Thursday, August 22, 2013

Last Year at Marienbad

I at long last sat down to watch 1961's LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few months back and found myself quite disoriented. This was hardly unexpected as the film is unanimously described as "enigmatic" and a  "puzzler". It was unsurprising to feel bewildered. But something was really not right.  The film's timeline seemed to double back on itself.  A scene, viewed minutes earlier, repeated. You might expect this in some films, when an event is shown from another perspective.  But the scene played exactly the same, as did each cut. I finally realized that my DVD player was on "shuffle" mode, playing each chapter in random order. Some indeed were repeating.  I felt like a moron.

But also unsurprisingly, MARIENBAD may work just as well when viewed this way. Alain Resnais's film can be interpreted in so many differing fashions it almost doesn't matter which scene you watch first, or last. Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbes-Gillet were never in the same space when the screenplay was written and the film was shot, yet both expressed, after seeing the respective results, how similar their visions were. Quite unlike any two viewers who offer their thoughts on this movie. The business of the script does present moments viewed from different perspectives, and although there are also three main characters, two men and one woman, this is not RASHOMON.

We're in a large, mysterious chateau in the Czech Republic.  A man continually approaches a woman, insisting they had met the year before.  She is bothered and denies this. Her eyes and body language betray her words.  There's a third figure, a man we learn is the woman's husband. A man who is deft with a curious mathematical parlor game involving sticks that may remind you of that golf tee pegboard that distracts you while you wait for your food at Cracker Barrel.  Man #1 is beaten by him every time. In fact, every opponent loses to Man #2. We wonder about #2, his alleged mortality.

The film continues.  There are flashbacks. Trysts in the garden, in the bedroom.  A possible rape.  Tricks of memory. The characters cannot trust theirs and we certainly can't trust Resnais. We look for clues. To sort possible red herrings. Maybe it's better not to try to figure it out. If you play detective, you'll only uncover frustration.  Pure art willfully paints outside the lines.
I've watched LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few times.  I will need more viewings, many more. Will absorbing the sights and sounds bring me any closer to clarity? Possibly. Likely, I will discover a subtlety of a movement, how it may relate to another. How the words spoken fit. It does not matter. MARIENBAD is not to be treated like a Rubik's cube. There is no destination, no finality. It is a labyrinth in which you may well be forever lost. In which a familiar path may in fact be something entirely different, and lead you further astray. You may feel as if you've arrived at a logical conclusion by fade out. If that makes you feel better, fine.

Resnais shoots his film as if an apparition was holding the camera, floating through incredibly ornate ballrooms and eerie hallways. I wondered if Kubrick thought on it for THE SHINING. Or the Coen Brothers for BARTON FINK. What is it about hotels? Can there be a better metaphor for transience? A place in which you call home if but for one night, but possibly never to return. Or not, if you believe in reincarnation (to again reference Kubrick's film) . Or, if you've taken MARIENBAD as a ghost story, the entire movie opens up into some different. This is why, perhaps for this more than many other films, you need to revisit. Even if you've memorized every moment of it. You may have seen nothing. Then you watch it again, as if for the first time.

I like to sink in this film and imagine it as if it was intended to be on random play. Chapters out of sequence, forming that new movie every time. Perhaps Resnais would suggest that one not be so mindful if his film plays in the intended order.

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