Sunday, March 27, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)

I loved Last Year at Marienbad. I’ve been struggled with writing this reaction, because every time I start writing I can’t get over how visually striking this film is. We are presented with strikingly gorgeous images and a luxurious, rich depth-of-field clarity that is simply hedonistic. Resnais provides the viewer with maddening, yet ingenious, self-referential moments in the visual language of the film, and visually alludes to the stylistic perfection of the image in even the smallest scenes. At one point, we watch two older gentlemen playing chess, and behind them stretches what appears to be a hall tiled like chess set. This same hall is shown again later in the film, and it was not until the second view that I realized that an extremely talented example of trompe l’oeil. This image really screwed with my mind; in the midst of this deep focus voluptuousness, I am confronted with this strange flatness. The hall, like much of the hotel, evokes a M.C. Escher and especially impossible objects. An impossible figure, such as a Necker cube or Penrose stair, is a two-dimensional figure that we interpret as a projection of a three-dimensional object. The film similarly uses our visual systems to blur the line between depths and even reality. The “false perspectives” and baroque excesses of the hotel again reference this theme, and we begin to distrust our eyes even as we are hungry for more image.

            The chess game also introduces games as a leitmotif that occurs throughout the film. Several characters play Nim (or at least a version of it), itself a mathematical strategy game, which reflects back on the impossible image used during the chess game. The characters deliberate movements are pawn-like on the great chessboard that is the hotel. The iconic scene in the garden in which a phantom sun casts selective shadows has a mathematical precision that is as gorgeously architectural as it is unheimlich. The frozen statue-people that inhabit the world of Last Year at Marienbad exhibit these same characteristics, and A’s little physical habits quickly become grotesque. Her habit of resting her hand on her shoulder and tilting her head is initially lit from above and filmed from a high angle, giving her an ethereal, angelic appearance. The camera is extremely mobile, moving briskly and smoothly through each scene, and as the film progresses we explore A from different angles. Like viewing the statues in the garden, perspective really matters, and A is frozen as we circle from the front of her face around to the back of her head. Instead of a gesture of sweet innocence, her head-tilt gesture is freakish viewed from the back. Her still neck looks unnatural, and the light on her face causes extreme shadow. Her body becomes foreign, unhinged from social gesture and personal habit.
            The costume design of the film is simply arresting. Characters become mannequins, and the viewer is confronted by perfect, melodramatic clothing. The film favors monochromatic gowns and eveningwear, which enhances the black and white palette, making the blacks blacker and whites whiter. A wears a series of similar gowns, but they are constantly changing color- a testament to memory or the lack thereof. The white feather gown is exquisite, as is its black cape doppelganger. They are dramatic designs that seem suited for the stage and would not feel out of place in “Swan Lake” or on Mozart’s Queen of the Night. The gowns drape on A’s contorted body, providing an architectural appearance to the clothing that is reflected in the silhouette of the hotel and the manicured grounds.
            The precise lines of the hotel, grounds, and the characters is marred, however, by the lake by which A and X may or may not stand/have stood. The fountain and lapping water are jarringly irregular, and interject movement into the stillness of Marienbad (ironic, considered “-bad” would suggest spas or baths were at once part of the local scenery). The bar meeting between A and X is an example of illogical cutting and extreme lighting, disorienting the viewer and A herself. The images collide and a glass shatters, bringing the scene back to the pair at the bar, this time observed by a crowd of silent, still bystanders. M moves through the crowd, offering A water in a clear glass. The water interrupts the stillness and precision of the scene, which again brings movement to the screen. 

Chess game- 7:42

"A" creepy-      2:44-3:17      

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