13 February 2008

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

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Directed by: Alain Renais
Written by: Alain Robbe-Grillet

Grade: A+

It’d be easy to write off Last Year at Marienbad (L’année Dernière à Marienbad) by calling it pretentious, but to do so is like calling it black-and-white, a simple statement of fact that makes no comment on the film’s quality or, more importantly, its meaning. Accept Last Year at Marienbad on its own terms and you can begin to get enveloped in its mysteries—it’s pleasures. At its heart, the film is less grandiose than simply grand, a stunning triumph of technique still unparalleled, unrivalled, even in the decades since its release. Though shot in crisp black-and-white, its story is an abstruse gray—Last Year at Marienbad is a moving puzzle that aims to set cinema free from its literalist sensibilities.

The film is set inside a sprawling, cryptic, labyrinthine hotel that mirrors the film’s narrative maze. It begins with a voice-over, describing the interior of the setting but also the movie itself: “endless corridors succeed corridors,” the narrator says of the film’s infinite possibilities of meaning. “Carpets so thick, so heavy that no sound reaches one’s ear,” he adds, suggesting that though it’s rife with clues, Last Year at Marienbad is an uncrackable mystery.

An ambiguous statue in the hotel’s gardens serves as an apt metaphor for the film, as well; the characters stand around and analyze its different possibilities of meaning, each of which makes enough sense but none of which is perfectly reasonable. Giorgio Albertazzi runs into Delphine Seyrig at the hotel and insists that they met the year before in Marienbad—or was it some place else? She insists he’s mistaken, but he has a detailed account that he goes over and over again, a story that, though told in fractured segments, seems to build to a moment of terrible violence, though said moment is never properly addressed, only hinted at from different directions.

Last Year at Marienbad creates an irrational sense of place and time that the cinema had never before approached. It’s pure dream-logic—characters stand frozen in place, pop in and out of frames, and leap to other locations without missing a beat in their conversations. Albertazzi may be telling Seyrig something in a hallway, and suddenly they’re on a dance-floor, continuing the same conversation. It adds up to film unbounded by the quaint constraints of physical reality and its limitations.

Winding tracking shots soak in the setting’s ornamental detail, including the copious mirrors that create false perspectives—like the film’s story, the visuals are full of false leads. Who are these people? Where are they? Did they really meet a year ago? And who’s that terribly serious looking man, played by Sacha Pitoëff? Seyrig’s husband? Death? Satan? Is his knack for never losing a game of nim a symbol of his power as warden of the imprisoning hotel?

Like its garden statue, Last Year at Marienbad could be read in number of ways, each seemingly valid: the characters might be dead, they might be mental patients, etc. If anything, the film seems set inside cinema itself, at least director Alain Renais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet’s vision of it and its potential. A place where, as is said of the film’s hotel setting, words do not and cannot mean anything. All of the film’s substance is implied through image, the dialogue just a series of red herrings and tautologies. (“Yes, we did meet, or no, we didn’t,” seems to be Seyring’s solution to the enigma posed by the film.)

Fragmented, uncertain, repetitious and frozen in time, the film seems to be full of ghosts, trapped in a static limbo and wandering the annals of memory. Phrases, stories, images, moments and details are constantly repeated in a seemingly endless loop, with the specifics slightly changed and the tone different by just a touch. The filmmakers establish that film has enormous poetic potential and that there’s a lot more room for adventures in cinematic storytelling than other filmmakers usually dare. Unlike the majority of films, Last Year at Marienbad’s obscure structure does not reflect the tendency we have to make sense of our own lives in the logical, narrative terms of cause-and-effect. Instead, it takes as its model the abstract senselessness of our unconscious recesses.

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