Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad

Directed by Alain Resnais and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, L’Annee derniere a Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) is the story of a man who meets a woman at party as he claims to have met her the year before. Instead, the woman denies as he finds himself dealing with her husband as the two fight over the woman. The film is considered to be one of the key films of the French New Wave for its entrancing visual style and unconventional approach to storytelling. Starring Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, and Sacha Pitoeff. L’Annee derniere a Marienbad is an extraordinary yet hypnotic film from Alain Resnais.

A gathering is happening a large yet posh hotel as a man named X (Giorgio Albertazzi) sees a woman named A (Delphine Seyrig) whom he had seen a year before at Marienbad. When he meets her, she claims that she doesn’t remember what happened last year as he continues to pursue her in an attempt to get her to remember. At the same time, X plays a series of thinking games, including Nim, against A’s husband M (Sascha Pitoeff) where he often loses. In his continued to pursuit towards A, he tries to get her to remember though the way he describes certain events of the last year where things start to suddenly be complicated. The tables then turn on X as he wonders if everything he talks about is really a distant memory or a fantasy while A wonders if what X had been saying is true.

What happens when a man is at a gathering where he meets a woman he met the year before and she doesn’t remember him? That is the idea of the film as it’s told in a very unconventional presentation with voice-overs told from the perspective of the man that recalls the descriptions of the events and what happened in this hotel. At the same time, the man is playing against the woman’s husband in a game of wits and chance so he can try to win so he can win this woman. Throughout the entirety of the film, dialogue is repeated to emphasize the idea of memory as the man tries to get the woman to remember details such as the room she stayed in or the fact that her heel broke on one particular day.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay is all an ambiguous take on the idea of memory as it provides more questions than answers? Is everything X had been explaining through the voice-over narrations and directly to A is true? Is it really just a ploy to win the heart of A? Is A in denial of everything including about the picture that X took of her? It’s among the questions that helps drive the story about this supposed meeting as X is dealing with A’s husband in these games where he often loses while she is often looking at a distance at what is happening pondering what X might be saying is true or fiction. This ambiguity is what keeps Robbe Grillet’s script so interesting because there isn’t a lot being said while the dialogue that is said is repeated as a way so that it helps a character remember about this supposed meeting.

The direction of Alain Resnais is exquisitely mesmerizing for the way he presents the film. Featuring lots of tracking shots and compositions that are striking, there is a visual language to the film that is truly unique. While this unconventional presentation for a film with little plot starts off slow and is repetitious with its voice-over and imagery. It’s because Resnais wants the audience to know that what they’re going to see isn’t a traditional film. Throughout the film, the camera moves a lot where would follow a couple through the corridor or zoom towards the balcony looking outside. At the same time, there’s a lot of moments where everything freezes just so Resnais can have the actors be placed in position so the audience can be engaged by the location they’re in. Even in a moment where they’re all dancing in a room through the same choreography or being still while one person is doing something in that shot.

Shot on location at the Nymphenburg Palace and the Schleissheim Palace in the German state of Bavaria, they add to the world of high society where men wear suits and women wear these lavish yet gorgeous dresses. The location is a major character to the story since it allows X to pursue A and use the locations as a way to try and help her remember. The camera is always looking at the locations in and out of the room while it’s always pointing at objects either as a way to remind the audience about what might’ve happened last year or to advance the story for X to battle M.

The direction allow Resnais to have scenes match one another whether it’s A screaming in different places just as it cuts to her screaming in the same position at another location. Then there’s moments where there is a scene where X is playing cards with M and just as the camera pans to a different part of the location. M walks in to the frame from another location as it help create the ambiguity of the film. It’s part of the scheme to help blur fiction and reality as X is commenting on what he believed might’ve happened last year. It’s a style that will amaze some but also annoy others as Resnais creates something that is clearly not for everyone’s taste. Yet, that is an example of what great art should be as it’s meant to provoke a reaction whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. What Resnais does is create a film that is truly exotic and vibrant that is truly out of this world.

The cinematography of Sacha Vierny is a real highlight of the film largely due to Vierney’s black-and-white look which is truly intoxicating to look at. With its evocative yet gray look for many of the interiors and the shadings for in and outside of hotel, there is something that is truly indescribable for the way it looks. The beauty of the photography is unlike anything while Vierny also dabbles with bits of grain and a heightened sense of style for dramatic effects as his work is definitely the film’s big technical highlight.

