Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
By Eric Jessen 7/22/09
I can recall entering the library on a dreary day, or maybe it was sunny, walking up the staircase to the third floor, or maybe it was the second, each step awkwardly small, forcing me to skip two, or maybe they were awkwardly big? I searched through the stacks of VHS tapes, or maybe they were DVDs, and found Last Year at Marienbad. I had heard it was worth seeing from reading Roger Ebert, or maybe it was Pauline Kael? I checked it out and noticed on the back someone had written, “this is SO boring,” or maybe that was Bresson's L'argent? I went home and watched the movie with my brother, or maybe I was alone, or maybe I've never seen Last Year at Marienbad before at all?
In Last Year at Marienbad, this is the kind of arduous journey we take into the depths of failing memory or just dream. We sit in awe, perplexed, shaking our heads, rubbing our eyes, either to avoid falling a sleep, or hoping to awaken from a nightmare. It's bewildering, frustrating and hypnotic. All of it or none of it may have happened. It is impossible to distinguish real from dream. Eventually just give up, but try to stay awake, because Last Year at Marienbad has redeeming value?
Don't try to understand it, don't try to put the pieces of the “story,” together. Try to ignore all of your conventions of movie watching. There is no story, there are barely any characters, just ornaments to the so called hotel. They are like phantoms, some of them only statues, manikins, and fashionable black-tie zombies. They seem absorbed into the hotel like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
The camera, at first, only observes the hotel. It has the mood of a funeral, organ music for a haunted house, bizarre enough to be a Twilight Zone episode. The building is mournful, huge, luxurious, silent, deserted, “encrusted with cold paneling, stucco, molding, and marble.” Then, after the first 15 minutes, the camera moves with more urgency: running through the halls, peeking into every conversation, trying to find the reason it's here or the person it's interested in.
Eventually it finds a beautiful woman “A” (Delphine Seyrig), her husband “M” (Sascha Pitoeff), and a stranger “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi). The stranger approaches the woman and insists that they met the previous year, arranged to meet again this year, and planned to run away together. The woman at first insists “No.” But gradually acts more uncertain. They talk and talk, incessantly, about if they met before, if they'll meet again. Sometimes, using the exact same words in different places or wearing different clothes. Their conversations become self-parody, mocking of the previous conversations. The movie progresses like a kid running down a steep hill, unable to stop or change direction without tumbling. But after 95 minutes, the kid and the movie reach the end of the hill and fall flat on its face. Peeling its head off the cement street floor, the throaty narrator says “you were even now, losing yourself forever in the still night, alone with me.” I guess bringing “X” and “A” together, or perhaps simply forgetting, waking up, or finally remembering.
What is left from Last Year at Marienbad? Black and white photography may never have been done better. Despite confusion, irritation, we are left with a feeling. Our main character, “A” and “X,” have a desperation similar to Elle and Lui, in another of Alain Resnais films, Hiroshima Mon Amour. Elle and Lui were fearful and desperate to make the most of their final days of life. “A” and “X” seem to be in the first days of realizing they're dead, “shadows,” trapped in hell, trying to escape.
Last Year at Marienbad is an unparalleled experience, almost indescribable, like a distant memory or a dream.