Repetition and disorientation at Marienbad

On Friday night I caught a screening of Alain Resnais‘ perplexing 1961 feature L’Année dernière à Marienbad (English title: Last Year At Marienbad) at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. Considered by some to be among the greatest films ever made, it’s all the same unavailable on DVD in the United States. I can’t say that it would be likely to top my own list of favorites, but I’m definitely glad that I had the chance to see it. (In a long Chicago Reader review of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum considers its place in the canon; he isn’t convinced that it’s among the best of the best, but he does seem to like it a great deal.)

Marienbad opens with a very long series of shots of the baroque interiors, walls, and ceilings of a lush old hotel. As the camera slowly pans and circles, a disembodied voice speaks of describes its corridors, mirrors, and curtains (etc.) again and again in various recombinations. The film as a whole has a similar structure and feel: images and events repeat themselves in fragments and out of sequence. Almost all of the dialogue involves an unnamed man attempting to convince an unnamed woman that they had met before under similar circumstances a year earlier and had made plans to run away with each other. The past he’s describing collapses with the present, and what might have happened becomes mixed up with what has happened and what will. The camera returns to the same events over and over again, but with slight alterations: the woman is wearing a different dress, or the event is happening in a different place. No clear timeline or sequence of events is ever established.

The camerawork in the film also emphasizes the collapse of time and space. Sometimes the same characters appear more than once in the same tracking shot. At others, you’ll have the sense that the characters are in a bedroom, but then suddenly (and without any cuts) you’ll realize that they’re walking down a hallway. The exterior of the hotel will sometimes appear to be a background painting, and then the next moment (and again, without any apparent cut), a filmed image. Often the camera will move in slow circles around characters, and of images of characters and rooms in mirrors. As the camera moves, spaces and events shift improbably; it’s never possible to be entirely certain which room you’re looking at, or where the characters will end up when they move down a hall, or even what year it is, or which hotel.

All of this is fascinating, and often visually arresting—but at times the combination of endless repetition and complete disorientation left unsettled and antsy. The past couple of days, I’ve kept thinking about Marienbad, turning it over in my head like a puzzle to be solved; but (as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out) when you’re watching it, the film goes for your emotions just as much as for your intellect. As the camera circles and your disorientation builds, you squirm and shift in your seat, craving resolution and explanation that you know will never come. You end up trapped in the film’s repetitions, and entirely unable to escape its shifting times and spaces until it finally, mercifully, comes to an end.

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