January 22, 2013

Retroview: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

A Retroview Review. 

Luke here with a kind of by-the-books review of a French New Wave movie that is, apparently, confusing for a large portion of the critics out there.

French New Wave movies are, at times, unforgiving. If you're not into it, then they're not really there to hold your hand and guide you through. Despite the criticism and praise, FNW still isn't going to be for everyone, and that is totally okay. Sometimes ambling, repetitive movies that lack conventional structure and a naturally flowing narrative are annoying. If you're not a fan, Last Year at Marienbad isn't going to change your mind. I would say it is a good movie, and I was tickled by it, but there was a reason I didn't invite more than a few people over to watch it. I can only recommend it if you're interested in FNW, or if you want to dive head first. There are spoilers in this, but I'll mark them out. Here we go!

Last Year at Marienbad is a movie with a simple plot. At an unnamed hotel (which may or may not be in Marienbad), an unnamed man, credited as X (Giorgio Albertaz), approaches A (Delphine Seyrig), an illusive woman, and asks if she remembers their agreement from the year before. She claims she hasn't any memory of X or their agreement. He spends most of the movie trying to remind her, going over the many things they discussed the previous year (in Marienbad), all of which she says she doesn't recall occurring. When X is not with her, he is playing nim with M (Sacha Pitoëff), a man who may or may not be A's husband. Aaaaaand that's about it. How do you fill 90 minutes with that? You have to be a Left Bank French New Wave director Alain Resnais, that's how.

(note that the trees don't have shadows. that's pretty cool.)

The movie opens with a series of long, meticulously choreographed tracking shots of the hotel that our protagonists and their compatriots are staying in, while a man reads the same set of six or seven sentences from a monologue in the hotel's ballroom/theater. The opening lasts maybe 15 minutes, the camera floating, caressing the walls, highlighting their Rococo elements, lingering long enough to impress upon us the incredibly intricate interior design of the hotel. As the camera floats along, the monologists words float in and out, becoming almost as decorative and frivolous as the architecture. But when two men, the first people to be shown in the movie, are brought into the frame, it becomes rather unsettling, as they are treated, by the camera, as though they too were just a part of the decor. Sure, it is evident by their dress and their stature that they are servants, but this one shot, as the camera sweeps past the two men, sets the tone for the movie. The frivolity evident in the architecture is something that can be seen in the movie's human players as well.

We are introduced to X and A after the camera sweeps into the theater, slowly examining each audience member, their dead, unmoving eyes locked on the man delivering the now meaningless monologue. After the monologue, we see audience members speaking to one another about various meaningless things, the camera never lingering long enough on on conversation long enough to get a full sense of the topic. As we travel from conversation to conversation, a curious thing happens: the entire group stop, as if frozen in time, and after a few moments, unfreeze and continue as though nothing happened. This is done to emphasize that their conversations are, as much as they themselves are, ornamental and frivolous. Why is it focusing so much energy on emphasizing that everything about these people and their world is essentially meaningless? We'll get to that in a minute.

So as the movie progresses, we learn that, according to X, he and A had arranged to run away together after a years time. Now that the time has come, he is ready to take her away. The dream like nature of the movie makes what occurs up to debate, but from what I could see, Resnais does an amazing job of first making us think X is crazy, then that he is not, then that he may have raped A, then that he may be her salvation from an abusive husband/lover M. I personally interpreted it that M was abusive, and that X wanted to take A away from him, but that's just me.
***Spoilers Over***

The narrative is also delivered through a long series of shots and short scenes where the 3 characters interact with one another, X being persistent, A being illusive, and M being domineering over both X and A. It is absolutely flooring going through the emotions as the story slowly unfolds over the course of the movie.

Beyond that, the over all message of the movie seemed to be that despite their wealth and prestige, these people are booooooored, and that they are just floating through their lives, much like the camera, barely caring what is being said or who is doing what, because none of it matters, because their actions have no bearing on anything. A secondary message could easily be that the well-to-do are just as likely to have illustrious affairs as the rest of us, but who's to say?

I really liked this movie, but, again, it isn't going to make a fan out of you if you're not already kind of into French New Wave.

---Luke Hunter James-Erickson

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