Sunday, October 10, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad (1961): Considerations of a Complex Space

If you have a friend who

1) didn't understand what happened in Inception, and always calls the movie "confusing" before applying any other adjective, or

2) always talks about the movie by launching into a lecture on what was real and what wasn't and whose dream they were in and whether or not the top fell down,

don't let that person get their hands on Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais's 1961 film about the fragments of remembered experience within a hermetically-sealed European resort. Resnais, with the help of his modernist script-writer Robbe-Grillet, will drive both of the above-mentioned people insane -- the former with frustration, and the latter with giddy speculation. I loved it, though. I thought it was a razor-sharp dreamlike drama that greatly rewards a patient spectator. It's also one of those films that will get better with each viewing, as I further acclimate to the refracted logic of its chronology.

Last Year at Marienbad is tragically betrayed by the synopses floating around out there. NetFlix's summary is as follows:
At a lavish European hotel, a handsome stranger tries to convince a lovely young woman that they had a passionate affair a year ago. When she claims not to remember him, he keeps trying to convince her, weaving a story that mixes memory and fantasy. Or is it all fantasy? French new wave director Alain Resnais helms this complex, controversial film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
The closest thing to a summary on IMDB goes like this:
In a huge, old-fashioned luxury hotel a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him, but it seems she hardly remembers the affair they may have had (or not?) last year at Marienbad.
These are all well and good, but they don't make clear just how experimental this film is (for the record, Wikipedia's summary is much more informative). From the outset, the viewer will assume that there is a definitive "time" and that this lavish hotel is at a definitive location in space; readers will assume that these strangers have backstories, whether explained or implied, and that their conversations and flirtations unfold in something like a coherent reality. None of these assumptions will turn out to imply. I'm not sure how NetFlix would have alluded to that in its summary, so I guess it's fair that viewers will be surprised.

For those who aren't already scared away, a bit of cultural background will deepen the hypnotic experience of Last Year at Marienbad. The film seems to take place at a crossroads of time, conditioned by both actual and possible events, but always delimited by the walls of the hotel -- no outside world is acknowledged. The central narrative thread is the ongoing recollection of X, the stranger who acts as the male protagonist, as he attempts to "remind" (or convince) a beautiful married woman of their previous stays at the hotel, and of their romance in its gardens and salons. This thread is cushioned by the depiction of other hotel guests engaged in socialite rituals: conversations over drinks, theater productions, gambling and card games, and loitering in the hallways.

My first thought upon seeing the film is "hypertext," given its willingness to reject any clear surface meta-narrative. Even Inception had one of these (Cobb's "last job" in order to get home to his children). It's a postmodern truism that there's no authority to give meaning to our experiences any longer, so we can jump from YouTube video to Wikipedia article to IRL conversation to the calculated representations of the evening news. Last Year at Marienbad's refusal to provide a well-defined establishing story or context recalls Lyotard's rejection of metanarratives in The Postmodern Condition.

However, in terms of style and figurative content, Last Year at Marienbad seems to have more in common with the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges than it does with the world of postmodern theory, which still struggles with the need to find a footing in its slippery cultural environment. Borges' fiction, obsessed as it was with recursive structures and the complexities of representation, exhibits many of the same themes and stylistic tendencies as Resnais's film. In particular, the hotel seems hermetically sealed, like the infinite labyrinthine halls of The Library of Babel. And the imperfection of memory, and its effect on the present and the future, is addressed in Funes the Memorious, a short story about a character who remembers every detail of his life with perfect clarity. Marienbad also plays with the idea of alternate destinies for its underdetermined characters, a theme at work in Borges' The Garden of Forking Paths.

As much as I'd like to accredit postmodernism with this kind of complexity, I have to admit that it's more a concern of high modernism, with its emphasis on structure and form. The extraction of the core narrative from all contextual concerns is right in line with minimalism, an offshoot of the modernist sensibility, and the treatment of fantasy and memory as interchangable, and equal even to at-hand experience, is something that you can find in all sorts of formally intensive modernist works, from Italo Calvino to Nabakov to Joyce. Last Year at Marienbad may share a sort of hypertextual, non-deterministic philosophy with postmodernism, but this is actually something the postmodern inherited from its modernist precursors... and without that postmodern emphasis on recontextualization and low culture, this film remains firmly situated in the modernist artistic mode.

I said this background would deepen the experience... I never said it would explain it. Indeed, no amount of wily-nily reading and research will fully capture the many meanings of Last Year at Marienbad. This is because the film has no surface story, nor any guiding narrative, nor any clear signposts to help sort out the themes. The creation of such a self-enclosed world, and such a commitment to mixing up all different types of experience (lived, remembered, imagined) is quite a powerful statement, and it's one of the things that makes this film such a landmark. If you have yet to watch the film, the first piece of advice I can give you is to trust your instincts about whether you're in the past, present, or future, and don't look too hard for actual visual indications, because there are very few, if any.

If you can keep from getting distracted by the non-linear storytelling, you may notice the film's occasional switches into horror techniques, suggesting psychological trauma: the strobe-like cuts to the female character standing alone in an empty room; the jarring rhythmic approaches when she's reaching like a worshipper toward the approaching camera. Resnais's long walks down hotel hallways probably influenced Kubrick's filming of The Shining, where Danny rides his tricycle through the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel. So could you read this as a horror film, a movie about the loss of one's soul in a decadent pit of circular conversation and remembrance? Maybe, although I'd love to meet the person who was sensitive enough to that sort of stuff to actually be scared by it.

There are many readings of the film, I'm sure, including the assessment that it should be experienced and meditated upon, but not interpreted into some "reading" (since the vagueness of the story rules out any authoritative interpretation). I personally feel that any very complex movie deserves the benefit of some interpretation, even if it's only a tentative thesis against which to judge the twists and turns of the plot. So I came up with at least one reading of Last Year at Marienbad, which I believe is strongly supported by the text.

I understand the characters A (the female) and M (presumably her husband) as a married couple who have entered the hotel from the outside world. They have actual connections -- their love, the mastery of gambling and parlor games -- that link them to a real life, with genuine shared experiences. The hotel is an escape for A (as her husband suggests at one point, implying that she came there for her health), but it is also an existential trap, an enclosed reality sealed off from the world, which threatens at all times to engulf those who enter it looking for solace.

X seems to be a dashing stranger, but he's actually a parasite, the only native inhabitant of the labyinthine hotel. He is the hotel's minotaur, a parasite who only exists within that sealed space, and his life is devoted to trapping people inside its walls. He spends the whole film in pursuit of A, evoking memories both real and false; all the memories he calls on take place within the hotel itself, because he has no access to any experience outside that reality. He uses these memories, with their golden glow of nostalgia and mystery, to lure A away from her husband, and from her life outside the hotel walls. He only reveals his malicious nature to us in the final line of the film (which I won't give away here).

I haven't studied the film enough to find more support for this reading, and I know it doesn't conclusively tie together all of the film's imagery... or even a significant part of it. However, it's a worthy starting point for my next viewing of the film, if I ever get around to it. It will require a long, quiet night and a flexible, patient mind, because those long corridors are alluring and dangerous.

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