the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

DVD Review: LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD

(L'AnnČe derniĖre ‡ Marienbad)
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1961
Cast: Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig
Director: Alain Resnais
Release Date: June 25, 2009, 12:24 pm
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:34m:37s

"Have I changed that much? Or are you pretending not to know me?" - X (Giorgio Albertazzi)

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD
Buy Now @ Amazon

A profound exploration of the human condition? Or simply a movie designed to make you feel stupid?

Movie Grade: B+

DVD Grade: A-

At a recent performance of Waiting for Godot, at intermission I could see that half the audience looked enthralled, the other half baffled, and I thought that some enterprising soul in these hard economic times could pick up a couple of dollars peddling Cliffs Notes for the play. Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad isn't the epic cultural achievement that Beckett's play is, but it similarly cleaves its audience in half. I will admit that this is one of those movies that makes me want to call bullshit, that it feels often like the emperor's new clothes of cinema—but there's a lot to be said for its sustained vision, its clarity of intent and execution, and, without doubt, its enormous influence, on movies as varied as The Shining, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The film was written by another Alain, Robbe-Grillet, and while it claims too much for him to put him on par with Borges and Nabokov, he's just as interested in subverting the conventional expectations of narrative. Robbe-Grillet cannot deign even to give his characters' names—there are only three of them, A, X and M. (This kind of thing immediately pushes us into the realm of the precious, I think, but your mileage may vary.) The story takes place in a great labyrinth of a hotel, catering to Europe's moneyed classes, and infantilizing them—it's like Mann's Magic Mountain without the tuberculosis. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) insists that he and A (the gamine Delphine Seyrig) had an encounter of some sort, some time, in the recent past, more than likely under the circumstances of the title; she denies it, he tries to convince her, and M (Sacha Pitoëff) performs parlor tricks. The End.

Obviously there's more to it than that—you may think at first that it's a great big Rubik's Cube of a movie, but you soon discover that it's a fool's errand to try and solve the puzzle. You can't find the answer; there is no answer. Just let it wash over you, the water's fine. It's strange that it's a mystery movie with no interest in its solution, and the theme and variation can become warying—one viewing will meet your lifetime quota of dolly shots down hotel corridors, for instance, and Robbe-Grillet's contempt for conventional narrative means that this is a movie that refuses to sustain dramatic interest.

Much of it is visually splendid, though—the striking images in the sculptural topiary gardens are captivating and menacing, even though they're bathed in gorgeous sunlight. A little bit goes a long way, though; it's a movie to watch more as eye candy than anything else, or for intellectual engagement in brief bursts.

This two-DVD set offers some peculiarities as well—Resnais insisted that the original soundtrack be available as well as the recently restored one, though if one wanted to replicate the theatrical experience of the film's initial release, one would likely not be watching this film on DVD. Disc One also offers two trailers: one from the film's original release, the other from its more recent tour of the art house circuit.

Disc Two opens with an audio interview (32m:58s) with Resnais, in French with English subtitles, which can be trying; scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers an exegesis (22m:57s), discusses the partnership between the writer and director, and situates the film's place in the nouvelle vague. Unraveling the Engima: The Making of Marienbad (32m:36s) doesn't make good on the promise of its title, but does feature recollections from the crew of an intense and challenging shoot. Most notable among those interviewed is second assistant director Volker Schlöndorff, who went on to a distinguished directing career himself with films like The Tin Drum.

Best of all are two early Resnais documentaries, in which you can see the director finding his style—especially notable is Le chant du styrene, an ode to industry which, unlike the feature, is shot in color. And the substantial accompanying booklet emphasizes Robbe-Grillet's contribution to the project, forcing a tough reconsideration of the underlying tenets of auteurism.

Jon Danziger June 25, 2009, 12:24 pm