Friday, July 19, 2013

Last Year at Marienbad

 Or: Defining the words "Art Film" for a generation

Pratt Library's typo edition of "Last Year at Marienbad" directed by "Alain Reanais" (sic) instead of Alain Resnais
"Unforgettable in both its confounding details (gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a loaded gun) and haunting in scope...this surreal fever dream, or nightmare, gorgeously fuses the past with the present in telling its ambiguous tale of a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) who may or may not have met a year ago, perhaps at the very same cathedral-like, mirror-filled chateau they now find themslves wandering." - From DVD box

I had never seen Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (L'annee derniere a Marienbad, 1961) until recently - and then only by accident. Despite being a fan of the director (especially his Night & Fog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Stavisky) and the film itself being hailed as a defining work of the French New Wave and "one of the lasting mysteries of modern art," it had flown under my radar until it came into my consciousness through the backdoor, via American pop culture.

You see, while sorting through my cornucopia of videos and DVDs in anticipation of moving to a new house, I popped in a Classic TV Commercials DVD (one of countless similarly-styled retro video products aimed at nostalgic Baby Boomers like myself) and came across a bizarre "arthouse" foreign film-style commercial for L&M Cigarettes. I subsequently uploaded it to YouTube, as shown below.

Classic '60s L&M Ad Spoofs "Last year at Marienbad"

At first I thought it was a spoof of  Michaelangelo Antonioni's beautifully photographed but meandering and dialogue-sparse La-La arthouse films (L'avventura, L'eclipse, La Notte), but then it slowly dawned on me that I had seen the film's iconic baroque landscape and nattily attired tux-and-evening dress actors in images for Marienbad. I knew then that it was Arthouse Hardcore, because Resnais worked with intellectual writers like Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and, and Marienbad, Mr. Nouveau Novel himself, Alain Robbe-Grillet.

And make no mistake, this is Arthouse Hardcore. I usually hate this type of non-narrative, enigmatic World Cinema, but, for some reason, I find Last Year at Marienbad fascinating. (Maybe because there was no Orioles game on the night I watched it?) There's nothing else quite like it. It's a film about film, a film that is always self-reflective about itself, with purposely stilted, aloof performances by its cast and literary (as opposed to natural) dialogue. (Fans of the films of Jean Cocteau will find themselves right at home here!) And no one knows what it's about (Nuclear war? A ghost story? Rape? Ennui? Memory?); in that way, it reminds me somewhat of Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series The Prisoner. Meaning is a bonus - the style's the thing, and this one is awash in style.

Watch the trailer for Last Year at Marienbad.

For some reason this 2-disc edition has gone out of print, which is a shame because I love all the extras, from French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau's history and analysis of the film and a new "Making-of-Marienbad" documentary featuring many of Resnais' crew (in which we learn that Delphine Seyrig's iconic hairdo was actually an accident - made to cover up a bad haircut after Resnais had originally envisioned her with a "Louise Brooks bob") to the inclusion of two early Resnais documentary shorts - Toute la Memoire du Monde (a 1956 documentary about the organization of the Biblioque Nationale de France that looks at libraries as an archive of human memory and which used many of the technical elements - swooping dolly shots and pans - that would later be employed in Marienbad) and 1958's Le Chant du Styrene ("The Song of the Styrene," a poetic industrial film about plastic made for French manufacturer Pechiney).

It's far from an easy film, but one that is required viewing for any student of film history. But if that sounds too daunting, there's always the encapsulated version to be found in that L&M commercial about "a cigarette for the two of you."