Saturday, February 5, 2011

Get Me Out of "Marienbad"!

As a pretentious film fan, I have met my match. "Last Year at Marienbad," the 1961 Alan Resnais French language film, is too pretentious, obscure, and obtuse for me. At only 94 minutes, I just couldn't take it. It's a Luis Bunuel film with no sense of humor. It's a Hitchcock thriller with no twist ending - no ending at all, in fact. It's a beautiful silent film with some long-winded moron yammering over it, who refuses to shut up and let me enjoy the cinematography. I haven't been this simultenously bored and enraged at a film since "Au Hasard Balthazar." There must be some particular, unknown quality of French cinema that provokes this kind of bafflement from me, because it keeps happening with far too much regularity.

Anyhoo, about "Last Year at Marienbad." How to describe this thing? It takes place in an elaborately furnished and decorated hotel, apparently at Marienbad, which Google tells me is located in the Czech Republic, in a region formerly known as Bohemia. There are three major characters, all unnamed. They are a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), a woman (Delphine Seyrig), and the woman's sinister male companion (Sacha Pitoeff). The man spends the entire movie trying to convince the woman that they met a year ago in the same hotel, made plans to run away together, and ultimately agreed to wait a year and meet again. The relationship between the man and the woman is never entirely clear. We also never learn who the male companion is to the woman. Her husband? Another lover?

The man's spoken narration is rambling and endless. He retells the events of his first meeting with the woman over and over, with different variations. The visuals obligingly follow suit. Now the woman is in a white, feathered nightgown in this scene. Now she's in a plain black one. Here, she's dead. No wait, the man has changed his mind and she's very much alive. It's dream logic in its purest form, with a narrative that blends flashbacks and fantasies together until it's impossible to figure out the true version of events - that is, if you can trust the claim that there was a true version of events to begin with. There have been other films, mostly experimental ones, that have told similar stories in a similar fashion, but none as maddeningly as this.

I like Alan Resnais' visuals, full of beautiful black-and-white tracking shots that wander through the impossible hotel. The opening shot starts on the ornately painted ceiling before sending the audience off into the labyrinthine world of long corridors and empty rooms that conform to no real-world architecture. There are shapes and patterns that recur, sometimes almost subconsciously, from scene to scene. The pyramid shape of the matchstick-counting game the man plays with the woman's companion is echoed by the artificially conical trees in the garden, and perhaps the triangular positioning of the three principals in certain scenes. And there's a wonderfully surreal, vertiginous quality to the transitions between one version of reality and the next. The way the camera swoops and drifts through the hotel is breathtaking.

It was the narration that killed it for me though. The narrator, the man, is not only talking over practically every scene, but insists on running through the same story over and over again, and a lot of it is pretty esoteric blather. In the opening sequence, we hear him in the middle of a long, detailed description of the hotel, which he repeats several times without pause. It was like being stuck at a dinner party with a droning guest who has far too much to say about the silverware, has forgetten his point, and so keeps starting all over from the beginning again. The visuals are so evocative by themselves, I hated the constant distraction of the man going on and on about statues and fountains and what he remembers or imagines the woman may have said to him a year ago. Ninety-odd minutes of this felt like an eternity.

"Marienbad" has been treated as a puzzle film by some, and eagerly mined for hidden messages and symbolism. You could project whatever themes you like on the three characters, caught in a seemingly endless loop of meetings and confrontations and indecisions. I couldn't summon up the desire to even make a stab at my own interpretation. But I'll bet someone could make a really good remix video with the footage and the Eagles' "Hotel California."

I have to admit that "Last Year at Marienbad" is a very good film. It is a beautiful film. It is a unique film. It is a culturally and artistically important film. And I was bored out of my freaking mind.

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