“I can lose ... but I always win.”
A meditation on attraction, arousal and obsession, Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad may as well be a ghost story for the forlorn of the Atomic Age. It is also, without a doubt, one of the most unusual, elusive and talked-about films of the French New Wave, confounding and annoying as many viewers as it entrances. It is also one of a very select number of films that has been specifically designed to challenge the conventions of linear narrative, the accepted mechanics of storytelling and development of character. Possibly inspiring such noted brethren as Chris Nolen's Memento, Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, or even Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or, visually speaking, his adaptation of The Shining, Resnais' marvellous camp-splitting fantasy/melodrama sets out to both bewilder and transfix. Written by the celebrated “New Literature” author, Alain Robbe-Grillet, but augmented and evolved by Resnais, Last Year At Marienbad is elliptical, haunting and enigmatic - three distinctive qualities that sound great in any review, dissection or filmic analysis, but can strike utter fear and even contempt in the hearts and minds of audiences weaned on pigeon-holed genre-bannered product and who demand to know exactly what they are going to get from a film before settling down to watch it. During the Swinging Sixties, the start of which saw Marienbad receive its premier (1961), this type of critic-baiting, conception-smashing cause-celebre was all the rage with the artistic, authority-swerving culture-set. Hollywood had is dark side, elements of a socially maladjusted and renegade breed were beginning to commandeer the horror, the Western and the war film. British Cinema was exploding with urban dramas, hard-hitting character studies and gritty crime sagas. But the French New Wave was indignant about the very composition of plotting, regardless of what the subject matter might be, or how how controversial. It seemed to be opening a door to a more intellectual study of image, mood and sensation, albeit dressed-up with chic performers and even more chice and elaborate camerawork.
Or was it all just so much pretentious pap?
Resnais' adored/maligned film takes place within the mesmerising and labyrinthine halls, salons, chambers and parlours of an unknown European palace. Amidst a congregation of equally unknown guests - all bedecked in their finest attire - a man, known only as X, and played by Giorgio Albertazzi (intense, brooding, relentless) pursues a woman, A, played by Delphine Seyrig (tragic, lost, vulnerable and beautifully vacant), claiming to have had an affair with her the year before at some other villa, he can't quite remember which, and insisting, doggedly, that they carry out the promise that they had allegedly made to one another to run away together. A's husband/guardian - we are never sure exactly which - who is known as M, and is played by Sacha Pitoeff (gaunt, frightening, frustratingly fastidious), enjoys challenging the other guests to a game of cunning and of chance called Nim, which he always wins. Playing X throughout the movie during many insanely sedate, yet strangely menacing encounters, he naturally wins, and we can't help but feel that he is on to other man's intentions and that winning the game will somehow guarantee his possession of the iridescent A. A, as gorgeously blank and picturesque as she is, refutes X's story about a former relationship, although fragments of memories, or dreams of such, plague her. The affair, if ever there was one, is not exactly the most romantic, or happiest of liaisons. There is the implication of rape and of violence, and there is the threat, even now, of murder - all of these things are suggested and may, or may not be true.
The fabulous château, with its miles of ornamental gardens, its partially observed stage-play (which possibly mirrors the events of the movie or, at least, the events that we get to hear about) and its eminently refined social etiquette is lost in some timeless limbo, a void for the culturally liberated. The dress and the style feels thirties-inspired, yet the attitude and the demeanour of the characters, certainly X, feels much later. The guests wander in states of either polite indifference or deadpan observation of the ethereal love-war ensuing before them. Are they us? We never hear where anybody is from, or where they are going. Or why they are there at this luxurious spa, in the first place. There is never once an impression of a world outside of this retreat. It could be a prison for all we know, or an asylum for the insane. It could be Heaven. Or it could be Hell. Time doesn't so much as stand still at the retreat, as constantly folds in on itself. Indeed, with the multitude of flashbacks, flash-forwards, time-shifted edits and dislocated allegations and vague intimations that echo inside the narration of X, it seems to imply that we are in a constant loop, the events of the past - whether real or imagined - coexisting with the events of the now, or what we, at least, take to be now. Thus, dream-locked in this twilight zone, enduring a ceaseless cycle of unfulfilled desire and eternally forbidden temptation, the three leads wander serenely from one decorative mystery to another. The only one who actually appears to have any sort of control over his immediate circumstances is M, though this control does not seem to travel much beyond his slyly simple game of Nim. We are never sure that what we are seeing is actually meant to be real or just remembered. Are they all ghosts? Is this all a fractured recurring dream of what has been, or what is to come? Is there some form of intangible time travel taking place?
