Blowin' Your Mind

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Last Year at Marienbad

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

It turns out that this notoriously opaque/empty provocation is not a naked emperor at all. Its opaqueness is intentional, strategical, and extremely useful. A seeming lack of meaning turns out to be an actual surfeit, though it’s an elusive abundance. Last Year at Marienbad is actually great in all sorts of ways, and all of those ways are quite clear. Clear at least to a person who has had the good fortune to sit in on and hear and learn all sorts of interesting film history, film theory, interpretive and critical strategies, and other cool intertextual stuff. If I were seeing this cold in 1961, or was a smart person not used to mind-melting cinema, or a high school student who stumbled into the wrong theatre, I might feel differently.

But let’s give it a try. First—beautiful! Technical credits, every single cinematic thing here is beyond reproach, gleaming, exact, stupendous. It’s a hard beauty, mind, but there are always thematic or philosophical or plain formal reasons for that, and beautiful is beautiful. Last Year at Marienbad is at least partly a film about objects in a space, or about objects, or about space. It’s a study in movement and stasis, and vice versa. It behaves like a critique or exposé of the bourgeoisie, what with everyone dressed so stunningly and standing about in that enervated, sated, desanguinated way. Conversations are aggressively and artfully empty—like Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, reset in an enormous aristocratic morgue. Aggressive, but not amusing: in the early, anti-establishing scenes, and especially at that terrifically terrifying play we’re among vampires much more menacing than Ingmar Bergman or Roman Polanski, 1967. This is what Visconti’s The Damned was going for. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais get there, much more devastatingly. (The films are utterly unlike on the surface, but this time Marienbad actually brought Fritz Lang’s M to mind. Götterdämmerung indeed!)

Shades of Citizen Kane: two participants, and never any agreement about what happened between them. Note, for instance, the radical shifts in setting and décor. You’d think this world was objective, and measurable, with all of its sharp images, exact compositions and precise movements. Alas, no. The same goes with story, or even genre. It’s a love story. Or this ennui and satedness are the result of sensual excess, or sensual emptiness. X is trying to remember or replicate or generate something, but it isn’t possible, and it can’t be possible. So, it’s a critique of heartlessness. Or of heartless women.

Or, and this gets more convincing, it’s a rape story. Back to those radical shifts of setting and décor—it’s a violation that led to a psychic break, and to this subsequent expressionist nightmare, which externalizes and makes flesh this woman’s shattered world. Repulsion! Before Repulsion. And we haven’t even accounted for all those threatening games of Nim.

Look at all those options! Multiplication like this might, usually, mean a failed film. But not if the ultimate, deepest narrative here is that of our perceptual processes, as we share them collectively or culturally, as well as in the ways they individually operate in each one of us. All of Marienbad‘s mystifications and ambiguities turn semiotic certainty and the simplicities of entertainment into a dialogic funhouse. It’s not what they say, but what you get out of it. Forward to Kubrick’s 2001, maybe, and to so much more.

Now I might have made it sound easier than it is, and this kind of thing has led to lots of nonsense. And am I that big of an Andrei Tarkovsky fan? But when it works, and it sure does here, what a challenge, what fun, and what a favour!

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