June 23, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad)
Directed by Alain Resnais
1961, 94 minutes, In French with English subtitles

I don't eat red meat, so it gives me no pleasure to cook a sacred cow like Last Year at Marienbad, an incontestably iconic and beautiful curiosity that simply hasn't held up as the masterpiece it's gushed to be. Perhaps in the context of 1961, this legendary collaboration between twin titans Alain Resnais and nouveau roman writer-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet was then the epitome of formalist, modernist European film artistry; it's a highly reactionary pooh-poohing of traditional narrative storytelling, academically detached from the confines of space, time and meaning to a meandering extreme of icy impenetrability. (It would be easy to see any single scene replayed verbatim as a spoof of Euro-pretentiousness on The Simpsons.) That's not to say it's entirely plotless, as momentum and suspense build from a loosely centralized, simple drama: a well-dressed man credited as X (Giorgio Albertazzi) pursues stunning woman A (Delphine Seyrig) inside and out of a massive baroque hotel. Did she agree to rendezvous with him a year after their last encounter, as he asserts in an elliptically repeated but varied conversation, or have they even met at all? Are her hazy recollections real, or being seductively implanted by his silver tongue?

Last Year at Marienbad

Beyond their unemotionally elusive banter, their incessantly shifting locales (including what may be the most precise analog match cut in history, in which Seyrig seamlessly twists around into a different room), Sacha Vierny's luscious 'Scope cinematography, and the drool-worthy costume porn (Coco Chanel famously dressed Seyrig), only non-sequiturs and irrational questions remain. Who are the other patrons of this magnificently Rococo-rific establishment, and why do they disappear and rematerialize, often standing as unsettlingly still as mannequins? Is this an unconscious sci-fi epic about aliens or wormholes or dreams? Could everyone be spinning their wheels in some purgatorial afterlife? Why do the people in the garden cast long shadows when the conically sculpted trees cast none at all? It's an unsolvable mystery that's far too calculated in its intangibility, a film that's less concerned with its relationship to viewers as it is with our post-game coffee talk. I certainly respect it as a text (would those Steadicam hallway shots in The Shining have existed without it? I'd also wager Altman's Quintet has played a game or two of Nim, and then there's that Blur video.), but as a cinematic experience, its lifeless superficiality frustrates me because it is so visually striking. Should my combined disappointment and dispassionate admiration be considered a complex thumbs-up? Why do I love Inland Empire, as arguably unfocused and indecipherable, but have little use for a second viewing here? (Yes, after years of hype in my cinephilic upbringing, I only recently sat down with Marienbad for the first time this week. What of it?)

Last Year at Marienbad

As I began to compartmentalize my feelings (pros and cons, I suppose; in theory, this film's surrealist sensibilities should've known the secret handshake to mine), I realized that the film actually shares quite a bit in common with Jim Jarmusch's equally divisive puzzler The Limits of Control. (A quick note: while Marienbad's divisive history is regularly written about—between winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival to Pauline Kael's "aimless disaster" dismissal and its inclusion in the Medveds' book "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time"—anything less than over-the-moon praise today seems to be condemned with smug, oh-you-just-don't-get-it condescension.) In Mark Polizzotti's essay, included with Criterion's unsurprisingly comprehensive 2-disc (or Blu-Ray) set, he writes about the mixed reaction, and the film's title could be easily replaced:

The ambivalence is understandable. Marienbad [The Limits of Control] blatantly toys with our expectations regarding plotline, character development, continuity, conflict, resolution—all those elements we’ve come to expect from a satisfying motion picture. Like its nameless hero, the film relentlessly pursues us with a barrage of assertions while giving us little to hold on to as convincingly true, until in the end...

Last Year at Marienbad

So now I'm truly flummoxed. Why does the older film seem like a musty artifact to me (a forced visit to Grandma's house!), and Jarmusch's latest such a rich, buoyant and bravely uncompromising experience? Are both just products of their eras, and in time, The Limits of Control too will feel like a faded trend, punished for its self-aware, stunted ambiguities in its own hermetically sealed prison of visual lushness? Maybe now is the time to ask the negative nellies who couldn't find use for the Jarmusch film to discuss their feelings on Marienbad. Form over function, style vs. content, rock beats scissors—I certainly don't care about broad qualifiers. However, when neither film resonates with my personal experiences by their artificiality alone, yet only one profoundly engages my worldview on beauty and art, should I be questioning the differences between the films or my instincts? Maybe Marienbad crawled into the corridors of my skull as it was intended after all.

