Saturday, July 19, 2008

I Have Always Been Here Before

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD / L'Annee derni/(R)re /* Marienbad
(Alain Resnais, France, 1961, 94 mins.)


[A]n elaborate joke on the world's corniest pickup line.
-- J. Hoberman (he liked it)

The snow job in the ice palace.
-- Pauline Kael (she didn't)

***** ***** *****

The entire thing plays out in a grand old Bavarian hotel. In his narration, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) describes it as baroque, and cinematographer Sacha Vierny (Belle de Jour) luxuriates in the ornate detailing. For all its aesthetic appeal, the structure is as silent as the grave and as spooky as hell. Meanwhile, Francis Seyrig's organ
score recalls gothic reveries, like The Phantom of the Opera and La Belle et la B/(TM)te.

These elements combine to suggest something similar, except the horror Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) conjures up is of the more Existential kind. As with Jack Nicholson's caretaker in The Shining, X makes it sound as if he's always been here, as if he never left. Though he despises the hotel as much as he admires it,
he can't pull himself away. The hotel doesn't represent the past, it is the past.

Vierny follows the other elegantly-dressed guests around. Their conversations
have no beginnings or endings, only enigmatic centers. "You confine me in a sil-
ence worse than death," a tall man tells his fashionable female companion. She doesn't put up much of a protest; just stands there, posing in her pale finery.
The DP also takes in a play, a card game, and an eerie target practice: on the hotel's second floor, the men, including X, stand in a row, turn around, shoot, then face the camera again. (Vierny captures this bizarre scenario from a low angle).
All the while, X insists that he and the Chanel-clad A (Delphine Seyrig, the com-
poser's sister) met the year before. He remembers every detail. She doesn't.
Resnais then presents their meeting largely as X describes it. Since he's the
narrator, we see it from his point of view...whether it actually happened or not.
He notices A outside the hotel, leaning against the railing that overlooks the im-
maculately-manicured grounds. Her diaphanous white dress floats in the breeze.
A Grecian-style statue of a man, a woman, and a dog looms over the couple.
As the reminiscence ends, the wanderings continue. X and A are slightly more animated than their companions, who often stand about like statuary themselves.
Through her actions, rather than her words, A gives the impression that she's rep-
ressed the summer she spent with X, possibly because it ended badly. Or because she's a ghost or a figment of his imagination. The more he talks, the more she seems to remember, though her denials continue until she gives in...or does she?
Marienbad's detractors, of which there are many, claim that nothing happens in the film. They couldn't be more wrong. Something is always happening (or repeating itself), and Vierny's camera doesn't miss a trick. The cinematographer moves like a phantom or an insect along the ceilings, the windows, the walls, and the staircases.
Fast-paced action may be in short supply, i.e. there is none, but the work of Vierny and editor Jasmine Chasney, both Hiroshima vets, anticipates the swoops and glides of Stanley Kubrick's Steadicam era (particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut), Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Alexander Sokurov's one-shot Russian Ark-and Calvin Klein's fragrance ads.
If that makes it sound as if the actors are secondary to their foreboding surroundings, so be it. The ambiguity of the performances serves the am-
biguity of Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Oscar-nominated script. Wheth-
er it's great acting or not, there's more to it than simply hitting marks.
Albertazzi may be somewhat wooden and Sacha Pito/'ff, as A's sepulchral
husband figure, may be mostly menacing, but Seyrig's inscrutability is strange-
ly compelling. With her silent-movie make-up and feathered gowns, she comes
on like a post-modern gloss on Dietrich or Garbo at the height of their glam-
our. One false or over-played move and the entire edifice would collapse.
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Last Year at Marienbad falls into the dreaded and/or hallowed not-for-everyone category, along with such film
school staples as The Seventh Seal, 8 1/2, and L'Avventura. All are open-ended, beautifully-photographed, ripe-for-parody masterpieces. And it's impossible not to react to them in some way, even if that reaction is unadulterated hate. But if you care at all about film, you should see Marienbad at least once-ideally several times.
Last Year at Marienbad, in a new 35mm print, plays SIFF Cinema through 7/24 (8pm daily; 2 and 8pm on Sat. and Sun.). The theater is located at 321 Mercer Street at the Seattle Center's Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. For more information, please click here (you can also purchase tickets through the site) or call 206-633-7151.
According to Adam Sekuler at the Northwest Film Forum, "[During] the first
two weekends in September, we'll be screening the first four films Robbe-Gril-
let directed. All new 35mm prints, and most not seen in the US: The Immortal
, The Man Who Lies, Eden and After, and Trans-Europ Express." This Art For-
piece offers a critical look at the unusual career of the late novelist/screen-
writer/director. Images from DVD Beaver, Roger Ebert, and SIFF Cinema.


  1. "Last Year At Marienbad" is one of my all-time favorite films and the single film I would most like to spend a lifetime in. At least, I wouldn't mind spending a year or two trapped in that hotel and, by the looks of it, the same could be said of the many filmmakers and photographers who have been influenced by it. I for one, can date my hallway photographing fetish from Resnais's film.
    As for the music. For a long time I thought it sounded like Messiaen and Jean-Louis Leutrat's BFI book on Marienbad explains that Resnais originally wanted Messiaen to do the score, but he declined. Resnais tried a few other approaches, then finally settled on Francis Seyrig, a student of Messiaen's. Resnais didn't really explain what he wanted, but Seyrig decided it should be something Wagnerian in the romantic sections, but with a 1925 feel mixed in with something utterly Modern. A style which, in a word, describes early Messiaen. However, it should be noted that, ten years prior to Seyrig's score, Ligeti composed "Ricercare", an organ piece that sounds freakishly similar to the Marienbad music. However, whether Seyrig was familiar with "Ricercare", is another mystery. HOWEVER, Kubrick used a piano version of Ligeti's piece in "Eyes Wide Shut".
    So, yes, everyone has met at Marienbad and they have always been there before.

  2. Thanks for the history, Steven. Seyrig's score really adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. And, of course, I've always been a fan of the Roky Erickson track that gives this post its title...
    I have always been here before
    allowing my mind's call of no love
    incorporate more never stops his flow
    I have always been here before.