Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews

The Haunted Palace: Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’

The couple face each other in an old-fashioned railway car set up in a 19th-century amusement park, the girl (Joan Fontaine) a sweet-faced blonde for whom he’s clearly the moon and the stars. The young man (Louis Jourdan) in elegant evening clothes is all charm, genuine enough for the moment, a roué enchanted by fresh innocence. Outside the window, painted landscapes from various countries flow by, long murals unwinding from one seemingly endless reel. Lisa’s only previous journeys have come courtesy of travel folders and her father’s reading, while Stefan’s a genial wastrel who’s never really transported by journeys, never deeply touched by experience. At the end of the line, when there are no more moving pictures, the rapt lovers decide to begin again, “to revisit the scenes of our youth.”

When and where did this magical train ride take place? Can we measure how long it took? Its point of departure and arrival?

The answers to these questions lie within the mystery of cinema. In this scene from Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), “real” time and space are subservient to the transformative power of a woman’s imagination. Already in the grave at this juncture in the film, Ophuls’ artist-heroine is surfing time, revisiting the scenes of her actual youth. Her resurrection is powered by the machinery of memory and art; her romantic narrative eventually generates Stefan’s (and our?) ultimate, soul-saving epiphany. A play of luminous light and sensuous shadow, Letter unreels out of a woman’s lifelong religious-aesthetic obsession. Her virtual reality, far richer and more compelling than those railway landscapes, hyperlinks with eternity.

In some sense, Stefan—her lodestar—gives Lisa leave to navigate the stream of time and beyond, to construct and compose lighting and landscape to create her very own moving picture, the illumination of a woman’s soul. Think of Stefan as her interior designer, her muse.

Once upon a time, as Susan Sontag noted, movie-loving folk actually “arranged their emotional and intellectual lives around an art that was ‘poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral all at the same time.'” We thrived on films such as Vertigo (1958), L’avventura (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), Vivre Sa Vie (1962)–works that, like Letter From an Unknown Woman, plunged us into the very DNA of the cinematic imagination. We happily drowned, not in narrative alone–or even at all–but in the seductive images, spaces and faces conjured by the formidable magic of the medium.

Just before and after 1960, that spate of movies invited us to succumb to seeing, to fall voluptuously into strobing visions of obsession and art. The irresistible come-on might be a phantom of pure blond beauty, a woman who inexplicably drops out of the picture, a goddess-muse who really wants to direct her own movie, or a mesmerizing streetwalker whose lovely kinesis stands in for the whole giddy art of filmmaking.

But melancholy, even horror, shadows ecstatic cinematic eyeballing. Trippin’ on art might get you through the dark night of the soul, but comes a time when you can’t just take it or leave it. That’s when you can lose your soul and lifeblood to the hungry eyes of the beautiful actress in Persona (1967). Or stumble into Scottie’s shoes in Vertigo, and get sucked in deeper and deeper, way past all Exit signs.

And that’s where Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) comes in. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

From Marienbad‘s first moments, our eyes attach themselves to the lubriciously fluid camera movement gliding through an inhuman landscape of artifice, the interior of a baroque hotel or mausoleum or movie set or Dantean circle of hell. While an incantatory male voice–the host? a ghost?–drones on, the camera traces a path over and through architectural patterns of arches and circles and squares.

Rising and falling, the silent-movie organ music should, but doesn’t, illuminate some melodramatic action. Intricately worked metal “vegetation” spreads over dim walls, and mirrors and trompe-l’oeil panels distract our gaze. The eye searches in vain for the place where corridors end.

Already a kind of dread descends. A little short of breath, we are unbalanced by a strange vertigo.

For these empty spaces are heavy with old air. Like the exquisite, claustrophobic brothels in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and everywhere in Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935), nothing natural exists in this hermetic mise-en-scène. And surely there can be no outside. Marienbad‘s freeze-dried garden, with its rigidly geometric design, topiary perfection, tricky shadows and endlessly receding perspective, cannot serve as outdoors. Nature is just another occasion for trompe-l’oeil, blocking one more avenue for epiphany or enlightenment.

We are trapped inside some radically solipsistic imagination, a maze, a game, fictions within fictions, optical illusions. How can we trust what we see?

Trust has nothing to do with it. Marienbad is all about ravishment by image and motion, epistemological violation. In this shifty mise-en-scène, the camera may drift over a checkerboard floor to glimpse two men playing checkers, then register a painting dominated by a checkered pattern. Is this linkage significant? Given to understand that visual motifs carry meaning in movies, we keep our eyes wide open for signposts to map significance in Marienbad. Forget it, Jake, this isn’t Chinatown—where a flaw in a woman’s iris and a pair of broken eyeglasses at the bottom of a garden pool reflect a landscape of corruption.

