Apologies for any whiplash injuries induced by me going straight from Chocolate Disco to one of the artiest art films of the Nouvelle vague, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), a film that it’s right to regard as one of the art films that gave art films a bad name in the view of some people. To those who love it, it’s an endlessly enigmatic, crystalline puzzle that almost exists outside of time even though it’s also very much of its time. To those who hate it, the film is infuriatingly pretentious, maddeningly French, an interminable screen saver, a bore, celluloid laced with Tramadol.
I’m in the former category. Like a weirdo I watch this film without fail every few months or so and I always feel the way I imagine some people do going to church. To me, spending time with this film is akin to a form of communion or meditation.
Obviously it brings out the pretentious twat in me as well. I can only apologise for the previous paragraph.
The film’s three main characters are unnamed diegetically, but in the credits and the screenplay they’re given the tellingly algebraic names A (the woman, played by the beautiful Delphine Seyrig), X (the man, played by the beautiful Giorgio Albertazzi) and M (the second man who has some kind of hold over A– marital or otherwise– played by the cadaverous, almost Karloff-esque Sacha Pitoeff). One day I’d like to do a screening of it where the audience is all in evening wear, smashes glasses, wraps themselves in boas, throws shoes and exclaims “Laissez moi!” (etc) along with it, like a miserablist version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
L’Année dernière… revolves around a nominal plotline of X attempting to convince A that the two of them had some kind of relationship, an affair that A either affects not to remember or genuinely doesn’t. And that’s pretty much your lot as narrative goes: all else is mathematical games reiterated conceptually, cinematically and literally as X and M play through and sublimate their rivalry and aggression into a version of the incredibly ancient game of Nim. Formally dressed people carouse listlessly in baroque, mirrored rooms or freeze in place like automata whose clockwork has run down. They have conversations that don’t match the movements of their mouths. They carouse constantly but never get drunk. They visit the shooting range and the spectre of violence– sexual and otherwise– keeps bobbing up as a possibility, only to be thwarted in what seems like a deliberate and perverse opposition to Chekhov’s rule of the gun in storytelling: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
This film is full of Chekhovian guns that either never go off, or go off in some kind of bizarre many universes quantum physics Schrödinger’s box superpositioned way- they go off and they don’t, A really did have an affair with X, and she also never met him before, and M killed her, and X is a nutty, fantasising stalker who’s trying to brainwash and manipulate a mentally unstable woman with memory problems, and she left M for another man, and perhaps everybody here is already dead anyway.
L’Année dernière… is also a masterpiece of formalist film making, and of editing. Although it seems the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet was obsessively detailed in his stage directions, on the basis of director Alain Resnais’ other work it’s safe to assume that the disruptive, free-associative direction and editing come at least as much from him. So subtle, sometimes, are these disruptions that it may take several viewings before one notices violations of cinematic grammar that are still avant garde today. Repeated scenes and tableaux play out with subtly different details. A character turns from the camera; in the next shot her turn continues but the background against which she turns is completely different. There are several instances of this disorienting, destabilising trick and they’re likely to have the same effect on a viewer whether they notice it or not, and whether they know or not that it’s playing with a fundamental “rule” of film making that from one shot to the next the the camera doesn’t cross a nominal line representing a 180 degree field of view.
Stanley Kubrick uses the same surprisingly upsetting trick (i.e crossing the line) in another of my favourite films, The Shining, a film that has a lot of L’Année dernière… in its DNA. Watch the latter and then recall the dancing ballroom phantoms and formal evening wear ghosts of the Overlook Hotel; our viewpoint might float in a tranquillised haze down labyrinthine corridors in Resnais’ film and prowl more relentlessly in Kubrick’s, but they have in common an unshakeable sense that we probably won’t want to arrive at where the shiny Cyclops eye of the camera is dragging us, unbidden, dreamlike.
L’Année dernière à Marienbad, like all great art, touches a place we might not even know existed in us. It’s an even greater triumph that it does so without ever stirring much more than an eyebrow. It’s the antithesis of all that was and is gaudy, vulgar and simplistic in film making: it not only refuses answers, but renders the very idea of asking or answering questions irrelevant; it refutes answers. It simply is. And like X in L’Année dernière… itself, we as viewers also learn that the only way to make sense of the game is to give up on trying to understand its rules, to give up on the idea or the possibility of winning.
Or better still, to accept the painful realisation that perhaps the game is playing us.