Last Year at Marienbad/L’année dernière à Marienbad

(Alain Resnais, France, 1961): Modernism’s great Egyptian tomb of a movie, as strenuously inscrutable as ancient hieroglyphics, deliberately prowled as though a labyrinth of sacred secrets, and populated by ghosts of the dead. If it sits as stubbornly in its historical moment as the statuary on its great lawns or tuxedoed men locked in eternal matches of the soul-freezing parlour game Nim, it’s supposed to, as Alain Resnais’s film of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script is about time stopped, moments rendered eternal and the impenetrable depths of consciousness in the moment. A huge influence on the comparative hijinks of the similarly labyrinthine hotel spookery of The Shining, from which Kubrick borrowed not only the floatational architectural aesthetic but the idea of everything having already happened and forever happening again, Resnais’s movie is timeless in another sense as well: it’s as mesmerising and soporific as it ever was, as gorgeous and remote, and as monumental and ridiculous. One may laugh at its ritualized repetitive loops of a zombie seduction ritual involving a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) attempting convince a Coco Chanel-outfitted woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they’ve met before, but it’s like laughing at a building or museum diorama of life in Pompeii: it just doesn’t care, for its as immune to emotional response as it is concerned with dramatic logic and engagement. You approach this movie as an unresolvable puzzle and hermetically anti-interpretive experience or not at all, and you accept it as a self-contained universe of its own immaculate unknowability or you’ll be driven as bonkers as Jack Torrance wintering at the Overlook.

There are, of course, people who would — and have — fervently disagree, who think Marienbad is, if not an elaborate existential puzzle just waiting to be solved, then an ultimately simple child’s game rendered as a pretentiously over-articulated exercise in high-minded, art movie chic wankery. That there is no mystery here, or at least not one that’s nearly as mysterious as it would like us to think it is. What I’m suggesting is that it doesn’t matter: figuring Last Year at Marienbad out on a literal level is like suggesting the Mona Lisa is smiling at a slip in Da Vinci’s robe or Charlie Parker played the way he did because of the heroin. It does nothing to illuminate the art and everything to expose the reductive human tendency to seek refuge from ambiguity in literal explanation.

If it took me some years to appreciate this movie, it’s not because I finally figured it out, it’s because I stopped trying and simply surrendered to it as a purely cinematic experience. And on that level, the movie has a transfixing visceral power to it that’s almost overwhelmingly potent. It’s ravishing. From the way Sacha Vierny’s camera stalks the corridors with such geometrical precision and consistent momentum, to the mathematical arrangement in space and depth of people and objects in the frame, to the almost musically conceived reconfiguring of events as ever-modulating refrains, Marienbad is as purely gorgeous a movie as almost any ever made. (Not to mention it ranks among the most exquisite black and white films of them all.) So the questions of what’s really going on here and what really happened last year at Marienbad are, to this viewer at least, not so much irrelevant as beside the point, and an impediment to pleasure. What’s going and what happened is what we’re watching: the cinema being played with virtuoso mastery. Just let it happen. (Criterion)

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