I don't know where to begin. Normally in my opening paragraph I give a brief synopsis of the film, y'know, "an eccentric old man invites his grandchildren, some paleontologists, a chaotician and a lawyer to try out his new dinosaur-filled theme park" that kind of thing, but the trouble with Last Year at Marienbad is that there is nowhere near enough plot to even begin a paragraph. Essentially, there's some kind of swanky soiree at a swish estate that I think is somewhere in the Czech Republic. At said event, there is a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is resolute that he met a woman (Delphine Seyrig) attending the party a year ago at Marienbad. Meanwhile the woman's male friend (Sacha Pitoeff) plays a game with cards, matchsticks and dominos called Nim, at which he seems unbeatable. This plays out for 90-odd minutes, until the film ends, with no foreseeable additions to anything approaching a story.
As you can probably tell, especially if you're a regular reader of mine, this is not my kind of film, and I did not enjoy it one bit. There's an area of cinema generally designated as 'Arty' (occasionally I had '-Farty' to that moniker) that I either just do not get on with, I've never been in the right frame of mind when watching them, or - and this is probably more likely - I just don't know how to appreciate. An example that comes to mind is Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, of which I wrote a pitiful 17-line review that I've no intention of ever expanding upon, because that would require another viewing of a film I've now sat uncomfortably through twice. These are films where it's not simply a case of opting for style over substance, but in replacing any modicum of substance and replacing it with a spotlight and loudspeaker, with which the film proudly broadcasts its own opinions of itself, how gloriously stylish it is, and how glorious it is for being so stylish.
But I digress. Before viewing Marienbad I can't say I'd heard very much about it, other than when it was selected for the LAMB's Movie of the Month (and how that happened I'll never know) there was a comment from Steve Honeywell over at 1001Plus which deemed the film"crap" and unworthy of another watch. As a respecter of Steve's opinions I duly sighed, made sure it was on the 1001 list, and regrettably made it top priority on my LoveFilm rental queue, resolving that I may as well get it out of the way sooner rather than later, and this way I can listen to the Lambcast and have some idea about what is being discussed (hence why I still haven't listened to the Night of the Comet, Metropolis and The Shape of Things episodes). I purposefully didn't seek out any further information, and resisted the urge to do so during the film, although I must admit that the level of boredom had reached intolerable levels by about 45 minutes in, so I busied myself with other small tasks while keeping at least one eye on the screen. My only surprise is that it took so long to reach this tedium peak, because the first few minutes (which seemed to last at least a good few hours) are spent with Albertazzi's character (none of the people in this film have names, but the three leads are credited as X (Albertazzi), A (Seyrig) and M (Pitoeff, although I has assured myself it was Martin Landau)) narrating how he walked around a building's corridors, the silent, deserted corridors, describing every type of wall covering and flooring he passed, and after the fourth iteration of his only marginally modified description of this task I thought the entire film was going to be like this. Accompanying the narration was a slew of slow panning shots around the house, the only sign of life being the occasional distant footman, and a score that put me in mind of someone trying to play It's A Small World on an out of tune church organ with half the keys missing and one foot stuck on one of the pedals.
Thankfully - although perhaps that is the wrong word to use - this opening is interrupted by discovering a room full of people all staring intently, yet blankly, at something unseen, and I was put in mind of a quote from Amelie: "When a finger is pointing up to the sky, only a fool looks at the finger," and yet here we are, watching the faces of the people who are watching something, rather than watching the something instead. Clearly what they are watching is interesting, whilst their faces are anything but. It is revealed that their focus is a play that has just ended, which in turn I believe is a play showing the story - that's definitely the wrong word to use - of the rest of the film, which is just another example of the film's self-aggrandising, having the whole cast enraptured by a performance of the very film they are in. After the performance, the audience all begin conversing with one another, discussing I'm not entirely sure what, as we are only treated to the occasionally snippet of dialogue from the various conversations as the camera flits from one to another. Even when it stays with the same people for more than a couple of seconds, do not expect everything that is being said to be either audible or subtitled, as why would we want to listen to a conversation when we can try our best at lip-reading in French? Moreover, why wouldn't everyone in the film all occasionally just stop talking and moving - completely in sync with one another - for the briefest of moments on several occasions, as though my disc was skipping ever so slightly? Later, A also becomes the only person not invited to join in the game of Musical Statues when she weaves her way through an otherwise static crowd. Maybe they all think that her vision is based on movement, and if they keep still she won't be able to see them and will just leave them all alone (seriously, is there any film I can't relate to Jurassic Park?).
I feel the need to accentuate a couple of positives here. There was some great imagery and impressive use of mirrors, and the set looked exquisite, using a palatial estate resplendent with acres of grounds (and some delightful conical bushes), but in spite of its sheer scale it still isn't big enough to stop the central couple from bumping into one another repeatedly. As expected, the woman are uniformly gorgeous, and impeccably dressed, but unfortunately this only highlights how vacuous they are underneath the glossy exterior. Damn. I tried to be complimentary, and look what happened. Obviously there are people in this world who not only like this film, but love it dearly (it now only made the 1001 list, but the Empire 5-Star 500 as well), but alas I cannot see the appeal. And what saddens me the most is that the director, Alain Resnais, has several other films on my various lists, of which I've only crossed off one other so far, the deeply unnerving Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (choose life, 1/10). I'm very much not looking forward to crossing off the others.
Choose life 2/10