PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

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.

10

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.