Thursday, January 24, 2008

DANSE MACABRE

In NYC on Monday I attended a revival screening of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). It’s probably only the second or third time I’ve seen the film in a theater, though I’ve watched it on tape at least once and on DVD once. My uncertainty as to how many times I’ve viewed it seems related thematically to the film itself and to the fact that the world it depicts may or may not be happening, or may or may not have already happened, or may or may not be about to happen. There’s no film that so effectively suspends one’s sense of the determinate sequence of a story; not even those films that play with alternate versions of the present or alternative constructions of the past – films like Mulholland Drive and Memento come to mind – convey as relentlessly the sense of not knowing where or when we are. And this is in part because, to my mind, Resnais and the scriptwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet never quite let us settle on watching the story unfold; they never let the characters – as people – overcome our sense of the characters as “figures,” chesspieces, perhaps, moving statues, perhaps, talking pictures, certainly.

Following that idea, we could say that the film meditates on film itself – on our willingness to surrender to the dream of movies which has supplanted the willingness to surrender to narratives, whether written or oral – and delivers to us not only the fact of how our experience of what we see is controlled by conventions that the knowing filmmaker can distort to a variety of effects, but also the fact that, psychologically, we are always to some extent spectators of our own psyches as though at the movies, that the world of our dreams includes us and excludes us simultaneously because the “us” we find there is a composite, a story in the conditional, an “as if” or “what if” of “our” own making. Marienbad delivers that sense of the dream /film that at first only vaguely implicates us, even as it seems to be following a kind of inexorable logic that it offers us to follow or interpret. As we do begin to play its game, as we do allow ourselves to respond to the formal rigor of “this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel” as setting, to the beauty of the waspish Delphine Seyrig as the woman, to the distraught insistence of the man (Giorgio Albertazzi), to the unsettling horror movie organ tones, to the fluid tracking shots, to the trompe l’oeils of backgrounds and foregrounds and shadows or their lack, to the snatches of conversation that comment on the action as though spoken by movie-goers, to the alterations in white and black in the woman’s bedroom, to the cadaverous expression of the woman’s current male companion and his uncanny ability to win the matchstick game every time, to the distortions of film treatment, we are drawn into the dream, we begin to have memories of the previous repetition that are impacted by the new version. We are sleuths in search of the "evidence": the image or sequence that will register for each of us uniquely as "key."

Long ago a friend characterized the film as “like being in purgatory,” and that’s not simply a fortuitous comparison. The film enacts purgatory as a space in which figures who seem vaguely to know one another, to share a past or the possibility of a future, meet in a series of scenes that are nonlinear, propelled by – as is generally the case in Robbe-Grillet’s fiction – a restless sense that the elimination of possible permutations will at some point necessarily veer off into the truth, or that the accumulation of versions will exhaust all possible permutations, leaving us with a story that is fully, finally told, if never resolved. My sense watching the film this time was that the husband or companion of the woman, who suspects that his wife is desired by and perhaps desirous of the man, was in many scenes a death figure, his presence suggesting the extent to which the inhabitants of this hotel were present there for all eternity with “no exit.”

But that sense mainly comes through in the first half of the movie when the relationships are less clear; once the movie begins to opt for some version of the infidelity plot it begins to be more reasonable, less a reverie, but even so the idea that the woman and the man are finally leaving together, that she has responded to his importuning and accepted that they really did meet and have an affair “last year at Marienbad,” is suspended in that final shot of the darkened hotel which seems to offer itself as the only place where the couple can exist, corresponding to a certain area of one’s own mind or memory where a strong sense of what could have been or should have been remains to burn on, even after death -- peut-être, as the woman would say.

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