Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Last Year at Marienbad


At a beautiful, lushly appointed country estate, a man and a woman meet, maybe for the first time, maybe after a year apart. The man (Giorgio Albertazzi) believes they have met before, that they had plans to run away together, that she told him to wait a year, which he did. The woman (Delphine Seyrig), however, does not remember, or pretends she doesn't, or only remembers fragmentary details: in any event, she tells him they have never met before, that she has never been where he says they met, that she won't go away with him. This is the basic form of Alain Resnais' enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad, which resolutely circles around and around, patiently exploring the potential variations on this vaguely defined story. The main characters are never named, their relationships never clarified. The woman possibly has a husband (Sacha Pitoëff), or maybe he's just a friend, or a companion, or maybe he doesn't know her very well at all.

And so on. The man provides the film's voiceover, a rhythmic, repetitive mantra that cycles through the same sets of details over and over again, as though reciting a well-known text and improvising subtle variations on it as he goes along. As Resnais' camera wanders fluidly through the corridors of this hauntingly quiet mansion, the man tells the woman about how they met a year ago, embellishing the story with new details, new nuances, each time he tells it. They met in the gardens, talked about the statues and the weather, walked amid the neat rows of pyramidal bushes. He went to her room to see her, but she was afraid. Of him? Of her husband? She was seductive and warm, smiling her shy smile at him. Or she was cold, distant, staring off into space, abstracted and inaccessible. The story never takes on a concrete form, never solidifies, and yet with each new iteration of the man's narration its emotional undercurrents become clearer: the hot/cold inconstancy of romance; the conflict between nostalgia and its enemy, forgetfulness; the ways in which memory and fantasy are woven together in the mind. This probing, abstract material is largely the product of the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script for the film and whose sensibility is as important to its overall effect as Resnais' aesthetic.

The thematic underpinnings of the film are Robbe-Grillet's, but the film's sense of mystery and tension arises just as much from Resnais' strange, unsettling imagery, which alternates between static, rigorously posed compositions and languid tracking shots that flow through the hallways of the mansion. The film opens with a lengthy sequence in which there is hardly any sign of human presence. Without any context, the man's voiceover begins its relentless circular onslaught, repeating itself and describing the house and its empty hallways, while Resnais' camera wanders along the surface of the estate's ceiling, its ornately decorated walls and archways and dangling, brightly shining chandeliers. The house seems to be devoid of life, though soon distant figures begin to appear, way down at the far end of a hallway or flanking a doorway, and finally the camera wanders across the blank, expressionless faces of a group of theatergoers at a performance, treating their unmoving faces and unseeing eyes with the same abstracted care as a carved wooden design or a crystal chandelier.


Indeed, the film consistently treats its characters like objects, pieces to be maneuvered on some kind of weird game board. One of the film's most famous shots is a long shot of the garden outside the mansion, its central walk surrounded by carefully shaped pyramidal bushes, with several people standing in the center of the path, spread out as though placed in specific places to form a pattern, their long shadows stretching away from them at oblique angles. It looks like an abstract geometric design, with human elements interacting aesthetically with static decorative elements. The man likes to tell stories about statues, to imagine rich histories and complex emotional meanings behind each of their poses, their gestures, permanently frozen: finding human qualities in unliving stone. Resnais' film takes the same form, weaving stories around these living, breathing statues. The film's people are invariably stiff and sedate, staring off into the distance, wandering aimlessly through the corridors of this austere mansion, engaging in chit-chat that's marked by long, uncomfortable silences. The man looks at a statue and says, "that might as well be you and I," and he's right.

