Last Year at Marienbad

Marijeta Bozovic

This is the cinematic equivalent of whale bone-enforced corset, silk from the colonies, and the kind of workmanship only extreme class disparity can provide.

Last Year at Marienbad

Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: Unrated
Subtitle: (L'année dernière à Marienbad)
First date: 1962
US DVD Release Date: 1999-03-23

Rediscovering Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad, based on Alain Robbe-Grillet's Academy Award-nominated original screenplay) recently re-released at New York’s Film Forum, feels something like unearthing a fantastic couture gown in a grandmother’s attic. On the other side of a trap door in time, one is faced with not just a dress, but the sensual presence of something uncannily beautiful, nearly impossible, and overtly problematic all at once: the cinematic equivalent of whale bone-enforced corset, silk from the colonies, and the kind of workmanship only extreme class disparity can provide.

We are back on the terrain of high modernism. Advertisements almost inevitably quote critical declarations that Marienbad is “the Finnegans Wake of movies” (does the Joyce estate get a penny every time they set the standard?). In 1960s Paris, it was “Resnais’ Picasso.”

Today, lines down the block and another extended run attest to Marienbad’s continuing ability to delight and derail. The film hit New York for the first time almost half a century ago, opening at Carnegie Cinema Hall in March of 1962. For a taste of the bewilderment it caused then -- and for the allusions to the glamorous alterity of not just European film-making, but Europe itself -- one need only glance at the contemporary reviews. For example, Bosley Crowther’s lovely New York Times review, "Be prepared for an experience such as you've never had from watching a film when you sit down to look at Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad," a truly extraordinary French film, which opened at the Carnegie Hall Cinema last night." ("The Screen: 'Last Year at Marienbad':Carnegie Hall Cinema Shows Resnais".)

My generation of cinephiles grew up with Marienbad in the guise of inspired music videos, perfume commercials, as well as the films of Peter Greenaway and David Lynch. Yet encountered on a big screen, in the company of a rapt, stumped (or, in New York, wisecracking) audience, the film still feels avant-garde.

What makes the movie -- which is still somehow an event -- is Resnais’s remarkable collaboration with Robbe-Grillet, pioneer of the nouveau roman and, until this February, possibly the best French writer alive. Neither of them reached the same cinematic heights alone, Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Robbe-Grillet’s own directing notwithstanding. Miraculously, Resnais chose neither to explain nor illustrate Robbe-Grillet’s obscure and intelligent text, writing instead a cinematic counterpoint hardly matched since.

Visually, Marienbad is a chiaroscuro fantasy, all shadow and mirrors. Long takes and frozen tableaus alternate with sudden changes of angle, frame, and costume. The script, meanwhile, doesn’t even nod in the direction of mimesis. The characters have no names, just functions (the woman, the man, the husband), forcing the most unwilling viewer into a structuralist reading. A hypnotic voice-over drones obsessively about a (partly? almost?) parodic love triangle, looped over strains of crescendoing organ. The words sometimes match up with, and make sense of, the visuals; at other times, they float right past. “The door was open,” the narrator recalls, but sometimes the door is and sometimes it isn’t.

Time, in Marienbad, is both the only thing that matters and utterly, hopelessly broken. Everything is based on nostalgia: you can’t fall in love in this place, only fall back in love. But we also never know when we stand -- long after, during, or simply removed from the film’s events.

Part of the resulting magic, if you make it this far, is that even with such bare bones of a plot, with really little more than fragments and leitmotifs to go on, the mind stubbornly works to reconstruct a story. An analogy is to stand in front of an almost-entirely abstract Kandinsky, and, from just a few lines and shapes hovering on the figurative, to create an entire human drama. Complex emotions project onto a thick black line. (It is striking, by the way, how much more sophisticated and open we are when approaching painting and the static visual arts, compared with the medium of film.)

Marienbad snares us in a baroque hotel in a resort town, midst the glittering aristocratic swarm that descends on such places in periodic migration. Last year, everyone was at Marienbad. Maybe we still are. A play-within-the-movie (Ibsen -- interpretations of whom have always snapped between social and realist to mystical-Symbolic) introduces the love triangle plot that then spills over into the rest of the movie. But everything is already awry: the actors seem positively human compared to the artificially frozen audience watching the play. The sumptuous, unbelievable costumes by Coco Chanel (really the third master collaborator of the film) are oddly foregrounded, making most characters as secondary as mannequins. The sheer presence of gilt, statues, paintings, and mirrors furthers the confusion. The line between persons and things is awfully porous.

