Monday, February 4, 2008

Movies: Last Year at Marienbad

My first experience of this film was via a dreadfully dull and lengthy article I was assigned my first semester of grad school. I hadn't seen the film (and we didn't watch it in class—one of my biggest complaints about the program was that we never looked at art, though we were supposedly there to talk about it), and therefore couldn't make much sense of the article (and by the way, it wasn't a film class). My boyfriend at the time rented it on VHS for us to watch—turns out the screenplay is by one of his favorite authors, Alain Robbe-Grillet (the source, I imagine, of the film's repressed weirdness)—but I fell asleep. Twice. That was almost five years ago. And so, when I found out that Film Forum was screening it, I felt a kind of obligation to give the movie another try.

I had vague recollections of a very manicured French garden, with parallel lanes and topiaries, a nearly blinding sunlight that rendered the black and white film completely matte and almost gray, and a coy blonde sitting on the balustrade. So, the first half hour of the movie, in which the camera roves around the empty architecture of a baroque palace-like hotel, scanning over the ceilings dripping with painted plaster, the chandeliers, the paintings, the marble, the mirrors, while a man's voice nostalgically describes the space (in French, of course), repeating certain phrases again and again (a very Alain Robbe-Grillet thing to do, mind you), in a dreamy, nostalgic, subdued-but-intense voice, seemed even stranger to me than the other people in the theater, who didn't have expectations. Eventually, after this long introduction, the hotel becomes populated with people (they look like models at a Ralph Lauren photo shoot, waiting for Helmut Newton to finish his espresso). The camera roves around, observing their cocktail dresses, their heavily-made up faces, their diamond jewelry. It pauses now and then, and everyone freezes; then it starts again. The guests are watching an odd play, one with a very wooden set (modeled on the garden of which I had some recollection) and two equally wooden actors. The actress' monologue will be repeated at the movie's end, in another Alain Robbe-Grillet linear twist.

We are soon introduced to the main characters: a woman, (brunette—odd that I remembered her blonde) attractive but deathly thin and with heavy eyebrows, whose psyche manifests fully in her posture—the bent, cowering figure and buggy eyes of Space Ghost's Zorak, a man, the possessor of the heretofore disembodied nostalgic voice, and a taller, thinner (actually, disturbingly tall and thin) man, who constantly engages the other guests in a simple game involving the alternate picking up of items (playing cards, matchsticks, no matter) arranged in a specific pattern—a game that he always wins. As the film develops, the man with the voice hovers near the brunette. The hotel guests seem to be trapped at this vacation spot, dining together, drinking together, joining together in the game room to pass time. Inevitably, the camera seeks out either the man with the voice or the woman with the eyebrows—we can't tell which, because the man is always hovering disturbingly near the woman. He talks to her in that subdued, intense voice (which mounts, as the film continues, as if the hotel itself were a pressure cooker), about their time together last year—it must have been at Marienbad—there was a garden. . . and she denies it; no, she does not know him; no, she was never at Marienbad. Now and then the tall thin man arrives, and hovers as well—we begin to understand that he's her husband, though he doesn't seem to pay much attention to her until it's too late.

The man with the voice continues to stalk the woman with the eyebrows around the hotel. They have the same conversation again and again, in which the man with the voice hypnotically describes the garden; they go outside and talk about the statue there; he tries to touch her face and she warms for a moment, then freezes over again and cowers away from him, enacting a feminine melodrama we don't see in movies today. The soundtrack, eerie at first, becomes more and more excruciating, and the woman begins to have flashbacks to a scene in her bedroom, at which point the film, overexposed, bleaches everything white in a kind of proto-psychedelia. They discuss where the mirrors are in the room, and whether she could have seen him when he walked in, last year (although she still denies that she knows him, that she knew him, or that she saw him last year). Meanwhile, we see her in her room now, her husband coming in, and asking where she was all day (she had been walking the sun-bleached, wind-blown grounds with the man with the voice, who has started to demand that she come away with him, insisting that last year she promised she would, in one year's time). Flashbacks to her bedroom come again, and the man's voice becomes more insistent, less subdued; the music comes to a screeching crescendo, and he insists that he did not force her—never did he force her—and the culminating pressure infers the semi-repressed memory of a rape.

Now the film is nearly over, and the two are having a conversation that mirrors very closely the script of the play at the film's beginning. Mind you, this makes no logical sense, because time has collapses and inverted; how could something be commemorated which hasn't yet happened?

This is only the crown weirdness, set atop all the weirdness we've already encountered, and the ever-so-slightly slowed pace of the man's hypnotic voice, along with the roving movements of the camera, along with the electrifying soundtrack, have beaten us into a kind of suspension-of-logic submission; we are tangled up in reality and memory and flashback and fantasy, locked in a hotel filled with mirrors and dripping with the sickness-inducing distractions of filigree, a garden with paths that seem to march in rigid lines, but then double on themselves, labyrinth-like. And so, when the film ends, we grin, drugged, duped, elated; the movie isn't unlike a drug. If I knew what article that was, I might try and read it again; perhaps it might make sense. Then again, if it's anything like the film (and indeed anything like everything else that was assigned reading that term), there is no chance.


Ariel Churnin said...

i agree with you in the sense that this was a freakishly weird movie. upon reading the newspaper clipping in the theater, i was amazed at how popular it was when it came out in the 1960's. it left me with the same strange empty feeling i had after watching 'rosebud.' both are important films that i watched just because they were important, not out of personal enjoyment.

Joni said...

Gilles Deleuze: Cinema 2 (The Time Image)
Chapter 5: Peaks of Present and Sheets of Past: fourth commentary on Bergson

(You knew I'd have to figure out what article it was!)