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Posted by ahillis at June 23, 2009 1:28 PM


I cannot say that I utterly enjoyed Marienbad, but at least I couldn't dismiss it. I felt intrigued by the over the top stylization and other-worldly-ness, which formed an experience in its own right (much like Inland empire I guess). As such, it was everything that Hiroshima mon amour was not, for me. That one I just dismissed as over the top pretentious 60s babble that constantly annoyed me.

Posted by: Olaf K. at June 24, 2009 11:38 PM

Wow I cannot disagree more with this review. I found both Inland Empire and Limits of Control aimless, boring and a retread of what directors like Resnais did so well originally. Marienbad still feels very fresh and interesting to me, much more so than these contemporary films. Perhaps you should have seen Marienbad first? Can someone still appreciate The Shining if they watched the Simpsons parody before the actual movie?

Posted by: Fred S. at June 26, 2009 1:59 AM

Olaf, I so disliked Hiroshima Mon Amour that I've never even wanted to see Marienbad. Now, I'm hearing that "Les Herbes Folles," Resnais' latest effort is coming to TIFF and that it's quite a bit different. I think I'm more likely to see that than to take a chance on Marienbad.

Posted by: James McNally at June 26, 2009 9:36 AM

Sorry, but you and I are gonna have to break up now.

Kidding! But seriously, I respect your right not to enjoy the film...and yet you're still wrong! I will convince you of this once I get around to writing up my post about how "Groundhog Day" is in fact a remake of this "Marienbad."

Posted by: Glenn Kenny at June 30, 2009 7:11 AM

"Why does the older film seem like a musty artifact to me (a forced visit to Grandma's house!)"

Yikes! I've heard Marienbad called a lot of things, but "musty artifact"? Holy shit! I think it still smells as fresh as a daisy... As much as I love Inland Empire and The Limits of Control, they ain't in the same league as Marienbad. Not even close. And I would be willing to bet that Lynch and Jarmusch would agree.

Posted by: Adrian Marcato at June 30, 2009 8:57 AM

He said, she said, they said. We're talking about a widely praised "masterpiece" I had been waiting years to see for the first time in a proper format, so perhaps my expectations were impossibly high. (And I like plenty of Resnais!) That a given, I haven't read any actual arguments in the comments here that demand I re-evaluate my disappointment. Seen through 2009 eyes, the film seems overrated, outmoded, and iconic only for its fashion, cinematography and puzzling "-ness." It's an otherwise shallow work of art, to my senses.

You may keep it, my nostalgic friends.

Posted by: Aaron Hillis at June 30, 2009 4:59 PM

Wow. I was kidding the first time. Now I think that you are to this film what Tom O'Neil is to Murnau's "Sunrise." No joke.

Posted by: Glenn Kenny at June 30, 2009 7:39 PM

For those who wonder what Glenn is referring to:

But I'd call putting Aaron in his company a bit of a stretch, in my humble opinion.

I think Aaron's laid out pretty well why he was ultimately disappointed in the film, to his own frustration, while also leaving it open and intriguing enough where people should see it and judge it for themselves. I really want to see the Criterion DVD now more than ever, even if I recall having a similar reaction in film school many years ago (to be fair, that was a crummy print and I was beyond tired in class that day, and also 21 years old). So he's piqued my curiosity which I think any good review, positive or negative, of an important film, can do.


Posted by: Craig P at July 1, 2009 10:26 AM

There is nothing academic in this movie. It's NOT an intelligent movie and not supposed to be. I love Marienbad because its rhythm, style, atmosphere and visuals. People dislike this movie because they take it as a riddle or homework.

Marienbad is far more different from Resnais's other movies than critics usually say. Hiroshima, Muriel and Guerre are intellectual, political and moral movies, this is not.

Posted by: Fiilistelija at July 14, 2009 9:41 AM

You know, people keep using the word "impenetrable", and I just don't see. Complex, yes. Unconventional, certainly. But there's a decided discipline to the film that makes it penetrable, you just have to, well, pay attention.

Posted by: Dan Seitz at July 28, 2009 1:04 PM
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