Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
I once had a friend who was the spitting image of “The Comic Book Guy” from “The Simpsons,” only he didn’t care much for comics – his domain of expertise was fantasy and science fiction. Now I certainly knew my Asimov from my Ellison, so as far as sci-fi went, I could totally hold my own with this guy. But when it came to the realms of fantasy I was a mere dabbler, at best. And so one day at lunch (this was in high school) I was naïve and foolish enough to ask if he had ever heard of a trilogy of novels, the first of which I had just started to read: something called The Lord of the Rings. And I will never forget the look he gave me – it as if he was both shocked by my imprudent presumptuousness (how dare I even assume such a thing?) and at the same time moved to the deepest depths of pity for the poor, benighted soul he saw sitting across from him. It’s a look I can imagine eliciting in certain cinéaste circles if I were ever to admit to not having seen Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961). Luckily I can avoid this dire fate, as I have finally had the chance to view it.
The sine qua non of the “pretentious art film,” the movie that spawned a thousand Calvin Klein ads, you would have thought that a person like me, a person who has been known to conspicuously read books of poetry in public and casually drop phrases like “sine qua non” into reviews, a person who, upon hearing the words “seven and a half hour Hungarian film,” will literally start salivating, a person in whose top 10 list of albums is Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a person who, if he thought he could pull it off, would totally wear a monocle, well, you know, you would have thought that a person like me would have been all over Last Year At Marienbad by now. But somehow I’ve managed to miss it. Or maybe avoid it is more like it, because despite my reputation for “pretentiousness,” I generally have little patience for cold, prohibitively difficult, self-consciously “deep” movies, of which, from all accounts I had read, Last Year At Marienbad was the shining exemplar.
Last Year At Marienbad is certainly a pretentious film, in the sense that it is overtly ambitious and self-aware of its own “importance.” It is a film that sports a monocle. Directed by Resnais from a script by experimental novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film has a stately elegance, gliding its way across the screen with nary a hair out of place. It concerns a trio of characters, none of which are named, either on screen or in the credits, being designated in the script only by the letters, A, X and M. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet treat them as such, less as people than as enigmatic symbols: variables in an algebraic equation. All three are of the haute bourgeoisie, guests at a palatial resort hotel located in some unspecified European city. The time is also ambiguous, but one can assume it to be pre-World War II, although perhaps it is more precise to say that it is of no time, of no place; the film is above such mundane matters.
A (Delphine Seyrig), a beautiful, elegant woman, is pursued by X (Giorgio Albertazzi), a handsome, elegant man, through the lush, opulent hallways and gardens of a hotel. He is trying to persuade her that they had met and fallen in love a year ago; perhaps in Marienbad, or in Kalstadt or in Baden-Salsa; again, the place and time doesn’t matter, only that they had met and that they were in love. He says that A had promised to meet him here, at this hotel, in a year’s time. Over and over he attempts to persuade her, with an increasing sense of desperation, to leave her husband (or companion, or guardian) M (Sacha Pitoëff) and go away with him. A continually denies having met X last year or any year, until at last, perhaps, she does. She either remembers or admits to having pretended to forget. Or she doesn’t. The film was specifically and deliberately designed to remain ambiguous; everything about it is calculated to avoid delivering a definite meaning. Perhaps X is delusional; perhaps he infects A with his insanity so that she remembers things that never happened. Or perhaps A is dead – there are intimations of murder lurking behind the scenes – and everything we see takes place in some post-mortem limbo. The evidence is conflicting; reports contradictory.
The skill with which the filmmakers achieved this level of uncertainty is impressive. Resnais’ control of filmic grammar and technique is absolute. The film is like an intricate puzzle box, a vast mechanism whose interlocking design consists of long, languid camera movements through cold, inhuman spaces (Stanley Kubrick was certainly watching), elegantly dressed men and women precisely arranged in static poses (spawning an entire fashion industry) and a deviously designed mise-en-scene, straight out of Hitchcock. Only unlike the Master’s use of camera angles and edits, Resnais has no interest in using cinematic technique to elicit the audience’s emotion or to involve them in the story. In fact, his aim is quite the opposite – to alienate the audience, to avoid having them get too close to the world of the film. Which is not a bad thing, and I don’t mean to imply that it is. My favorite director is Jean-Luc Godard, an artist well known for making self-reflexive (and yes, “pretentious”) films, films that definitely keep their audience at arm’s length. So reflexivity is not the problem. The problem is whether or not these distancing effects serve any purpose beyond themselves; whether they allow the viewer to hold back from immediate identification in order to achieve a greater, perhaps a deeper level of aesthetic bliss than would be possible otherwise; or whether it is simply a form of intellectual masturbation.
As far as Last Year At Marienbad goes, for me, the jury is still out. After only one viewing, I feel that it is premature to pass final judgment. There are certainly puzzles left unsolved, and indeed many that I failed to even notice. I am sure that with further study more of the film’s many mysteries could be laid bare. The question is whether the effort would be worth it. I’m not so sure. What I do know is that Last Year At Marienbad is visually stunning and evocative of a very definite, surreal mood (David Lynch was also most definitely watching). It is unlike any other movie I can think of in terms of the particular effects it achieves. The settings and characters are iconic – Delphine Seyrig is particularly luminous – and the score, although lugubrious at times, is appropriate to the heightened reality of the film’s world.
So yes, Last Year At Marienbad is a pretentious film. But pretentious isn’t always a bad thing, and in fact the word, or at least as it is used today, is to me a badge of honor. I like being pretentious, if by “pretentious” it is meant somebody who genuinely enjoys art that challenges, that is fruitfully difficult; works that are unique or demanding or strange. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes – I am pretentious and proud of it. But the word “pretentious” has another meaning, too. Originally it was used to refer to a person who pretended to possess a level of worth or stature that they didn’t, in fact, possess. A person who affected an exaggerated degree of importance or standing. A poseur, basically. Am I pretentious in that sense, too? Maybe a little. I think we all wear masks. We pretend to be smarter than we are, try to give off a certain impression to those around us – it’s just something people do. We all want to be liked. Looked at from a certain angle, being a little bit pretentious can maybe be an endearing trait. After all is said and done, Last Year At Marienbad, pretentious as it may be, is a likable, enjoyable film. But it’s a film that wears a mask; in fact a series of them. If I were to peel away its masks one by one, what would I find when I finally reached the bottom? I am almost afraid to find out.