The narrator (Albertazzi) tries to persuade a beautiful woman (Seyrig) to run away with him and leave her husband. He seems to think their affair started last year, at Marienbad, but he might be lying, or confusing her with someone else. She in turn either cannot remember or is pretending not to. One or both -- or the camera eye -- could be insane, blurring fiction and reality beyond hope of reparation. After all, one went to such places to recover and rest, whether from exhaustion or sheer boredom or neurasthenia. Albertazzi is either the most or least sane person here. The husband meanwhile (a wonderfully ghoulish Pitoëff) entertains himself with a parlor game only he can win. What at first seems a simple logic trick takes on metaphysical significance: like death himself, the husband always wins at the end.

The three replay their own stylized, ritualistic tragicomedy, something akin to Italian commedia dell’Arte, with Seyrig as an anesthetized Columbine. It works as a formal exercise, a deconstruction of literary and cinematic roles, but other readings hold as well. A good psychoanalyst might start with the climax that never comes. The film obsessively circles but cannot bear to confront some repressed traumatic event, an aesthetic and emotional epicenter. We can deduce that it is some terrible act of violence inflicted on the woman, but real or imaginary, rape or murder? If murder, by which of the two? When? As in Robbe-Grillet’s novels (The Voyeur, or Jealousy, 1955 and 1957 respectively), the border between love and violence isn’t merely shaky: it’s just not there.

In the 1960s, the French nouveau roman declared war on mimesis, psychological development, subjectivity, continuity -- and most of the other conventions inherited from the 19th century novel. Sticking instead to the surface of things, working only with fragmentation and pattern, interested in psychoanalytic rather than psychological truth, the new novel was itself deeply cinematic.

Marienbad is a direct continuation of the project: voila the nouveau film. Sight and sound compound rather than ease the intellectual challenge, and the ethical trap is the same, for the camera eye forcibly transforms us into the narrator’s demented double. In The Voyeur, the reader similarly can’t escape the eponymous role, and with morbid and libidinous curiosity is audience to, and implicated in, the rape and murder of a very young girl. Robbe-Grillet reads something like Nabokov, but a lot less kind.

The world of Marienbad is hermetically sealed, as so many viewers have pointed out. But the why of it, meaning after potential meaning, shifts laterally without losing the power to suffocate. To remain, as Robbe-Grillet so likes to do, on the level of the glittering surface, we might just watch for the decadence of the drifting aristocracy. Marienbad is a fractured, cubist reflection of Jean Renoir’s 1939 The Rules of the Game; the source material could almost be the same. In fact, Mlle Coco designed the costumes for both. (Chanel finished work on The Rules just before WWII and embarked on Marienbad not long after returning to Paris and fashion; the French public, however, had not yet forgiven her affair with a Nazi officer and spy.)

Marienbad is so obviously “about” formal experimentation that the hint of social critique might sound preposterous, but the two are neither mutually exclusive nor was Robbe-Grillet blind to that other angle. Jealousy, perhaps his most famous novel, sets a similar nightmare between A… (the beautiful, perhaps unfaithful wife), Franck, and an absent third-person narrator (the jealous husband, present only in such details as an extra place-setting at dinner) on a colonial banana plantation. Once we get past the shock of the formal exposition, we realize the three are trapped not only by their pre-ordained roles -- i.e., by a cruel creator -- but by their enforced distance from the dehumanized “natives”, as well.

As in Lynch’s later films then, we sink from one layer of meaning to another, but never escape from the vicious circle. Formally, Marienbad is style dissected; psychoanalytically, repetition-compulsion filmed; politically, the consequence of oppression. We might add: metaphysically, eternal return. Horribly, this center does hold.

The mirror, or doubled-mirror, is the visual symbol for all this as well as a leitmotif. As so often in self-referential film, the mirror stands in for the camera itself. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 (commenced 1964) “Mirror” recreates and captures works of visual art, while dipping into the characters’ lives and immediate history. The poetry of the voice-over, more than any semblance of plot, invests the movie with continuity, meaning, and lyricism: Tarkovsky’s camera is a kind of mirror that reads. In Marienbad however, Resnais’ camera only displays its affinity for other mirrors.

In the end, it is rather perfect that this 1961 masterpiece of the cinematic avant-garde has left its deepest influence on (besides Lynch, Greenaway) the world of fashion. Both are plagued with mirrors and obsessed with time. To be fashionable is to be timely. But the glamour and mystery that fashion must tap into to really excite us -- what Chanel, for example, does so inimitably well -- is displaced further, onto an idealized past or a fantastic future. Only something that is able to twist time into such sophisticated and paradoxical illusions can hope to beat the clock for the ultimate prize, and be deemed timeless.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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