Editors Henri Colpi and Jasmine Chasney do a fantastic job with the editing in creating a leisured yet methodical pacing for the film. Particularly as they use some stylistic flairs by adding a few dissolves and jump-cuts to play with the film’s ambiguous tone. Production designer Jacques Saulnier and set decorator Charles Merangel do an amazing job with the look for the hotel by surrounding the interiors with gorgeous chandeliers, statues, and furniture that adds to the posh look of the film. Costume designer Bernard Evein does a spectacular job with the costumes in the way he creates the tuxedos and clothes the men wear throughout while it‘s the dresses of Coco Chanel that is the real highlight of the costumes. Chanel’s dresses for A is indescribably elegant to look at from the white dress that A wears outside to the black and the white robe with feathers. If that’s not what great costume is, then that person has no idea what fashion is.

The music by Francis Seyrig is another major highlight of the film for its haunting organ pieces that plays throughout the film. Seyrig’s score acts as an accompaniment as he adds a harmonium and a few strings to the mix. Yet, it’s the organ that plays to the film’s mood by being this brooding yet somber accompaniment that it either enhances or underplays the dramatic events of the film. It’s really a chilling yet magnificent score by Francis Seyrig.

While the cast features a lot of extras and people that are very beautiful in the clothes they wear, they’re really just props to what goes on in the film as it’s largely dominated by its three principle actors. Sascha Pitoeff is excellent as M, A’s husband who wonders what is going on while finding himself being challenged by X where he often comes out the victor as Pitoeff has a striking look that perfect for the character. Giorgio Albertazzi is superb as X, a man pursuing a woman claiming he met her last year as Albertazzi creates a captivating yet eerie performance as a man who could be fooling her or is just desperate.

Finally, there’s Delphine Seyrig in a radiant performance as A. Seyrig brings an elegance that is definitely unique from her hair to her face. The physicality of her performance is also enchanting while her reactions to certain things are truly mesmerizing while the melodramatic approach she took is perfect for the tone of the film. The chemistry between her and Albertazzi is very touching as well as the way she interacts with Pitoeff as also phenomenal. Seyrig’s performance is definitely iconic for what is displayed on film as it’s definitely one of the key performances of that era as no one could pull it off better than the late Delphine Seyrig.

The 2009 2-disc Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio that’s enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Featuring Dolby Digital Surround sound in mono, the film given a high-definition transfer that is approved and supervised by director Alain Resnais. The film also features two different audio mixes at the request of Resnais which includes the restored soundtrack for the film and the original soundtrack that was made for the film back in 1961. The difference between the restored and the original involves a slightly higher pitch in the music as well in the dialogue in the original soundtrack. Along with a new and improved English subtitle, the only special feature in the first disc of the DVD are two trailers with the first being the original and the second is for Rialto’s re-release of the film in 2008.

The second disc of the DVD includes numerous special features relating to the film. The first is Alain Resnais’ 33-minute audio interview as the director discusses the production, screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the reaction towards the film. With Resnais commenting over footage, still shots, and rare pictures, the director talks about his meeting with Robbe-Grillet where the two shared similar tastes in literature and art. Resnais said that working with Robbe-Grillet was inspiring as the two collaborated on the film while producer Raymond Froment helped Resnais with the production by even giving him an extra day to shoot. The screenplay was very complex as Resnais stated that it was a bit difficult because of its tone as he realized that it stripped away the conventions of a traditional script.

For the acting, Resnais revealed that Delphine Seyrig had been studying a lot of methods for her part including the ideas she was taught from Lee Strasberg. Resnais reveals that some of the film’s visual influences came from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and some paintings so that Resnais would create compositions that played like a painting. Resnais revealed that, at the time, the widescreen format wasn’t used a lot in 1960 by French filmmakers and Resnais wanted to use the format for its depth of field though he and his crew had to make lenses that would create the images he wanted. For the locations, Munich was chosen because of financial reasons which worked because it gave Resnais the visuals that he wanted. The overall interview is very illuminating for what it took to make a film like this and from the man who created this revered film.

The thirty-two-and-a-half minute making-of documentary Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad features interviews with production designer Jacques Saulnier, script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, first assistant director Jean Leon, and renowned German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, who was a second assistant director on the film. The four crew members talk about Resnais and the production where because there weren’t a lot of castles and chateaus in France that featured long corridors. They traveled to Germany for that while it helped them financially as Schlondorff was hired because he was a German that can speak French and deal with the German crew.

All of them revealed the difficulty of the eight-week production while Delphine Seyrig’s haircut, which was inspired by the look of Louise Brook in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box, was really an accident because Seyrig previously had a haircut and they put a part of her hair over what was cut. What they all didn’t know was that it would inspire a look which helped the film’s longevity. Leon, Baudrot, and Schlondorff also talk about Resnais’ methods into filmmaking and some of the technical aspects into the compositions. Saulnier reveals a few colored stills of the film which reveals why black-and-white was the obvious choice. The documentary is a superb piece about the film, it’s production, and why it still manages to be talked about as one of the best films ever made.