Once through Resnais’s looking glass, we fall, suffocating yet luxuriating in the film’s alternately dark and whitely irradiated zones. A little panic, yes, for we want to resist becoming part of Marienbad‘s décor; but then, a sort of letting go, a rapturous surrender to the sensual slide into the seductive body of cinema.

For better or worse, we are stuck—without benefit of god or philosophy or science—in Marienbad‘s seductive medium, like flies in amber. Or perhaps we’re swept away, transported by pure style.

So even as we lose ourselves in the high-ceilinged rooms and hallways of this haunted palace, our eyes search for sustaining patterns in the droning narration, in light and shadow, in the gorgeous haute couture and striking faces of the upscale guests. Resembling animated mannequins or glossy photographs come to momentary life, Marienbad‘s enigmatic inhabitants start and stop moving and talking, arrange themselves in tableaux vivants, freeze into hieratic poses and replicate knock-off statuary, without warning or reason.

In these hermetically sealed environs, flesh-and-blood forms are part of the interior design, patterns in a static landscape.

As the bare bones of a plot begin to emerge—last year, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) met a woman (Delphine Seyrig) here, they had some kind of romantic relationship which she can’t or won’t remember—we desperately yearn to derive some significance from words and actions and environment and lighting and times of day. But Marienbad will not hold still. It’s as slippery as the funhouse mirrors at the end of The Lady From Shanghai (1948) or the 3-D cyberspaces of Tron (1982)–as temporally deracinating as stepping into the bar of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980).

“There will be time to murder and to create…and for a hundred visions and revisions.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Even time in Marienbad is subject to slippage. Memory elides into now, which jumpcuts suddenly into tomorrow, while night instantaneously strobes into day. Our sometime-narrator describes events that may have occurred and the mysterious woman who is his idée fixe either acts them out in flashback or perhaps performs under the hypnotic sway of his immediate direction.

Is this would-be lover mad, hallucinating? Could he be googling through the database of his memories—or is our avatar in an interactive puzzle? Is he an artist trying to marshal his characters into a Pirandellian fiction he can control? Does he desire the lovely phantom–or dream of re-animating her?

The amnesiac woman he pursues recalls the double-natured beauty in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977): sometimes as pliable as a doll, but increasingly resistant, terrified, she tries to escape her admirer’s version of reality. Costumed in white or black, feathers or sequins, she cycles through a repertoire of poses as stylized as Marlene Dietrich’s in von Sternberg’s richly textured dreamscapes. In her ever-altering bedchamber, her reflected image is caught and pinned like an exotic butterfly three times over in a multi-paneled mirror. Sometimes she only comes to life in mirrored reflections.

Like Dietrich, Seyrig is both star and décor, glorified and victimized by her director’s elaborate designs. Angel and raptor, she is the stuff movies are made of. “Laissez-moi,” she murmurs, Garbo-style, while forever snaring our gaze.

Still, there’s a horror movie at the heart of every film about love and art. Death’s always abroad in these environs, a reaper whose scythe eventually edits everyone out of the picture. Our avid gaze consumes the images we love; if we take them in, perhaps we will become them. Movies are haunted houses–full of dead people who come to life again and again for our pleasure.

In Marienbad, the woman’s Dracula-faced husband (Sacha Pitoeff) resembles some elegant extrusion from the stylized metal vinework that ornaments the hotel’s walls. He’s blood kin to Bergman’s chessplayer in The Seventh Seal (1956), and Mr. Grady in The Shining (“I have always been caretaker here.”). Master of pickup-sticks and card games, he easily beats the narrator each time they play.

As control of his “story” and his star slips away from the narrator, Death comes to the foreground, lured by the decay of narrative. This breakdown is eerily evoked by the shuffling slow-dance of the waxworks guests, an image straight out of a George Romero zombie-movie—or Dante’s Inferno, where sinners are condemned to act out their vices forever. When the film’s putative organizing principle seeks to recede into the woodwork, does even meaningless action stutter into freeze-frame or slo-mo, endlessly looped?

Perhaps the unfaithful wife, a glowing sacrifice in white feathers and satin, is murdered by Death. But “I need you alive,” our relentless storyteller declares–and “Action!” she flies to him joyously, arms outstretched to embrace him. Cut … and she’s morphed into a black-clad La Belle Dame sans merci, who ceremoniously climbs that long staircase to heaven or hell, inviting us to re-enter the darkly looming hotel.

Hard to say whether anyone gets out of Marienbad’s mise-en-scene alive. Has the spell been broken, the players all fled through the broken marble balustrade that overlooks the deathly garden? Or is Seyrig’s raven-feathered femme fatale an avatar of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, forever drawing us back into cinema’s haunted palace? Will we remain, waiting for the eternal reel to turn once more, so that we can revisit this cinematic virtual reality again—”next year” at Marienbad?

Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Murphy