Thursday, 20 January 2011



So only a few days ago I was lamenting that I'd had The Tournament and both Death Race movies in one day, and wouldn't it be nice to have something a bit more intellectual for a change - and lo and behold this Alain Resnais film clangs into my mailbox. Having already been burned a while ago by a brace of Jean-Luc Godard blitherings, I was actively dreading another much-praised and prizewinning arthouse classic, particularly one in which, to judge from the film guides, it was impossible to tell whether things were actually happening, or taking place in one of the characters' heads, or one or more of the characters might be a ghost, or something.

In the end Last Year In Marienbad is frustrating on precisely that narrative level: plotting is absolutely not the point. What tangible story there is appears to concern a man who, on holiday (possibly) at an insanely luxurious old country hotel in Marienbad, rekindles an acquaintance from the previous year. Except she doesn't remember it (or does she) and wasn't even there (or was she? Even she doesn't appear to know), yet she listens to him prattle on about their earlier meeting for days - what she was wearing, where they stood, what games he played, what statues and paintings they discussed, all of which he'd memorised in freakishly precise detail. (I can't remember where my watch is half the time, but this guy has recall of entire conversations a year previous.)

Because this is a French art movie, at no time does the unnamed woman kick this similarly anonymous weirdo in the goolies and instruct him to leave her alone or she'll call the police, like any halfway normal person would do. And because it's a French art movie from 1961, it looks absolutely magnificent. The hotel and grounds is a wonderful, richly designed setting, and the entire cast are all either in fantastic evening gowns or impeccable tuxedos and bow ties. It would look like a location for a Bond film - card games, well-dressed and well-groomed people, an air of mystery - except that it's been shot in luxurious black and white, which gives the unfortunate impression that after every thirty seconds of incomprehensible but beautiful prattle, a French-accented voiceover is going to annouce "Incoherence - the new fragrance from Calvin Klein". The whole thing - this legendary masterwork of the French Cinema, the winner of the Golden Lion at Venice in 1961 - ultimately looks like nothing so much as a modern perfume commercial.

And really that wonderful look is the best that Last Year In Marienbad (it is In Marienbad, not At Marienbad regardless of what the film guides claim, that's according to the subtitle on the UK DVD) has to offer. I don't know what it all means, but it genuinely looks wonderful. But after half an hour or so - when there's still another hour to go - interest does flag as to whether they know each other, they're playing some abstruse game or someone's memory is flawed, and you start not really caring. Sometimes you can be too enigmatic and it's like trying to do the crossword with the wrong set of clues, before discovering that the clues were deliberately wrong and you're not actually supposed to solve it. Mildly interesting but that's about all.


Baffle yourself:

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