Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Revolutionary Vision of Time

Alain Resnais’ iconoclastic, internationally acclaimed film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), introduced a brand new conception of time, spatiality, and a narrative structure to the language of cinema. Last Year circumvented the generally accepted chronological nature of cinematic temporality, formulating instead a temporal system rooted in memories, impressions, and their imperfections: elements that leave time mutated and confused.

Last Year at Marienbad revolves around an encounter between an unnamed man, noted in the screenplay as X, and an unnamed woman, A, whom he believes he had an affair with one year earlier at the location of their encounter, a lavish and mysterious estate called Marienbad, where they are attending a bourgeois party.

The film begins with a beautiful collection of images from the architecture of the Marienbad estate. A haunting, poetic voice over, part of the immaculate screenplay written by prominent French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, describes the devastating montage from the past-tense point of view of X. The words attempt to illustrate with language the irreducible intensity of the images, which are far beyond the limitations of linguistics. X narrates, “corridors succeed endless corridors – silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings – sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries – transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls . . . ”

Last Year at Marienbad maintains a lyrical tone throughout, weaving poetry, both visual and lingual, through a web-like framework of jumbled memories, frozen spaces, and half-remembered conversations as X tries to convince A that she promised to run away with him and leave her husband, who may or may not be the third primary character in the film, a strange man called M in Robbe-Grillet’s script. A three-character cinematic waltz sweeps gracefully across the screen, painted with equally graceful masterstrokes of Resnais’ nimble camera.


During many scenes, Last Year presents instances frozen in time that are placed in the midst of kinetic images, altering traditional conceptions of time and narrative. In one such scene, a group of guests at Marienbad watch a play in an auditorium-like room. The camera pans around and through the crowd – which is completely motionless, suspended in the timeless space of an impressionistic memory. The scene is visually breathtaking and it exudes as almost metaphysical, otherworldly atmosphere that looms over the entire film.In addition to the isolation of specific instances, Last Year manipulates time by repeating different moments over and over, often in direct succession. This occurs in one particularly effective scene in which X and A have a drink at the bar in Marienbad. A static shot of the two at the bar is repeatedly shown throughout the scene, which alternates between shots of A in an empty bedroom and A and X together in the same bedroom, as well as the static shot from the bar which is constantly intercut between the various images in the scene. Often times, repeated moments are shown with alternate endings or different consequences, reflecting the creative, destructive, and manipulative power of subjective memory when combined with strong emotions.

Resnais explored many of the themes surround time and memory that are present throughout Last Year in earlier films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which tracks the experiences of a French actress and a Japanese architect as they try to maintain a relationship in post-war Japan amidst the ghastly history of death and destruction. The film originated many of the editing techniques and temporal experiments that Resnais perfected in Last Year at Marienbad, including time-shifts that occur in mid-scene, as well as flash-forwards and flashbacks. Last Year is undoubtedly the artistic apex of Resnais’ trademark techniques of temporal manipulation, which he continued to utilize in films such as Muriel (1963), but later abandoned for more traditional narratives.

Confounding cinematic sensibilities of time with a more subjective, poetic temporal design, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad changed the face of film by contorting that face into a fading memory. It is a film beyond chronology, yet time is its heart and soul.

by Brandon Colvin

*Editor's Notes: This review was originally published in "Rise Over Run" magazine. Also, for New York City residents, a new 35 mm print of Last Year in Marienbad is showing at Film Forum from January 18-31. Mark your calendars!

2 comments:

Jeremy Richey said...

Great piece Brandon on one of my favorite films. It isn't an easy one to write on (I haven't attempted it) but you did a great job here.
One aspect I have always liked is the casting of Delphine Seyrig. She reminds me of some sort of alien Marlene Dietrich for the modern age, and I love the way she is photographed in this film.
The great Belgium director Harry Kumel would cast Delphine in a similar role in 1971's DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS...a film that pays tribute to MARIENBAD and makes the Dietrich comparisions even more prominant.

There is also a great sly tribute to the film in the fourth Antonie Doinel film BED AND BOARD. Truffaut features a mysterious neighbor to Leaud and Calude Jade who they see one night performing a comedic version of on of Grillet's monolgues on French tv...Truffaut of course had worked with Seyrig in the third Doinel film STOLEN KISSES.

Remind me to let you borrow a book on Grillet's films next semester called THE EROTIC DREAM MACHINE...it is really fascinating stuff (and I'll hook you up with a few of his films as well)

Great post.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks, Jeremy.

I'll be sure to hit you up for some Grillet materials.