Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad - the Easter Party Game

Nothing spells meta like having a Last Year at Marienbad party for Easter. When San Moritz is beckoning and all you can afford is a rental of one of the most pretentious and bourgeois art movies ever made, and maybe the best, or worst, and both, certainly... maybe. Where were we? Touches like a voiceover that slowly fades underneath booming organ tones as it speaks of wandering through an "edifice of a bygone era," with carpets thick and ornate mirrors and windows that reflect "galleries, side corridors that in turn lead to an empty room... a silent room where one's footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick and heavy that they reach no one's ear. Repeat.

Watching it now, in the 21st century, it's hard to know if stark black-and-white perfume and jewelry ads with sad-eyed women lounging by long obelisk-shaped pools, or beds (or were they shrubs?), surrounded by wealth... if MARIENBAD launched them all. In case you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you, but it's from 1961 and directed by Alain Resnais and written by S/M intellectual Alain Robbe-Grillet. It is about a girl in a gorgeous black feather dress (ala Dietrich in Shanghai Express) who may or may not have had an affair or been sexually assaulted the year before by some sleazy, dead-in-the-eyes lothario at a similar hotel in Marienbad. This creep never stops lingering over her with sick, dead smile. He makes Boris Karloff look like Clark Gable. This scenario is played out over and over again, with the same cryptic narration about the hotel, shadows that switch sides and disappear in the lovely garden, and a bunch of people either sitting or standing by a row of chairs.

Oh and there's a memory of a snowbound chalet, which may or may not be just the painting hanging in the girl's hotel room, or the girl might be hanging in the snowbound chalet, with a picture of Marienbad on the wall. If the setting of the film is in Marienbad or meant to be just a memory, who can say. According to Wiki it was filmed in several different chateaus to "produce a disorienting effect." And Coco Chanel made Seyrig's gowns! They're sleek, but shot cold as a diamond in a freezer.

I concocted the following idea while trying to watch the film several times and realizing it worked best watching random chapters over a period of a week. In 15 minute intervals, at random, it's a masterwork. For more than 15 minutes, it's infuriating and worst of all, pretentious. The actors don't mesmerize, and when narrative is this thoroughly deconstructed, they must. Once constant narrative frustration gets on your nerves in Godard, you can just stare into the celestial beauty of a female face, but as pretty as Delphine Seyrig is, as lovely as her Dietrich-ish gowns are, she really doesn't project the same goddess magnitude of, say, Monica Vitti or Bibbi Anderson, or Anna Karina. Imagine how dull L'AVENTURA, RED DESERT, PERSONA or MY LIFE TO LIVE would be without the beauty and emotional spontaneity and realness in the starlet's faces. They're there for a reason. We don't have anything else to hold us to the screen.

It's not Seyrig's fault that she doesn't connect and seems trapped in a kind of cold bourgeois first class duty free French Vogue hell, one of fine gowns, suffocating over-ornamentation, endless shots of ornate hallways, figures frozen in cocktail repose, a reptilian suitor and cadaver-like husband, an auteur and writer who are so rigorously intellectual and formal they pin Seyrig like an etherized butterfly to the deathly vacant space. Empty past gestures are discussed over and over as if they one day will have meaning. And the organ music grates like a list of grievances on a loop... and every head of hair is slicked back to the point of cruelty. Empty corridors as far as the eye can see will eventually bore even the most hardened European intellectual (my Argentine ex-wife, a leftist-intellectual film maker who introduced me to Bunuel and Godard, called MARIENBAD the most pretentious piece of shit ever made.)

If you find the film's repetitious nonlinear, fractal-like structure is frustrating over a long haul... may I suggest the MARIENBAD the party game? Here is what you need:

* At least two other people to watch the movie with, ideally if you're in a love triangle with them (invite the pretty person you like, and the less attractive one who likes you, and who will definitely come and pretend to like the film as long as you say it's great).
* 3-7 chairs, ideally straight-backed dining room table style, arranged in a semi-circle in front of the TV screen.
* One large framed painting or picture of a winter landscape, ideally with a small house in it.
* A book of kitchen matches and a coffee table (or card table)

There is a lot of mirroring and refracting in the film, and the idea for the game is to represent a mirror to the action onscreen, but an 'off' surrealist mirror. So when all the men are standing you sit and unfreeze when they freeze and mimic their movements when they look in the mirror. Let's say Daphne hangs up the winter landscape painting on her wall in the movie, you would then take the painting out of the room. When she takes it off the wall and hides it, you would bring it out and hang yours up, evoking the meta idea she's passing the painting through the mirror/screen to you. When the men play that weird match game, you play too, and when the chairs are empty onscreen, you sit in them, and vice versa.

When that gets old, watch the film; when the film gets old, play the game. Once you get in the habit, you should find yourself naturally going with the flow of the action, going to the bathroom as a character enters the screen, and vice versa, and you can get that post-modern affect high, and avoid being too bored by the film itself. If you leave to go to the bathroom or kitchen for god's sake don't pause it. You can be certain whatever you missed will be refracted and repeated. 

If that gets dull you can start in the middle, or pick a random chapter, or watch the same chapter ten times instead of the whole film once. Keep the game going and you just may find yourself in San Moritz, or Marienbad, as the hellish simulacrum comes crashing down and Christ rises like a star of the real in your heaven.


  1. I don't need a game for this film. The heady romantic memory of picking it out of my college library's film collection by chance and watching it spell-bound and not under-the-influence of anything with my roommate in the first months of college is more than enough. The feeling of analytic freedom I had back then easily fills in Marienbad's inevitable blackout moments.

    I must admit, that I still watch it occasionally in the hopes of discovering what the hell is actually going on. I haven't found it yet, but I never turn off the tv disappointed.

  2. Glad to hear it Alysandher. I wouldn't have understood a thing about this film in my first months at college, nor in my last. It definitely rewards close reading, even as it confounds, of course it would help, in my mind, if you were say, an art history or architecture major, since old empty hallways seem to get the most screen time and for the most part no one moves. It's a story about the lack thereof... as such, inert, thus fascinating as video art installation more than typical cinema, hence my game concept, which switches up the viewer relation to the film to a hopefully art gallery or musuem kind of interaction.

  3. In 15 minute intervals, at random, it's a masterwork.

    As Jack Torrence said to the bartender, "Words to live by, Lloyd. Words to live by."

    In my teens I would've had a lot more patience, but, seeing the film for the first time twenty years ago when I was in my thirties, some ten minutes in and I mumbled aloud, "Uh-oh, here we go..."

    You've inspired me to check it out again. Although now I'll be sure to arm myself with a blunt.


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