This is a potent depiction of alienation and disconnection. The estate where these events take place is described as a place to "rest," a place where nobody does much of anything or says anything that might stir up reactions. That's why the conversations in the film are so resolutely inane, the atmosphere so sleepy and dreary. The man might want the woman to remember, to recover the past she's forgotten, but it seems like a hopeless project in a place that seems designed for forgetting, for letting go, for living in a kind of zombie-like daze. The central couple's wanderings are inevitably accompanied by the omnipresent hum of the film's soundtrack, which consists almost entirely of the eerie, minimal organ drones of Marie-Louise Girod, a placid musical expression of ennui. The man and the woman, regardless of whatever history they may or may not have together, are isolated from one another here, separated by the enervating decor and the suffocating pallor of the surroundings. In fact, the film may do too good a job of capturing this sense of alienation: its repetitive rhythms and insistence on draining these people of any trace of humanity can be soporific and frustrating.

The man and the woman are always self-consciously creating and recreating themselves, always searching for their story and its ending. Several times this ending plays out, never to their satisfaction, and the man, metafictionally controlling the flow of the film with his narration, starts over, trying to reach a different resolution. The man and the woman simply encounter one another, over and over again, their present and their supposed past blending together seamlessly, erasing any continuity in place or time. Scenes jump abruptly from one locale to another, reflecting the unsteady foundations of the man's story. They are both uncertain how and where things have taken place, or indeed if they've even taken place, and the voiceover seems to be in search of a coherent narrative: this happened here, or maybe it was there; there was a mirror on the wall, no, it was a painting, or no, it was above the dresser instead.

Throughout it all, Resnais' images lend a concrete sensory quality to these ephemeral memories, capturing with his sumptuous cinematography every possibility, every variation, letting each of these stories exist if only in images. Thus, when the film ends and this couple finally goes off together, it is the ending they were looking for, but it doesn't feel any more or less real than anything else in the film. It is impossible not to think, as Resnais' camera drifts subtly upward: maybe it doesn't happen this way, maybe they part, maybe they meet again in a year, at an ornate country estate, maybe he tries to convince her that they met before, or maybe she remembers now and he's forgotten, or maybe, as they wander the halls of this mansion, distorted by mirrors, posed like statues, maybe they never met, maybe they don't even exist at all...

3 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

"Indeed, the film consistently treats its characters like objects, pieces to be maneuvered on some kind of weird game board."

Yes sir, that is a fact, methinks. And it's quite a persuasive examination of "alienation and disconnection" as you mention in your analysis of that famous garden shot (which looks great here on this screen cap).

I personally rate this film above HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, but that's a story for another day. Among Resnais's distinguished output (has any director opened his career with three films to match HIROSHIMA, MARIENBAD and MURIEL?) I would only rank his Holocause short NUIT ET BRUILIARD at this level of greatness. But of course they are disimilar, mostly.

"Louise Girod, a placid musical expression of ennui. The man and the woman, regardless of whatever history they may or may not have together, are isolated from one another here, separated by the enervating decor and the suffocating pallor of the surroundings. In fact, the film may do too good a job of capturing this sense of alienation: its repetitive rhythms and insistence on draining these people of any trace of humanity can be soporific and frustrating."

I could copy and paste this whole review as a model of definitive film criticism, but why bother. I'll just come back to it again after I watch MARIENBAD the next time.

The aforementioned MURIEL, Resnais's third film is out on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD, a fact I'm sure you well-aware of.

Pat said...

Ed-

I will sheepishy admit that I slept through most of "Last Year at Marienbad" when it was shown in my college "Intro. to Film Studies" class. But I like to believe I'd appreciate it more now, and your review here makes me want to revisit it all that much more. Last time I checked, it wasn't available through Netflix - might I ask if you were able to find it on DVD, and where?

Ed Howard said...

Sam - I would say that Night and Fog is the best Resnais film I've seen, though it's obviously quite distinct from his other work in a lot of ways. I love Hiroshima mon amour as well.

Pat - I can't say I'm surprised; as I said, the film's so good at conveying ennui and alienation that it occasionally (or more than occasionally, even) tips over into actually being boring and alienating. That said, I also obviously found it really interesting and certainly worthy of another look. It's currently only available on DVD in Region 2, but that will soon change with the forthcoming Criterion edition. I would wait until that comes out, especially since it will probably be better than the merely acceptable UK disc.