Deja vu, times two

Pub date March 19, 2008
SectionFilm Review

TAKE ONE With his short film Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais introduced the world to his idiosyncratic and esoteric filmmaking, while offering an initial glance at his obsessions with memory, time, and space. He would further elaborate on this trio of fixations in his extraordinary debut feature, Hiroshima mon Amour (1959). But his second feature, Last Year in Marienbad (1961), is where Resnais truly allowed himself to grapple with these issues, as well as with cinematic form.

Because of its enigmatic plot, mysterious characters, and various peculiarities, Marienbad has inspired a wide variety of discussions about the nature of time and memory, and about the divisions and links between reality and fantasy. Although such explorations are totally valid, the most striking — and perhaps somewhat neglected — of Marienbad‘s many wonderfully bizarre features is its treatment of space.

Resnais’ choice and use of locations is very imposing. Marienbad‘s two protagonists — including Delphine Seyrig in only her second feature role — encounter each other at a hotel, and try to figure out whether they had met and fallen in love at that same place a year ago. The hotel is actually composed from the interiors and exteriors of various grandiose chateaux in Germany. Impressive scales, strictly geometric gardens, and an exhaustive array of rooms immediately give the impression of a sumptuous maze in which one can get trapped and become lost.

Employing repetitive long pans and dolly shots throughout most of the film, Resnais painstakingly observes the hotel’s interiors, emphasizing their excessive ornamentation. Endless corridors give way to doorways that yield yet more hallways and living rooms. All of them are decorated to perfection; all of them feel terribly empty, cold, still, and asphyxiating. These images are juxtaposed with shots that similarly observe the hotel’s occupants. Clad in their flamboyant Coco Chanel dresses, members of the bourgeoisie are shown aimlessly wondering around the hotel, engaging in commonplace activities and conversations.

By complimenting this visual pattern with eerie organ music, Resnais achieves a striking effect. As film professor and writer Laura Rascaroli puts it: “The [film recalls] one of the main features of baroque architecture, the use of a superabundance of details and decorative elements as a means of filling up the void and repressing the fear of nothingness, of oblivion, of death.”

Few filmmakers manage to treat space as more than mere background. Michelangelo Antonioni is one obvious example. In Marienbad, Resnais moves beyond an exploration of the creative possibilities that a film’s space has to offer. He goes so far as to use space to actually produce meaning. That idea, perhaps more than anything else, is what this ageless masterpiece is all about. (Maria Komodore)

TAKE TWO To begin, a word for Sylvette Baudrot, “script girl” for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s arch postmodernist plaything, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Film critics are often guilty of underplaying contributions by screenwriters and cinematographers, but script girls? You’d better believe it with a film as rigorously mathematical as Marienbad. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s creation defies continuity, but it rests heavily on bridges and echoes, its staging directions endowed with interlocking, psychic value — all impossible, one assumes, without Baudrot’s attentive supervision. Resnais goofily nods to his obsessive predecessor Alfred Hitchcock when he places a cardboard cutout of the master of suspense in an early shot. But Baudrot provides the direct link: she was the script supervisor on Hitchcock’s 1955 Riviera dalliance, To Catch a Thief.

Credentials aside, Last Year at Marienbad is an elegant whirlpool, all the more notable for being made amid the fuck-all bluster of the early French new wave. At a sodden grand hotel, “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) implores “A” (Delphine Seyrig) that they met the previous year and agreed to reconvene away from the watchful eye of A’s husband “M” (Sacha Pitoëff). Some of the aspects surrounding these characters seem hopelessly musty, encrusted by decades of swollen undergraduate debate. There is the flattening score, and the famous strategy game that M always wins. Try not to giggle at those scenes in which a character’s bulging eyes conjure so many Universal B-movies — indeed, Pitoëff seems to have been cast for his gaunt shape, evocative as it is of Karloffs and Lugosis past.

And yet, Marienbad‘s distancing front-line of attack remains a radical proposition: erotic obsession defanged of the eros, and further soused in sounds and images that seem, if not deceitful, then at least unverifiable. At the center of this opaque sphere is Seyrig who, as A, has the unenviable task of making something of being more than a marionette. The film is most symphonic — and terrifying — in those moments when Resnais’ camera movements collude with Albertazzi’s direct address, simultaneously conjecturing and ensnaring the imagined A.

Marienbad‘s chilly core endures despite the extent to which its formalist shock tactics have been assimilated into mainstream productions. In stretching cinematic space-time like so much chewing gum, the film provides a direct link between Louis Feuillade’s shape-shifting serials (1913’s Fantômas, 1915’s Les Vampires), Stanley Kubrick’s gliding horror (1980’s The Shining, in particular) and latter-day brainteasers like Memento (2000), Being John Malkovich and The Matrix (both 1999). If this is Resnais’ unexpected lineage, Seyrig’s A keeps a different company. She’s still lost in Marienbad‘s hall-of-mirrors (the last line, like a curse: “Losing your way in the still night, alone with me”). But while there, she might catch a reflection of some kindred spirits: Kim Novak, of course, but also Rita Hayworth, Laura Dern, and least suspecting of them all, Rose in Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936). (Max Goldberg)


Through March 27

Opens Fri/21; $7–$9.50

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120