Friday, January 14, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad

Alan Resnais (1928-), French, 84 minutes, 1961, "L'Anee Derniere a 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.


Jack L said...

Wonderful review,
well I just finished watching this as you recommended, and I agree that it is a particularly beautiful film with very atmospheric music. But I did have a few problems, while I liked the surrealness of the film I think it would have worked better as a short film of about 40min because even though it wasn't very long 94min if I remember well it did get a bit tedious towards the end...

And also the man that does the voice-over, I found his French accent to be quite unpleasant at times but maybe I only noticed this because of the cast amount of voice-over.
but I have to admit this film contains some of the most correct French I've ever heard in a film, almost no slang whatsoever.

Still, I'm glad I watched it, even if I couldn't make any sense out of it...

SM Rana said...

Actually I wrote this "review" more than a year ago, and my writing has changed for better or worse.

I agree this sort of thing can get tedious. But then, this movie with it's strange reverberations is permanently etched in the mind, while easier to watch movies have evaporated without a trace. Good movies and great books have to be tackled with mountaineering implements but they are long term investments in terms of one's inner growth, which after all should be the purpose, specially in younger years. Even "Le Jettee" was not so simple to watch in spite of it's brevity, but there is something extra-ordinary about it and it's brevity is a good reason to see it again.

I'm slightly envying you your French, thinking about these films, and so many others.

Another great French movie was Truffaut's "The 400 Blows", a movie about youth you are likely to have seen. Here's a beautiful clip from this film;

One film you must see down the road is the nine and a half hour documentary "Shoah" (Claude Lanzmann), made by a Frenchman. It's a film about the holocaust. It entirely comprises interviews of those who witnessed or experienced the events. We visit the places where the events occurred but there are no stills or photographs of what happened. It's perhaps the most powerful film I have seen. I saw it in the course of a single day, which I usually can't do even for average size movies. Size of a film is a relative thng and this is short for it's matter. Gripping A-Z. Here's a clip:

Jack L said...

Yes, I do believe that watching such films is important if one really wants to study film, this one actually was very good even though I'm generally not a fan of this "experimental" style of film making, I hated Inland Empire and was bored by Heart of Glass for example, but I'm still glad I watched them...

hahaha!!, yes well you shouldn't envy my French too much for it was only acquired after many painstaking years living here, but I have to admit it does come in useful when watching French films, I often find myself enjoying them much more than everyone else...

and yes, I've seen the 400 Blows, an excellent film, have you seen any of the other Truffaut made with the same actor, he was kind of filming him all through his life.

I'll check out Shoah, it seems very depressing, but I'm willing to give it a try...

S. M. Rana said...


"400 Blows" is the only Truffaut film I have seen.

Depressing is not the word for Shoah-mesmerizing is just right. It's something more than a movie or a documentary as we listen to these unrehearsed unembellished first person accounts of the inferno they saw with their own two eyes.

Do see it sometime in the years to come.

Have you seen the Mona Lisa? How does it feel in the Louvre?

Jack L said...

Well, I'll definitely see Shoah sometime soon, although I doubt I'll be able to get through it all in one day...

as for Truffaut, did you know that the character in Les 4OO Coups (Antoine Doinel) was the main character for 4 later films, with the same actor, he was kind of filming him grow up, very interesting...

And yes I've been to the Louvre but since it's so enormous I only saw the Egyptian and Antiquity section and a few galleries, I didn't go to see the Mona Lisa (or La Joconde as it's called here) because of the vast crowd of people who were around it...

S. M. Rana said...

The city where I live has a French connection. Chandigarh is a new-born city designed by the great Le Carbusier.

It wood be interesting to see the sequels to 400 blows.

I don't think you should hurry about Shoah till you are really in the mood for holocaust history.

Anonymous said...

An excellent review as usual.

The movie was absorbing from the beginning. I only watched the movie once and I do not think I understood it, but it was great experience with the vast, mesmerizing space where the characters are wandering around.

I have wondered whether "ghosts" in Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" wander around the Overlook hotel just like this movie when no one alive is around them. If so, the situation would be a little funny.

S. M. Rana said...


It's certainly a haunting unforgettable film, with it's sad brooding mesmeric quality. It's a film impossible to review or analyse, since it springs from the depths of the unconscious. What it emphatically is not is a piece of gimmickry like , for example, "Uncle Boonmee".