So many questions ... and Resnais simply refuses to give us any answers.
The director's assertion, going along with the new vogue that he was helping to create, is that we are merely watching a succession of images that live out their story only for the duration of the time it takes for them to flicker past our eyes - which, in essence, is only akin to every other film out there, if you think about it - is an irritatingly distracting stroke of arrogance for a great many people upon their first encounter with his mischievous trend-setter. Breaking convention and narrative law is hardly shocking these days, especially given the examples that I mentioned earlier, or even the largely overlooked Spanish thriller, Timecrimes, but Resnais' style is so relaxed, so leisurely and yet so addictive that you can't help demanding some form of explanation to justify the time that we have spent at the palace in awe of this origami-like romance.
Despite its deceptively quiet and meandering form, Marienbad's dilemma unlocks many conundrums and offers up a rich array of poignant imagery. The immaculate gardens populated by freeze-frame visitors. The almost somnambulist onlookers to the curious fixation of X. The playful game of chance that becomes more of a character assassination each time it is convened. A shattering glass that ripples its impact across time. A lingering view of events captured in a mirror. Are we the mirror to it all, perhaps? And Y's ever-present pestering. Is he a valiant fairytale prince, a fatefully besotted paramour, or something much more sinister? The film may be pretty to look at, classically composed and positively lensed with a swoon, but it is not, at all, vacuous and devoid of passion as so many would like to claim. The story may be merely a tangled collection of thoughts, memories and the echoes of such, but their validity in each passing second is their power. In this respect, Marienbad is one of the most intense films you can get. With no resolution, no respite and, possibly, no actual ending, this emotional trap is the stuff of nightmares.
Marienbad - a place, by the way, that is only mentioned as one of several in a passing reference to where the two possible lovers have met before (perhaps deliberately bridging the abstract nature of randomness vs absolutism that the movie tends to enjoy flitting between) - is a production that you can analyse ad-infinitum but, ultimately, such obsessive detective work would serve no purpose. For whatever certainty you could come up with regarding the film's meaning, motives, thrust or intention, it will surely come asunder the very next time you view it. By simple virtue of it own ambivalence, the film generates an aura of mystique that you shouldn't even want to peel away. At times blindingly simple, at others, infuriatingly obscure, Last Year At Marienbad wears its cult art-house colours with pride. The temptation to label it as being intellectually pretentious and almost callously high-brow and cold has proved too hard for many critics to ignore, but Resnais seems to know exactly what he is doing and takes great pleasure in the understanding that he will bewilder, perplex and even annoy those who come to it unawares. Having read an awful lot about the film in movie-tomes when I was a lot younger, I, myself, had some serious misconceptions about the effect it would have upon me when I finally got around to seeing it and, I must confess, that expecting something akin to cross between Malpertuis, Sapphire And Steel and Brief Encounter was both wildly inaccurate and yet, remarkably, still somewhere in the same magically lulled ballpark. But perhaps the element that most stayed with me - that of the ghostly limbo in which the palace and its guests seem to occupy - was a distinct and not at all unwelcome familiarity that Marienbad shared with Patrick McGoohan's seminal 60's cult TV institution, The Prisoner. That secluded carnival enclave of the Village (North Wales' fabulously realised experimental hamlet of Portmerion) has the same timeless, life-in-a-bubble quality that Resnais and cinematographer Sacha Vierny crafted for the icily spacious château of Nymphenburg, Bavaria, in which most of the drama was filmed. Although X seems hell-bent on getting A to flee the place with him, there appears little chance of escape from the château, just as Number 6 cannot get away from the Village. And whilst McGoohan's troubled ex-spy wants some answers from his captors, so do we from ours - for aren't we just as incarcerated within the ornate finery and regal ballrooms of the surreal retreat as X, A and M?
