Judge Clark Douglas often stands in front of a mirror, looking at himself and saying the same things over and over.
Our review of Last Year At Marienbad: Criterion Collection, published June 23rd, 2009, is also available.
"A few months, a few hours, a few minutes, a few seconds more…"
If Last Year at Marienbad is a challenging and difficult experience for the average viewer, surely it is an even more challenging and difficult experience for the critic tasked with analyzing it. The film has been described as one of the most surreal ever made, and that does not seem to be an exaggeration. When I think of a surreal film, I generally think of something like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive or Ingmar Bergman's The Silence. Those films are remarkably accessible in contrast to something like Last Year at Marianbad, because they at least have something that we can connect to in some way: recognizable human emotions, story elements that seem familiar if fractured, and strange plots that tantalizingly give the viewer hope that all the pieces can eventually be put back together again. No such luck here.
You may have noticed that I've decided to review this film using DVD Verdict's trademark "small claims" format. You see, the standard format would require me to do three things that I find myself incapable of: give an official grade to the performances, an official grade to the plot, and offer readers a description of the plot in the "facts of the case" section. But how does one go about grading performances that are intentionally banal and stilted to an extreme degree? How to give a grade to a screenplay that, on a purely surface level, spends the majority of its time tediously describing a French chateau? How on earth to describe a plot that may be absolutely nothing at all?
The film generated a good deal of controversy among film critics when it was released, and it's certainly easy to understand why. On the one hand, the film was more or less a unique creation back in the early 1960s, employing some stylistic aspects of the French New Wave films but abandoning the basic lucidity that seemed to mark the vast majority of those films. It felt fresh and new and exciting to some, mostly intellectuals who were enthralled at the prospect of being able to bring their own unique interpretations to a film that could by molded into almost anything by an imaginative and gifted wordsmith. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why Pauline Kael echoed the feelings of many viewers when she called it an, "aimless disaster." Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau tells us of a French newspaper survey created around the time of the film's release which examined the feelings of those who had seen the film. Those who liked the film loved the film, and they were eager to wax eloquent on the many thoughts the film had generated within them. Those who disliked the film hated it with a passion, and Vincendeau notes the level of cruel eloquence and vigor contained within the negative reviews.
As the film's opening credits play, we hear a voice offering a description of a chateau. The credits conclude, the camera begins to slowly examine the chateau being described, and the narration continues. We quickly realize that we are hearing a loop being played over and over again, varying dramatically in audibility as we wander down various corridors. We hear the chateau described, see diagrams of the chateau on the walls, and feel forcefully immersed in the high-society setting. Finally, the camera wanders into a large room, where a group of people are sitting quietly watching a staged performance. The crowd seems unusually stiff and wax-like. They do not cough or sneeze or shuffle, they simply sit and stare like robots. The performance on the stage is dull and unenthusiastic, but when it concludes applause is heard. The performers do not come out to bow after the performance is over, but rather stand frozen on the stage as the curtains abruptly open and close a couple of times in order to invite additional applause. The people in the audience begin to speak among themselves, then suddenly stopping short and freezing mid-sentence as if they are being manipulated by some god-like figure fiddling with his remote control. That's the first fifteen minutes of the film, and it doesn't really become any less peculiar at any point as we follow the interactions of three mysterious people simply named "A" (Delphine Seyrig), "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi), and "M" (Sacha Pitoeff). It would be aimless to describe the complex relationship between these characters, because what the film tells us about them may or may not be a lie.
Perhaps cleverly, director Alain Renais makes his film very difficult to judge by making the film's intentions very vague. Everything here is undoubtedly intentional, but without knowing to what end it becomes challenging to say whether or not the intentions are successful. The dialogue (provided courtesy of the acclaimed novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet) is simultaneously eloquent and banal, suggesting…what? The popular readings of the film are as varied and unpredictable as Renais' artistic choices. Some see it as a statement about a world living in the wake of nuclear holocaust, some see it as meditation on the nature of cinema and the many possibilities it contains, and some see it as a meditation on the effects of rape. When the film was released, the marketing campaign included lots of statements warning viewers that everyone would probably have their own personal interpretation of the film.
Considering that, perhaps it is simply best to experience the film rather than definitely understand it. I completely sympathize with those who wish to make a stab at uncovering whatever mysteries Last Year at Marienbad may or may not contain. For myself, I fear that way madness lies, so let me shun that. I find the film intriguing and strangely alluring, but its extremely cold nature is a factor that will probably prevent me from returning to it nearly as often as to something like the aforementioned Mulholland Drive. I accept the idea that the film offers a representation of just how far cinema can stretch itself, but I reject the concept that this film offers a more evolved, superior option to boring old linear storytelling. Renais and Robbe-Grillet seemed to feel that linear storytelling was something we needed to grow out of in order to move on as cultured human beings. I'm sure that many of you will agree a more broad-minded and inclusive mindset that has room for all sorts of cinema seems a good deal more appealing.
Criterion has once again done an excellent job with the transfer here. The previous DVD release of the film was criticized for containing a great deal of dirt, grain, flecks and specks, most of which has been removed here. The transfer was supervised and approved by Renais himself, and the result is yet another strong restoration of a classic film by Criterion. The image is very clear and clean throughout, offering rich and gorgeous renderings of the moody black-and-white scenes presented here. There are a few scratches early on during the credits, but such problems are greatly decreased throughout the majority of the film. Natural grain has been left intact, and the level of detail is quite stellar despite some rather soft shots from time to time. The mono audio is fairly impressive, particularly in terms of the dialogue. Every word is crisp and sharp here, without any of the hiss or distortion that occasionally afflicts films of this era. The avant-garde organ score occasionally sounds a little weathered, but not enough to make this viewer complain.
The extras included here are typically excellent if somewhat lighter than usual for Criterion. First up is a 33-minute making of documentary that chronicles the film's creation. This is excellent stuff, and includes interviews with numerous surviving crew members. Even better is Ginette Vincendeau's 23-minute analysis of the film, which does what it can to demystify the film without ever actually committing to any of the many wild theories floating around out there. You also get a 33-minute audio interview with Renais, who mostly focuses on the artistic decisions he made in this film, and two brief documentaries made by Renais in the 1950s. The documentaries are nice to have, but they're a little dry. There are also a handful of theatrical trailers included. Finally, you get the usual booklet, this time containing several essays by Mark Polizzotti and Francois Thomas.
Last Year at Marienbad is a fascinating, memorable, maddening avant-garde film that deserves to be seen. You may love it, you may hate it, but I sincerely doubt that you'll ever forget it. This is brave cinema that is both irritating and enthralling.
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