The twenty-three minute video interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. Vincendeau discusses the film’s importance in the history of cinema as well as why it has a polarizing reaction that still goes on in present time. Vincendeau reveals that because it was made at the time of the French New Wave and Resnais being part of that scene. It was a film that broke from the idea of traditional, straightforward narrative partly due to the writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet who favored a more ambiguous style of storytelling. Robbe-Grillet’s contribution to the film allowed the screenwriter to be more equal with the director which broke some rules of the auteur theory.

Vincendeau says the film’s reaction was due to the fact that it was so unconventional in its narrative and cinematic language. Traditional filmgoers hated it because of it while a more educated, daring filmgoer loved it while the critical reaction was also split. Years later, the film has become more well-received though there are a group of critics and filmgoers that still doesn’t like the film. Vincendeau also brings in some various interpretations about the film while suggesting a feminist view about the behavior of A. In that feminist view, it’s believed that A is repressing herself because of something much deeper as the overall interview is truly fascinating about the film and its impact on cinema.

Two Resnais short documentaries appear for the DVD in the 21-minute Toute la memoire du monde and the 14-minute Le chant du styrene. Toute la memoire du monde is about the national library of France in Paris which reveals what goes on in the library and how things work as it’s a memory bank for everything that was written and published in France. It’s an intriguing piece that features entrancing tracking shots and a haunting score by Maurice Jarre. Le chant du styrene is about the merits and creation of plastic through narration by Pierre Dux through the writings of Raymond Queneau. Shot in color, the short is a fascinating world on plastic as it’s presented with wonderful music and Dux’s lively commentary as it’s a great documentary short from Resnais.

The 46-page booklet features three essays, a screenplay introduction by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a brief note from Alain Resnais about the film’s soundtrack. The first essay entitled Which Year at Where? by film critic Mark Polizzotti is about the film’s importance and cinema as well as small insight into the collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. Notably the changes that Resnais made for the film which did cause some tension between him and Robbe-Grillet though both were happy with the final results. So Close, So Far Away: Alain Robbe-Grillet & Last Year at Marienbad is a short essay Robbe-Grillet’s involvement with the film as well as his writing which was an influential in setting a new wave of French literature.

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the screenplay has the screenwriter discussing his collaboration with Resnais and the importance of being a screenwriter for a film that is directed by someone else. While he revealed that he wasn’t on set throughout the production of the film, he was able to be fully-involved during the development of the film in pre-production as well as going through the changes that Resnais wanted for the shooting. He also talks about the story and its ambiguity was so that it allows the audience to interpret what could’ve happened between X and A as the entire introduction is definitely a great read for anyone who loves the film.

Film scholar Francis Thomas’ essay Afterword: The Myth of “Perfect Harmony” is about the relationship between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet over the film which was a complex relationship that had its issues as well as the joy of two men working together to create this film. It reveals Robbe-Grillet’s issues over Resnais’ decisions that included the casting of Delphine Seyrig, whom Robbe-Grillet was unsure about. It’s a wonderful piece about the collaboration and why they only worked together once. The final text piece is a brief note about the film’s soundtrack from Alain Resnais who reveals why he decided to have two soundtracks for this DVD release in relation to the idea of film remastering and restoration. Particularly as it tries to reach standards that the original soundtrack was never able to do which Resnais believes doesn’t work.

The overall work for the Criterion DVD is outstanding, like all of its releases, as it plays true to the brilliance of the film as well as explain its legendary status. It’s a DVD that fans of Resnais and this film must-have while it also gives people new to the film insight into why it remains a film that people talk about whether they like it or not.

L’Annee derniere a Marienbad is a marvelous yet evocative film from Alain Resnais that features enchanting performances from Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi. While it’s not a film for everyone due to its unconventional approach to storytelling and lack of a strong plot. It is a film that is truly hypnotic in every frame and camera movement that is presented as well as play to the idea of ambiguity in the approach to storytelling. For anyone new to the work of Resnais, this film does serve as a worthy introduction though it is not an easy film to watch. In the end, L’Annee derniere a Marienbad is an elegant yet provocative film from Alain Resnais.

Alain Resnais Films: Night and Fog - Hiroshima Mon Amour - (Muriel) - (The War is Over) - (Je T’aime, je t’aime) - (Stavisky) - (Providence) - Mon oncle d'Amerique - (Life is a Bed of Roses) - (Love Unto Death) - (Melo) - (I Want to Go Home) - (Gershwin) - (Smoking/No Smoking) - (Same Old Song) - (Not on the Lips) - (Private Fears in Public Places) - Wild Grass - (You Haven't Seen Anything Yet) - (Life of Riley)

© thevoid99 2011


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and thorough review! So glad you enjoyed this film... a polarizing one for sure, but one I deeply adore!

thevoid99 said...

It's not an easy film to watch but still, you can't help but be enthralled by its images. Truly a one-of-a-kind film.