DVD Review: “Last Year at Marienbad”

My list of favorite comics-inspired movies would include the first two Superman films, the first two X-Men, Batman Returns, Spider-Man 2, Ghost World, the 1980 Flash Gordon, and Last Year at Marienbad.

That last one again?

If you were around in 1961 and an arthouse devotee, Last Year at Marienbad (oh, let’s get that title out in the original French, and pronounce it as best we can: L’Année dernière à Marienbad) was all the rage. In its day, the various card and matchstick games played in the film enjoyed a brief vogue, as did the “Marienbad look” established by co-star Delphine Seyrig, with her bird-like Chanel creations and a severely bobbed coiffure (fashioned not for posterity but to cover up hair damage). A two-disc Criterion Collection DVD, as nicely tricked-out as the film, lets us relive the moment.

You may not have seen Last Year at Marienbad but you’ve caught glimpses of it, in numerous other films. The hotel setting, the glorious gliding camerawork, and the time bending instantly recall The Shining. Synecdoche, New York, where theater director Philip Seymour Hoffman compartmentalizes his entire life history in a warehouse space, has an echo or two through its rabbit warrens of rooms. Pretty much any movie that messes with our head by toying with the clock, including Memento, the Spanish film Open Your Eyes, and its memento Vanilla Sky, owes a debt to director Alain Resnais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet for blazing the path. Blur liked it enough to recreate it for its 1994 single “To the End,” from Parklife:

This is a fabulously observant video; Resnais, no stranger to pop despite a career steeped in intellectualism, would probably get a kick out of it. And, though it turns the film’s trio into a quartet and had to make do with different gardens (the movie was shot in and around Munich), it fits a lot of Marienbad’s 94 minutes into its four, including the repetition of French phrases in voiceover, miniatures of remarkable sequences (like the shooting gallery and the “violating” tracking shot, with similar lighting), and an early 90s take on the Marienbad look. The film’s plot is video-thin, but its suggestiveness is dense.

It centers on three characters, unnamed in the film but given designations. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches A (Seyrig, later the star of one of my favorite vampire movies, Daughters of Darkness) at a gloomily beautiful hotel, telling her that they had met last year at Marienbad (in the Czech Republic, though nothing is to be taken too literally). Though A demurs X persists, telling her that she had agreed to leave her husband and run off with him. The cadaverous husband, M (Sacha Pitoeff), appears—but perhaps he is her guardian, or more her caretaker than her spouse. Maybe X and A, who communicate in a stylized, stilted way, were previously acquainted; maybe they’re destined to consummate a relationship based on violence, not love. Who are the other people in the hotel, who for the most part exist to stand in frieze-like compositions and bear silent witness to the triangle? Why do the people, but not the trees, cast shadows in the gardens (pictured below)? Why are the same scenes playing out in different rooms that don’t appear to be in the same hotel? Are we in a hotel, or in a limbo? Is it a dream? A ghost story? Does finding out, or, rather, not finding out, challenge you, or make you wish you’d rented Paul Blart: Mall Cop instead?

The French trailer makes this much clear: You are the co-author, bringing your interpretation to the story. Some resented the responsibility. Oddly, Bosley Crowther, the stick-in-the-mud New York Times critic who railed against provocative movies like Bonnie and Clyde, swooned; Pauline Kael, usually the first at the vanguard, called it an “aimless disaster.” On a disc extra film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to it as an extreme example of the French New Wave that anticipated post-modernism; I first encountered it in the book The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time, alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (now out on DVD), and Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, all movies I’ve also come to appreciate.

As they say in Latin, and maybe in Marienbad, res ipsa loquitor: the thing speaks for itself. The disc, also on Blu-ray, does however do an excellent job speaking for it. The enhanced widescreen transfer is sensitive to the nuances of Sacha Vierny’s framing and lighting, both of them exacting. Few films are designed as consciously as this one, and in a strong presentation everything harmonizes; Delphine Seyrig’s brother, Francis, composed an evocative score highlighted by the use of the pipe organ that has never seemed as wedded to the image as it does now. A fine documentary details the making of the film, a happier spirit-of-adventure experience than you might imagine. Vincendeau handles the interpretations; the nuclear survivors one seems like a stretch to me, but the Cold War, and Resnais’ prior arthouse hit Hiroshima, Mon Amour, were in the air then. Resnais directed the shattering Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955) and the disc has two more of his non-narrative shorts, one about the impact of our written history (as conveyed, Marienbad-style, by the camera prowling the Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale) and a fun color program shot at a plastics maker.

The 87-year-old Resnais, who won a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, contributes a rare audio interview that focuses on his collaboration with the writer he slips and calls the “other Alain” at one point. He and the quintessential “new novelist” had a fruitful relationship, with Robbe-Grillet turning in a script, based on an idea Resnais approved, that was detailed down to the sound cues. Their one-of-a-kind picture was not without inspiration; look for a Hitchcock cameo in the film (they admired Vertigo), nods to favorite silent movies and serials, and a tip of the hat to “Mandrake the Magician.” Once you know that comics influenced the film, it’s hard not to see it as a live-action graphic novel, made up of shots rather than panels.

The playfulness, however, fell victim to interpretation. Resnais, and the accompanying booklet, allude to Robbe-Grillet’s later disenchantment with Last Year at Marienbad. Basically, Resnais saw it as about persuasion and love; Robbe-Grillet, brutality and rape. Watch, listen, absorb, and co-author.

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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  • David_E

    As usual, a terrific write-up. And this one, trés intellectual!

    (Reaches for Paul Blart: Mall Cop …)

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    It's a smart movie, but enjoyabe in a puzzle-box way, if you know what you're getting into.

    I'm ready for LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD MALL.

  • http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/ Glenn Kenny

    Tremendous piece, really perceptive. Well played, sir.

  • http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/ Glenn Kenny

    Tremendous piece, really perceptive. Well played, sir.

  • http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/ Glenn Kenny

    Tremendous piece, really perceptive. Well played, sir.

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