Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
At the Beacon Cinema, along with other goodies crowded into the calendar (including what may be Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, the almost completely forgotten Saint Jack), a restored print of Last Year at Marienbad settles in for a revival. To mark the occasion, I offer an introduction. A literal introduction—it was spoken before a 2006 screening of the movie at the Frye Art Museum, where I curated the Magic Lantern program for ten years. This screening was in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs by the German artist Candida Höfer, whose works depict symmetrically-composed large-scale interiors, often (as in the Frye show) empty of people.
This is meant to be spoken aloud, so turn up the volume.
Last Year at Marienbad was one of the most famous movie titles of the 1960s, one of those great conversation pieces that come along to excite or confound audiences to the extent that they seep they way into the larger popular culture. It is the granddaddy of modern-day puzzle movies, and its influence can be seen in filmmakers as disparate as Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, and Roger Corman.
I believe that, as is the case with certain famous cause celebres, Marienbad has waited out its time in the sun and has become a movie again, rather than a manifesto or talking point, and as a movie it holds up as a spellbinding, unnerving experience. Much of the initial dithering about Last Year at Marienbad revolved around what it all meant, but movies, like other art forms, are not exclusively built around single meanings—unless they are weak works of art—but offer themselves as rich and multi-leveled experiences. I invite you to view Marienbad today as an experience to be had, and to be held by.
This film was the second feature film directed by Alain Resnais, whose first feature, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, had brought him international acclaim. Marienbad was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who as a leading practitioner of the French New Novel had avowed to reject the conventions of the 19th-century novel and instead create books and films that de-emphasized psychology and authorial analysis in favor of presenting the surface of things and close, factual description. Which would invite the reader or audience to draw their own conclusions.
That approach, plus the jigsaw-like structure of Last Year at Marienbad, and the supple camera movements through the corridors and grounds of the otherworldly setting, create one of the cinema’s great mystery films, and a clear companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. We talked about that film a month ago, in another Magic Lantern program inspired by the photographs of Candida Höfer. If you have seen those photographs, I think you will recognize the connection with Last Year at Marienbad. In Hofer’s photographs, there are virtually no people, just the huge spaces with their complex interiors. In Marienbad, there are people present, but they are generally as lifelike as the statues they discuss; the people are architectural phenomena, gazed at by the camera in much the same way the camera looks at the ceilings and columns and doorways.
Of course, in motion pictures, unlike Hofer’s fixed photographs, the perspective is constantly changing, and this is much to the point in Marienbad, a film in which perspective changes not only in terms the restless camera, but also in terms of time, space, and the nature of truth and fiction. Candida Hofer’s photographs invite you to imagine a story taking place in those unpopulated grand spaces. Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet supply a story appropriate to the same kind of space, yet it quickly becomes clear that the story is chasing its own tail and that the conventional satisfactions of story, although they are proposed along the way, will never be delivered. They can’t be; and when we are left without the conventional rise and fall of storytelling, we may be left with only our own reflection, in one of the film’s countless mirrors.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.