Don't let this Prisoner connection fool you though. Marienbad has no quirky humour, no action and certainly no garish colour.
Sumptuously photographed with some of the most magical black and white imagery this side of The Haunting and The Innocents, Marienbad makes a considerable visual impact. With tremendous tracking shots that tour around the warren-like splendour of the elegant and baroque palace, taking in all sorts of intricate and dazzling marble statues, paintings, gilded ceilings and resplendent object d'art like John Carpenter alumnus Dean Cundey taking his Steadicam to the local art gallery for a jaunt, we can often feel giddy at the scale of such excess. It is hard to imagine that Dario Argento, also, wasn't influenced by such grandly atmospheric photography that literally brings the vast halls and corridors of the building to ethereal life. By bestowing such atmosphere to the spa, Resnais paints mood across the screen. Even if the performers under-act - which the men certainly do - or overact - which Seyrig purposely does in order to heighten the emotions that she is going through in almost silent-movie style - the place, itself, remains a coldly implacable entity that surrounds them, entertaining their charades, repressions and deceits. There are often amazingly constructed visual sleights and feints. Resnais and Vierny supply some simply breathtaking tracking shots that leave the main subjects at the edge of one side of the frame, travel around the salons, chambers and parlours at an unhurried gait and then arrive at another location to rest upon the same two subjects who now appear in different garb, different mood and possibly even a different “time” at the other end of the frame. And there are also many more subtle edits that achieve much the same thing, dislocating us from one lie, confession or plea in a certain zone of this twisted realm and planting us right into the heart of another, elsewhere. After a while, this shifting-about becomes almost expected. Second-nature to us. It is not that we are getting wise to Resnais' style, it is because we are becoming attuned to the powers of the house, itself. After all, we are guests, ourselves, are we not?
The score, too, is sublime and hypnotic, enhancing our impression that we are contained within some prison of obsession and dark seduction. It was actually Delphine Seyrig's brother, Francis, who composed the music for the film and he opted to modulate the sombre proceedings with a liturgical pipe-organ that, if nothing else, creates a ghostly, cathedral-like presence of space and cold rapture. The film, then, carries a stark beauty that, even if never cosy, comes across as frighteningly comfortable in the manner of deja, almost as if we have been there before. Which, of course, just has to be one of the desired effects.
With performances that often mock the art with contrived glances, measured wordplay, stilted expressions and elevated reactions, you would think that Marienbad is all style over substance. But the more you watch it, the more empathetic the characters become. What once seemed aloof and arch suddenly reveals itself it be painfully restrained, as in the case of Pitoeff's M, who is watching his love fall away from him and is powerless to intervene. Likewise Seyrig's evasive calm and dismissive nonchalance becomes a ripped veil of poisoned memory, guarded excitement and perpetually anxious desire. In the face of all this, Albertazzi can actually come across as something of a villain which, of course, he may actually be, depending on what we believe took place the year before - if anything did - and he is, ostensibly, our narrator and our “hero”. This unravelling texture of character means that we lose and gain trust continually, our allegiances and our hopes for what will befall the trio spiralling first one way and then another, finally, I suppose, becoming a mixture of sadness, regret, victory and joy. But, it is important to add, all tinged with an element of guilt.
For such a supposedly cold, unemotional and inaccessible film this really takes some doing.
The French New Wave would go on to churn out some inordinate and highly regarded classics from Bunuel, Truffaut and Goddard and shape the way that art-house cinema would be both looked-upon and how it would look out at the world around it and, thus, produce its dramas into something that would influence the mainstream as well. Last Year At Marienbad, which is often labelled as a fantasy but is actually something much more provocative than that, stands at the forefront of all this, and charms, isolates, beguiles and infuriates in equal measure. The more you see it, the more you think you understand it. But each viewing stirs up something different inside you, and there aren't too many films whose main triangle of opposing characters have you alternating your sympathies quite so surreptitiously, nor with such dismaying self-contradiction. A great film, then. But a remarkably difficult one at the same time. Like an epic jigsaw puzzle that you can never finish because the pieces continually transform themselves behind your back, Resnais' film is an infernal itch forever out of reach.
And, yes, it comes highly recommended.
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