25 October 2016

Blind Spot 2016: Last Year at Marienbad

Straight Outta The French New Wave, Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad has led me to a complete understanding of why I really just don't like Terrence Malick's latest trio of pretty pictures captured by floating cameras with voiceover. 

To clarify:  As movies go, I prefer storytelling to philosophizing. I prefer realism over dreamscape. I want something to hold onto. Not simply something pretty to slip through my fingers. 

Screenwriter/co-dreamer-upper of this "movie," Alain Robbe-Grillet has this to say about his subjects (us) in the introduction to his screenplay: 

"Two attitudes are then possible: either the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme – the most linear, the most rational he can devise – and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him [...] and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling."

Spare me. But only because I fall into the first camp, and this feels like he's bashing me for being born. 

His partner, Resnais himself, has this to say: 

"For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes."

"Crude," "Primitive." That seems about right. The only thing that moves in this film is the camera. Everything else is motionless, static. 

And yet, I can't totally bash the directorial skill it took to actually make such a film, a film that is nothing more than directing ("Ok. You stand here. Ok. You stand over there. Ok. Hold still everybody. Remember. No cheesing.") and editing ("Now they're over here. Now they're over there. Maybe no one is anywhere ever. Oh, look. The good looking dude is now playing that game with French lurch. Hey. There's that hallway again.").

There's so little actual writing (even its ideas seemed vague at best) in this movie, it's laughable. From what I gathered, there are only repetitions of the same exact phrases, as if we are inside a loop of thought or a loop of a dream. Neither is fodder for film, at least the way I watch it. 

The fact of the matter is this: I was pretty hypnotized by the first half hour of this film, mostly because of how simultaneously gorgeous it looked and how weird it is. I felt like I should've been sitting in a hazy college dorm room, letting the "sight, hearing, feeling" overtake me alongside my artsy friends. Alas, that wasn't the case. 

I was in my living room...at 9:00 PM on a Thursday night. By 9:40, I was Googling plot descriptions that don't exist, that I already knew didn't exist (I was just double checking.) By 9:45, I stumbled upon those quotes from the filmmakers. By 9:50, I had found the brilliant bits of verbal beatdown by famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael (see: concluding paragraph). At 9:55, I was still laughing. By 10:00, I had been lulled to sleep, left only to vaguely hear the definitely solid sound design, simultaneously lovely and seasonally horrific. 

I awoke to my wife standing over me at 10:45. The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray menu screen ablaze. I was obliged to go to bed. 

So, where do I go from here? I only sort of watched the movie. I didn't like it, since there isn't much to like, except what is clearly on the surface, as what may be under the surface is kept under lock and key by the filmmakers. And I feel like an idiot because so many cinephiles I've engaged with over the years praise it. And Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay told me this: 

"Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade."

Well, I guess I can at least be thankful I didn't stay for the ending. Otherwise, I might have to turn in my adult card. 

All joking aside...listen:  I love a good mystery, even those where questions only lead to more questions. But "the mystery," in this case, and as Cormac McCarthy would put it, "is that there is no mystery." There is only a film that never even clearly starts its mystery. I had to read a Wikipedia page, then criticisms, to even understand what the mystery was supposed to be. 

The delightfully vicious Pauline Kael, in her review of Last Year at Marienbad entitled "The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sad-Soul-of-Europe Parties," referred to this film as nothing more than pretty sets, that is was in essence "the no-fun party for non-people." Yes. That's it. I like fun parties with actual people. It's that easy.


  1. " As movies go, I prefer storytelling to philosophizing. I prefer realism over dreamscape. I want something to hold onto. Not simply something pretty to slip through my fingers. " - I agree with this so much. I feel bad for not being able to get behind directors like Malick, but I hate knowing a good movie exists somewhere but we're getting the fly on the wall approach instead.

    This film does not sound like something I'd sit through. I hope you at least had a good nap. lol

    1. I honestly think that now that I know what this movie is I could try it again. But I won't go out of my way for that. It's really down to that, yes, I slept like a baby.

  2. I had a feeling you'd hate this. I...loved it (it was all over my 1962 Fisti Awards)...but I see why you feel this way. It is a film that, from a storytelling perspective, is rather...empty and aimless, but there was something in the languid beauty of it all that spoke to me.

    LOL at the progression of your viewing experience, though...I've done that many a time myself!

    And yes...even I Googled to see the plot here while watching ;-)

    1. I just don't think I'm meant to click with stuff like this. I get the "languid beauty" but that just isn't enough. That progression? I do it all the time.

  3. You just further confirm why I don't really want to see this film. I can see enough people standing round looking lost...I just go to any mall. The mall people just don't look as pretty or posh.

  4. Oh wow, what a crazy viewing experience! I can't say I'd ever want to watch this movie, and to be honest, reading your review of it was much too fun anyway! :)
    - Allie

  5. This definitely sounds like a movie I don't want to watch. This sounds so pretentious. Although… since you did mention that it was released by the Criterion Collection… I may watch it… but probably not for a LONG time.


    I watched it this year because I saw it on a couple of blind spot lists and it was one I'd hear so much about I wanted to be familiar with it when it came up.


    I have the highest regard for Roger Ebert but I did and do need an answer for this mystery. Life IS constantly unfolding but a movie is not and I need some resolution at the end. This was like the longest, prettiest, dullest most excruciating French perfume commercial ever.

    Oh and by the way...I HATED THIS MOVIE!!!!!!!

    1. Glad we see eye to eye on this. French perfume commercial. I love that.