Saturday, June 20, 2009

Last year at Marien...something something


"This shows how far we are incapable of looking at (I wont even say understanding) an incident without interpreting it and without our look added to the amalgam, a mixture which by nature belongs as much to the documentary image as it does to the fiction with which we envelop it." - Andre S. Labarthe (Cahiers du Cinema, Sept. 1961)
"Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" - Chico
Everyone has their own take on the formally modern jigsaw puzzle that is Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), soon to be released on a beautiful DVD by Criterion. Is it the story of a repressed memory of possible sexual assault? Or is it just a collection of images that Resnais relies upon the viewer to make sense of? Or is it just...bad? As in the old "Le Bad Cinema" from SNL?

For me it's a horror movie, where everyone concerned is in hell: the audience plays its own part as stuck in the hell of pretentious wankery, the characters are in a hell of art, located in the center of a pyramid bordered by Carnival of Souls (1962), the Shining (1980), and Jess Franco's Succubus (1968), all three of which seem--at some level--influenced by Marienbad, and for this writer at least, all three help situate the Marienbad experience.... somewhat. That said, Marienbad itself seems influenced, unfortunately and not its fault, by the duty-free shop bourgeoisie claustrophobic jewels and gilded edges of Max Ophuls, or if the final party scene in L'Aventura caught a slow motion flu and it took three years for the sun to come up. In an effort to convey the distorted power of memory after one year has elapsed, Resnais seems to want to make a film so boring that time itself stands still, forcing the elliptical orbit of the following year's orbit to collide with its predecessor like two clones of the same empty room. 


There's even a few unofficial horror sequels: Daughters of Darkness (1971, pictured above) features an older Delphine Seyrig still wanders the halls of a decaying empty old European-style resort but this time being the one who pulls the "I've always known you" gaslight on the sweet young thing of a possessive scumbag; Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) offers similar editing schemes (such as the justly famous sex/dressing afterwards montage), a similarly desolate grand hotel and a similar "you were here before" gaslight, this time worked on the man (Donald Sutherland) by two batty psychic sisters. All these films operate on at least a few of Marienbad's ghostly frequencies--particularly the "living corpse" analogies and the possibly supernatural origins of the female protagonists' husband or "keeper", and most need to be seen more than once to be fully understood. Don't Look Now, Succubus and The Shining actually only begin to get enjoyable with the second or third viewing. With Marienbad, Resnais makes sure to show us the film several times all at once, so we can get over that hurtle and really enjoy it, which is to perhaps come to the realization that we have never actually enjoyed it, or even seen it... again.

The first time through is fairly taxing, but by the second you've prepared counter-expectations. In modernist form ab abstractum tediorous, one longs for some circus freaks to parade by, ala Bergman or Fellini, just to liven things up, but this film is totally static and clownless. It's instead the nucleus for all the aforementioned horror movies to rotate around, gaining meaning and resonance with every revolution. Ultimately it's about the impossibility of memory and perception, with every image reflected and refracted into oblivion, and Seyrig as the ultimate vampire queen at the center. The one person who provides the illusion of a soul, of depth behind the facile masks, is the one person who is, in fact, completely soulless, and why isn't she a blonde? That, at least, would make sense. 

It's the hell of the endless party out of time, where Candace Hilligoss (left), Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, and Janine Reynaud all end up; hell is not after all a land without enjoyment, but a land where enjoyment is never allowed to cease... as in the old Disney cartoon of Satan's helpers force-feeding naughty children on conveyor belts. Instead of sweets it's the over-cooked trappings of the bourgeoisie that are inescapable here, the way an American child who doesn't understand witty banter might feel being dragged to a French film without subtitles--the decaying crumbling land where perfume ads really do come true, and once inside you can never escape. As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais uses repetition of imbecilic phrases over and over to make some kind of post-hypnotic point and like Hiroshima Mon Amour it's damned irritating to anyone not easily enthralled by a strain of modern art that takes itself too seriously, that hasn't pre-empted hoots and hollers from the back row by having a stooge wandering through occasionally slipping on a banana peel. Godard's satiric edge and short attention span saves his films from the abyss where Resnais doesn't fear to plummet.

