appear amongst the living statues, but the DVD cover at least on my copy should warn you neither of the following appear anyway.

Befittingly, this puzzle has a cameo from the Master on the right.

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