Friday, July 3, 2009

Revisiting MARIENBAD: Resnais' early reinvention of the Zombie genre

OK: I'm kidding. OK: They don't eat flesh (but, then, neither did those in the classic from Tourneur & Lewton). Yet the charac-
ters in the landmark movie from Alain Resnais (shown below), LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, bear more than a passing resemblance to the living dead, though more in the old-fashioned zombie mode than what we get these days: Nazis, or those virally-infected by language, or even a

soon-to-be-seen young lady who provides surprisingly good sex in the basement of a shuttered mental hospital. No, the characters created by Resnais (and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet) simply move slowly and glide quietly over the landscape as if hypnotized or otherworldly. While they cast shadows, oddly enough, some of the objects around them do not (a fact I realized from reading Greencine's Aaron Hillis in his interesting take on the film).

It has been 47 years since I first saw Resnais' oddity (I only saw it once, with such mixed feelings -- accompanied by a shrug or two -- that I never sought it out again). Afterward, I remember many of us arguing deep into the night: "What was the meaning of the card game? And how can you make sure you don't lose? Did the characters played by Albertazzi and Seyrig previously meet? Did it matter? And where did they shoot this film? Someday, we've got to go there. But, really, what does it all mean?"

Guess what: the movie's re-release marketing mavens are still insisting we work, goddammit! and figure it all out (see the snippet from the trailer, complete with subtitles, above). Well, revolt, say I, and don't be cowed into doing anything you don't want. Seeing Marienbad again, despite the exhortation of the marketing department, I did not find it necessary to ask the BIG questions. Instead I just relaxed and took in those long tracking shots of hallways, corridors, cornices, gardens, mirrors and more. (My companion, in his first viewing of the film, was not so relaxed: "If I have to listen to that deadening, repeated monolog one more time....") I'm afraid repetition is part of the game plan here, but he was a good sport and lasted out the movie, admitting to its gorgeous cinematography, locations, costumes and faces. Further, as it is possible to find meaning in just about anything you toss up on the screen, it is certainly possible to find it here: about memory, the past, love and desire, stasis and motion, the elusiveness of perfection, and the importance of landscape gardening.

I can't help but think that, now, nearly a half century after his grand coup, M. Resnais must chuckle a bit when he sees/hears/reads critics still blathering or fulminating over the "meaning" of Marienbad, if it has one. Goodness knows, this filmmaker has since given us plenty of films with plenty of meaning, as well as fun, frolic, joy, sorrow, romance and darkness. I can imagine him with a smile, saying, "Come on, guys and gals: It was just a different kind of movie. Enjoy it or get over it -- and move on. As I have." Of course, the above would sound much more sophisticated and intelligent when spoken in French.

Last Year at Marienbad has just come out on DVD in a fine transfer from The Criterion Collection. Revel in it -- or not -- but do see it.

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