by Allan Fish
(France 1961 94m) DVD1/2
Aka. Last Year at Marienbad
Or was it Frederiksbad?
p Raymond Froment, Anatole Dauman d Alain Resnais w Alain Robbe-Grillet ph Sacha Vierny ed Henri Colpi, Jasmie Chasney m Francis Seyrig art Jacques Saulnier cos Coco Chanel, Bernard Evein
Delphine Seyrig (A), Giorgio Albertazzi (X), Sacha Pitoeff (M), Françoise Bertin, Luce Garcia-Villet, Héléna Korbel, François Spira, Karin Toche-Mittler, Pierre Barbaud,
L’Année Dernière à Marienbad is undoubtedly one of the most exasperating films ever made, but it is also undeniably one of the most original, going beyond surrealism to find a category all of its own. Everything that happens is perfectly plausible, it’s just that, well nothing really does happen, yet much takes place. That is the paradox of it.
Alain Resnais first came to prominence with his magisterial Holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard in 1955 before becoming one of the darlings of the intellgentsia with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a sort of anti romance. Yet Marienbad is the film he’s most likely to be remembered for, a film of such joyous enpuzzlement as to resemble a cryptic puzzle for minimalists. Taking place in a huge French château, a man meets a woman who may, or may not, have had an affair with him the previous year at Marienbad, or was it Frederiksbad? They spend their time there dreaming of their possible past and future and of their desires.
At least three films come to mind when I think of L’Année. The first, bizarrely enough, is Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, in which the hero returns home to find his flat flooded out and proceeds to discuss how one can prevent a house from crying. I don’t know what the equivalent of anthropomorphism is for buildings, but the house here almost seems like another character in the piece and does indeed seem to want to cry. Then one recalls Godard’s Le Mèpris, with its comparisons between the protagonists, the crew and the Greek heroes they were depicting, and here between the central couple and the classical statues they were trying to empathise with. Finally, one recalls La Règle du Jeu, which was also set at a country château and in the company of the upper echelon of society. (Though the games there were less intellectual and bound more to an outmoded vision of honour.) Yet such recollections are altogether appropriate for a film which is largely about mistily recollected meetings and memories.
Recollections notwithstanding, the most dreamy film of all time is also a contender for most pretentious. Everything, including the characters, is laid out in a mise-en-scene that resembles a geometrical puzzle, with endless tracking shots “through the corridors, salons, galleries…the structure of this mournful mansion from another age, where corridors without end succeed corridors…” From the opening seemingly endless pan through the corridors, one has the feeling of entering a mausoleum. The continually interrupted, occasionally inaudible, often repetitive narration seeming at first to be provided by a spirit rather then a flesh and blood character, a feeling intensified by Sacha Vierny’s superbly sharp photography. When we finally see two servants and realise that there may be life here after all, they still preserve the perfect symmetry of the walls and picture. The people seem merely intruders in a great drama, that of the mansion itself, whose cold stones have heard men and women down the ages and will hear more still, a feeling intensified by the various narrative flash-forwards. (Surely this film was an influence of Alexander Sokurov’s masterful Russian Ark, which took the same feeling to another level.) There is a precision in the script that is matched by the actors’ delivery and the direction, with Resnais placing his cast so precisely within the frame that they begin to resemble the lifeless puttica in the halls and statues in the garden. He’s also helped by Seyrig’s truly iconographic appearance (it can hardly be called a performance) and, though it can be a hard film to watch, it’s never less than a rewarding one and definitely a film that will continue to baffle for as long as its central château stands. C’est magnifique!