Although I have compared both the Criterion and Optimum releases, I have sadly done so on different machines. Whilst the UK Marienbad is certainly region A-B compatible, it would not play on my US PS3 at all so, as my standby Samsung does not display the encode (!) and I have not been able to ascertain otherwise from anywhere else (as yet), I am under the impression that Optimum's disc is using a VC-1 transfer that is, by my stop 'n' start testing, not quite as good as Criterion's MPEG-4.
Trust me, though, this was hardly the most stringent of comparison tests, and the Optimum image still looks very, very good.
Resnais' 2.35:1 image retains its layer of grain throughout and produces an achingly film-like presentation. Print damage actually seems to be more in evidence with the UK disc than the fabulously and laboriously restored Criterion transfer. A few more blemishes and nicks, contrast wavers and wobbles appear, though all, I should add, are minimal and shouldn't constitute a concern for anyone. Contrast, on the whole, is excellent, though I would say that Criterion has the edge on the blacks, which look deeper, thicker and better delineated. Whites are fine, though I did notice a couple of instances when blooming or fuzzing occurred around the edges of X's otherwise immaculate collars and an occasional hint of shimmering during panning shots that glanced across table-lamps or lights. Again, nothing to be worried about, just things that I didn't seem to notice on the US disc. Something I loved about the Criterion transfer was how Seyrig's diamond earrings sparkled but kept their clarity, and I'm happy to say that Optimum's disc does this just as well. Equally, eyes have that same lustre and gleam, faces retain the same level of texture and those glorious panning and roving shots remain smooth and fluid at all times.
Detail is tremendous. The long-shots overlooking the gardens are just as wowing, and the finite detail in the bushes, the statuary and the distant view of the chateau and its windows, balconies and verandas just as intricate and highly delineated. Delphine Seyrig's gowns - Chanel and Evein - are perfectly captured with light and shade, detail in the fabric and the sultry trace of her skin beneath. Likewise, her hair and makeup are resplendent in 1080p, making the transfer worth a thumbs-up on their own.
I had no major irritation with edge enhancement with the transfer, although I did see some on the odd black-suited shoulder. But, by the way, the odd haloing effect during the heightened emotions of the “bedroom scene” is purely intentional and par of Resnais' stylised silent-movie look.
Overall, this is a fine transfer. I think that the Criterion edition has the edge over it, but this is still a strong and respectful image.
This UK disc for Last Year At Marienbad comes with French DTS-HD MA 2-channel audio, whereas the US Criterion has uncompressed mono as well as the un-restored original audio track that director Alain Resnais insisted be supplied as an option for purists. Having heard all three tracks, but only being able to properly compare the two US tracks to one another, I can't say whether or not this DTS track marries-up perfectly with the uncompressed alternative. But, I still had no problems with this at all and didn't notice any hiccups.
The sound is clean, clear and nicely presented. The rich, rapid French dialogue comes over well and is never lost, swamped or drowned. There are no damaging crackles or pops and the track sounds restored but never artificial in the way that Resnais, justifiably, fears. Francis Seyrig's music is crisply reproduced and that elegantly sinister pipe-organ serenades us with a thickly eerie cadence that issues forth with a steady and consistent tone.
Individual effects such as the shattering of the glass, the shrill echoing of the pistol shots in the shooting gallery, the voices of the guest and the sound of footsteps on gravel all come over well and with good clarity and a sense of depth and positioning within the mix. There really isn't much else that I can say, actually. Last Year At Marienbad is hardly bombastic or aggressive stuff, but nor does it sound meek and mild, either. This is a fine presentation, even if we don't get the original track as an alternative.
Optimum's UK release (with Studio Canal) of Last Year At Marienbad fares reasonably well compared to Criterion's US Blu-ray release. In fact, although this disc loses the original, un-restored audio option that Resnais authorised, as well as the fatter booklet of essays and the newly recorded audio interview with the director, it actually contains a documentary that the Criteron disc doesn't.
What we have is the 18-minute Introduction by film critic Ginette Vincendeau, who discusses the confused reception that the film had and how, at the time, it became the figurehead of this new convention-challenging mode of cinema, causing controversy in the process. She talks, in depth, about the film's themes, the obscurity of the plot (or lack of plot), and she makes possibly the best of a very difficult task in summarising and examining what we actually see and understand in the movie. Her expounding of the “rape” motif and its denial aspect makes for a compelling and quite convincing theory.
The subtitled “In The Labyrinth Of Marienbad” lasts for 33 minutes and goes comprehensively into the literary foundation of Robbe-Gillet and the awareness that his “New” style inspired in the field of filmmaking, as well, dovetailing in a collaboration with Resnais and the beginnings of the French New Wave. Their combined mindsets - the aesthetic and the intellectual - collided in Marienbad. Cunningly, the documentary is laid out in a mimic of the rules of the film's fictional game of chance so expertly presided-over by M.
Two short film from Resnais come next. We have the 13-minute Le chant du styrene (The Styrene's Song) and the 22-minute Toute La Memoire du Monde (All The Memory Of The World) that show off his fluid visual style.
Then we get the lengthy and a bit stuffy documentary on Alain Robbe-Gillet, which runs to 48 minutes and provides of background and insight into the ideas, work and inspirations of the late author-turned-director.
Then, besides the film's trailer and some BD-Live functionality (which promises an interview at some time), we have the booklet. Now, sadly, I cannot comment on this as my check disc arrived sans booklet. But, I know that it isn't meant to be on a par with the Criterion one, that is certainly well-stacked with opinion, background and critique.
Difficult, repetitive and magical, Last Year At Marienbad revels in confounding you.
It is a terrific film to admire, then, but a hard one to love. It is precisely this kind of movie that critics, historians and buffs cite as “important”, “challenging” and “brave”, before insisting that you aren't a proper film-fan if you haven't got it in your collection. But whilst I, for one, am happy to have two versions of it on Blu-ray, I would not seek to presume that there are many out there, who are not either already aware of the film, or are a fan, anyway, that would warm to it. Resnais' dream-affair requires patience and a willingness to just allow its imagery, sensations and mood wash over you and, being as I am the only person I know who actually likes the film, this may well be asking a lot from too many people.
But, if you are willing to take the plunge and do so in the knowledge that this is most definitely not playing by any of the conventional rules, then I think you will be amply rewarded by a decidedly clever and insidious piece of filmmaking. The atmosphere evoked is superlative. Seyrig is utterly bewitching. And the fact that it positively demands further viewing means that booking-in to this limbo-locked palace ensures that you become one of the guests equally ensnared by Resnais' bizarre fable, as well.
A great all-round package from Optimum that almost rivals Criterion's may be slightly let down by the transfer, but there is still very little to complain about with this scintillating image.
Last Year At Marienbad, as perplexing and as unforgiving as it is, comes highly recommended.
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