BluRay/DVD Reviews

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD

By • Oct 19th, 2009 •

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Disclosure: I agreed to review this release months ago. I was swayed by memories of youth and rococo hotel rooms. In college, I studied French and Italian – and everything those supple languages implied. Oh Love! Oh Existentialism! Oh Junior Year Abroad! Who cared what LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD was about — I wanted to look as ravishing staring into nothingness as Delphine Seyrig, and longed to have someone as dark and passionate as Giorgio Albertazzi eating his heart out over me.

Then I remembered that I grew up. The hotel rooms were usually dusty. No one should take offence, but I vowed to never again date anyone French or Italian. Other memories of MARIENBAD crept up on me. I started dreading its existential dialogue, and contemplated racing through its endless geometric gardens on 8x. So I put off watching it until, well, now.

What a mistake! Yes, there are those Euclidian landscapes, and even more Euclidian conversations, yet it is anything but dry and cerebral. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet draw you in step by mysterious step until you surrender. MARIENBAD may be enigma incarnate, but that’s just it – it makes its idea carnal.

MARIENBAD is that rare feat of storytelling in which the story itself is the idea. I know this sounds very “meta” and if you insist on abstracting these things, go ahead. But the truth is that the most ubiquitous suspense in life is based on the oldest story- the drama that ensues from the moment of attraction until the point of no return. It’s still the same old story/a fight for love and glory/a case of do or die/the world will always welcome lovers/as time goes by. We forget that each time we actually live this story it feels as though we’ve never felt it before.

How many love stories are there in film today? Not very many – and not because we have ceased to fall in love or to be enthralled by the experience. It is because love’s narrative form has petrified from age. It has become so predictable that it is DOA.

It was Robbe-Grillet’s mission to kill narrative itself so that we would again feel the life that it represents. The rhetorical questions, the circling and backtracking of dialogue that is Robbe-Grillet’s hallmark, is the writer stalking his obsession in the guise of an obsession we all know too well.

Resnais’s genius is to give this restlessness a body. The imagery of Marienbad – its palatial volumes; its glimmering, mirrored rooms; its topiaried allees of statuary which seem to be lovers suddenly turned to stone by a sorcerer – is not the cold surface many have described. It is skin, which, like Seyrig’s alabaster décolletage, throbs with intensity. The camera’s attention to detail is such that you feel you are in these rooms yourself, exploring by touch – cold crystal, luscious velvet, riffling feathers, lace, leaves….

More has been written about LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD than almost any other film (Roger Ebert has a nice, lucid piece) – so I am going to eschew the review of the original film itself. Rather, I want to celebrate this exquisitely crafted release by Criterion and tantalize you into seeing the film yourself. This director-approved edition includes a new interview with Resnais , interviews with many of his collaborators, and two of the director’s acclaimed documentaries (TOUTE LA MEMOIRE DU MONDE (1956), and LE CHANT DE STYRENE (1958)), among other features. It is accompanied by a little book that includes interviews with Robbe-Grillet, and an exceptionally literate and insightful essay by Mark Polizotti, director of publications and intellectual property at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

A last note on LAST YEAR: All of Delphine Seyrig’s costumes are by Coco Chanel, and constitute in themselves an essay on elegance and luxury. They are emblematic of the pleasures of this film, which made me happy I had studied the Romance languages after all. Criterion calls the film “not just one of the defining works of the French New Wave but one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art.” The former is arguable, the latter – absolute truth.

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