Friday, January 14, 2011
Last Year at Marienbad
".....I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors--silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls ..."
The film begins with this commentary accompanied by liturgical sounds of an organ( could be Bach or Handel) as the camera travels over various aspects of the building, a baroque palace turned into a hotel , examining the ornate cielings, the statues, mirrored walls. The voice belongs to X, the protagonist, and a major part of the film is occupied by this impassioned architectural discourse.
He is obsessed by the place no less than by the woman he has come to meet after a year (or is it a million years). Yes, the film is a love story. But his obsession for her (her name is A) seems to have reached a sublime (or pathological if you prefer) pitch, and every slab, every cornice, the corridors and salons etc., etc., seem to be the embodiment of this craving .
The hotel is like a living being, a piece of space-time in which his soul is eternally encaged, the place where the battle was fought and lost. It's architectural wonders represents the beloved's body (like the Taj Mahal). It has been rendered sacred by the events which are embalmed in its mass and spaces. It is the Zone. He is here to decide his destiny for evermored, a crucial rendezvous, maybe a duel.
This is a film without a story, or at least a story no-one seems to understand( not even the director). More importantly it is a film which does not need a story. The black and white images flow torrentially as the camera runs, leaps, somersaults, probing the architectural intimacies; a voice recollects a saga in modulated monotone to the accompaniment of the throttled, soaring notes of an organ; this is the substance. Understand it or not, you are not going to forget it. Who needs stories? Nor should we demean it by trying to figure it out childishly as though it were a riddle.. It has to be left alone and seen for what it is, a visual-vocal-tonal poem about the passage of time, the ante-chambers of the soul, and the pauselessly succeeding moments of our lives that become embalmed as they are extinguished.
The voice, the music, and this cathedral like hotel are the elements which fuse in a symphony. What a voice! Can anything compare to the sublimity of a voice? This is a voice as deep as the organ accompaniment; a full, resonant voice emanating from the bowels of the soul. And my French is not even primary.
The man(X) meets the woman(A) and tries to convince her that they had met a year ago. He tries to remind her with a desperate insistence of many small details of the encounter-where she sat, how she sat, how her elbow was positioned, what was spoken and promised-namely to meet after a year. She denies all recollection of such a meeting even as X serenades her with more and more details, culminating in his invasion of her chamber. Isn't life like that? What for him is a matter of life and death is not even recollectable for her.
Then there is the third character (M), possibly her husband, who defeats him in the game of Nim every time they play. M shoots her when he discovers her with X but this seems unsatisfactory to X so there is no problem to have her alive a few moments later. Apparently X commits a pseudo-suicide. But even death is ambiguous in this film.
These are but excuses for the circular and brooding film to investigate and explore the world of past-present-future embalmed in these precincts. There are the guests who now and then make an appearance, conversing in polite, muted, almost soundless tones as they float from chamber to chamber beneth the chandeliers, across the mirrored halls, through the corridors lined with marble sculptures. Mostly the the scene is populated only by the Voice in the deserted floors or at most one or more of the threesome, X, A, and M.
It does have all the elements of plot into which ambiguities are built in as a matter of artistic necessity. Be that as it may it is a powerful portrayal of the workings of the human mind and soul. The labyrinth of the palace is not just the setting but also the subject of the film. It is a poignant metaphor for one of those secret places to which we human beings are wont to happen by in our wanderings.
It is a choked, sorrowful film-about the past, about possibilities which failed to happen, hopes held in abeyance. It is also a film about time. It's about the three existences of past, present and future. It has echoes of the eternal which human beings are as capable of perceiving as their finitude.It is a film which could have been nothing other than what it is.