That the picture on the Criterion disc is so beautiful and pristine is probably not entirely positive as it leaves no room for improvement: One might look at an old crappy Koch Lorber disc and think, "Well, perhaps if the picture were better, it would be a kind of work of art," but with Criterion's beautiful disc, there's no longer room for doubt. As Seyrig puts so eloquently, "I don't know that room, that silly bed, that fireplace with the mirror. There's no mirror over the fireplace. It's a painting." Oui, mademoiselle, at's a no painting, at's a spinach.

This movie is what might have happened if there never were a Marx Brothers, who knew how to deal with these types of posturing jokers back in 1930's Animal Crackers. I kept wishing Groucho Marx would inhabit Seyrig's body and do his "strange interlude" impression: "How happy I'd be with either of these two, if both of them just went away." I kept hoping Chico would run up and steal a famous Bogarde. But the Chico never comes: that's my nightmare, that's my hell, crawling across a straight razor. There's nothing wrong with that if it works. What does Marienbad mean? Whatever it meant, it's meaning it now.

The shattered glass effect is also one of the process of filmmaking itself, which involves watching the same scenes over and over, different takes, different edits. Some of the jump edits here in Marienbad are sizzlingly witty, but some are just headache inducing, the artsy version of a kid flicking the light switch on and off really fast to annoy his older sister. Alain Resnais! Quit it this instant and go to your room!


The rationale here of course is that Resnais is being French and focusing on French cinema and architecture rather than delving into American pop iconography with the kid in a candy store glee of a famous Godard. The modern salts in the Marienbath have no American counterparts, they are purely French in the way that makes Yankee tourists in Paris feel slighted, the pretentiousness without the naturally self-effacing wit which the French don't even realize lies inherent in the poetry of their language. The completely self-serious bourgeoisie posing at work in Marienbad is something we in America are only used to seeing from behind velvet ropes or through the jaundiced eyes of Billy Wilder, the stuff that makes the henpecked husband roll his eyes while his matronly wife applauds. It's a representation of a bourgeoisie we in America have been trained from our Max Sennett birth to deal with by either a) throwing pies; b) sending a Barrymore up to steal their jewels; or c) showing them the error of their ways through a moving speech.

Left to their own devices, the ennui-ridden ghosts of Marienbad and their sordid modernist loops of romantic betrayal are un-signifiable. They are inherently obscurantist. They are for someone else to like, someone who actually reads Gertrude Stein instead of just carrying the book around Washington Square Park, and in that sense Marienbad cries to be adapted by a modernist multi-media troupe like NYC's Wooster Group, with three different video screens alongside a bawdy vaudeville show. I'd go. Twice, and be secretly bored each time, though twenty years later I'd boast about it (did you know I saw the Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones--with the amazing Kate Valk in blackface drag and dressed as a samurai back in 1995?) It's true, matey. And let me tell you one thing I learned from art school: just because a film is so boring it makes you get up, leave your seat and go to the bathroom and then go to have a cigarette outside and then not come back doesn't mean it was bad. It only means its modern. Forget it Jake, it's Marienbad!

2 comments:

  1. You're right to identify Marienbad as one of the first modernist horror films. As such, it influenced everyone from Bergman (The Silence) and Kubrick (The Shining) to Roeg and Lynch. You can trace its roots back to Caligari's sanitarium.

    I was knocked out by it at my first viewing of it in a theater at age 16 - I'd never seen anything like it! Commenting on my Pauline Kael post at Bright Lights After Dark, you said you found the film lacking in humor. But the humor is there, if you look for it. You can find it in, among many other places, the cardboard silhouette of Hitchcock that appears about 5 minutes in, or the game variously played with matchsticks or cards that our frustrated "hero" can never win. (As Homer Simpson would say, D'OH!)

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  2. I think you're right. I've been watching it over in shorter installments and there's definitely more humor when you don't overstrain.

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