A polarising art movie made at the beginning of the 1960s by one of France’s most celebrated directors was never designed to keep everyone happy. Mark Fraser wonders what all of the fuss surrounding it is really about.
If American film critics/authors Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss can lay claim to anything it is helping introduce a wider audience to the hidden delights of awful cinema.
With the publication of their book The 50 Worst Movies of all Time (and how they got that way) in 1978, this mischievous pair highlighted a number of (mostly Hollywood) works that are based on bad ideas, suffer from poor execution and – realistically – should never have left the screening room.
It’s arguable that Medved and Dreyfuss’ efforts led to the revival of a number inept cinematic gems – including Phil Tucker’s delirious Robot Monster (1953) and Ed Wood Jr’s hilarious classic Plan 9 From Out of Space (1959), both of which, in early eighties’ Australia at least, toured as a double bill in revival theatres. (Interestingly, while Plan 9 had, at this time, been labelled the worst film ever made, it didn’t appear in their book; rather, it wasn’t until the release of The Golden Turkey Awards in 1980 – which Medved co-wrote with his brother Michael – that the Wood movie received this dubious accolade.)
But as grateful as cinephiles should be for the efforts of these three in bringing all of this fun and frivolity to the public’s attention, there are times when The 50 Worst Movies… gets caught up in its own snideness and lets distracting undergraduate sarcasm run rife through some of its analyses.
Although beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder, there are arguably two works which don’t deserve to be in the book. The first, Sam Peckinpah’s insane 1974 gangster opus Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, has since been acknowledged by many scholars as the director’s most personal and underrated film, its inclusion suggesting the authors were perhaps trying to be too clever for their own good as they churned out the chuckle copy.
Meanwhile, the second is Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival upon release, but has since left audiences and critics in a state of confusion regarding its widely-open-to-interpretation narrative.
At the start of their argument, Medved and Dreyfuss make it clear why they chose to pick on this movie, calling it an overrated art film that is “so tedious, so mannered, and so patently fraudulent” it just has to be slammed. And, in doing so, they also acknowledged its inclusion was – along with Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944) – one of their two “most controversial choices”.
“Though praised by critics, such films leave audiences bored and furious, and their tendency to take themselves with the utmost seriousness only makes matters worse,” they wrote.
While there’s no denying Last Year at Marienbad requires quite a bit of work (read concentration), and it wallows in some pretty serious arthouse sensibilities, it is a far cry from “complete and utter garbage” that is capable of leaving the viewer with a “dizziness in the head, a bad taste in the mouth, agitation in the stomach, and even a rumbling in the bowels” – a bill of health the authors attribute to all 50 entries in their introduction.
Tedious? At times, yes. Annoyingly ambiguous? Undeniably. But beautifully shot and executed? Absolutely. Cinematic bilge? Definitely not!
Trying to say anything new about the movie in 2018 is a relatively pointless exercise given the amount of critical thought which has already gone into analysing it over the past 57 years. After recently revisiting it on the absolutely stunning STUDIOCANAL Blu-ray release, though, this reviewer – who hadn’t seen it since 1988 when he sat through a very ratty 16mm screening of it in a public library (the print was so shabby that some of the beautifully composed tracking shots looked like jump cuts) – has convinced himself it is essentially a ghost story.
The rationale behind this reasonably superficial (and not entirely original) observation, which many will probably regard as a cop out, is easy to justify.
First, it is a neat and tidy way to explain what it might all be about without losing too much sleep over many of the narrative’s numerous traps and complexities – particularly those relating to the film’s non-linear story line, its penchant for surrealism, the repetition of scenes and dialogue as well as some of the performances, which Medved and Dreyfuss, quite aptly in a strange way, wrote off as being akin to an “imitation of a talking corpse”.
Another defendable reason for adopting this supernatural slant is the regular presence of Francis Seyrig’s horror film-sounding organ music, moments of which wouldn’t be out of place in an Ingmar Bergman funeral dream sequence or a Hershall Gordon Lewis schlocker. Indeed, its dominance on the soundtrack from the very start is one of the first giveaways that Last Year in Marienbad is about something a little more ethereal than initially meets the eye.
Thirdly, there’s the fact a few of the key developments in the story occur during the shorter shots, when the odd dramatic jolt briefly gives the viewer something concrete to grab on to. As a result, the longer takes – dominated by an array of meticulously executed (and extended) tracking and dolly movements – become a kind of cinematic purgatory in which the characters are trapped.
Finally, the two-person play (called Rosmer) being performed at the start of the film (possibly by Francoise Spira and Davide Montemuri), which is attended by just about every “guest” at the grand European chateau (that may or may not be in Marienbad), essentially outlines the movie’s plot, wherein a strong ghostly presence is ackowledged.*
“The story is almost over,” the actress says. “In a few seconds, it will freeze over.” Responding, the actor replies: “Like this very hotel, filled with emptiness, these static silent characters long since dead, standing guard in the corridors as I made my way towards you.”
Thus, within this scenario, A (Delphine Seyrig) meets her demise when she is shot by her husband M (Sacha Pioeff) in her hotel bedroom, while her suitor X (Giorgio Albertazzi) dies when a section of garden balustrade falls on him as he is trying to hide from M. This all happened a year ago in Marienbad, and it’s taken the dead woman – who is in a state of self-denial – the past 12 months to decide if she wants to join her new beau on the next step of their celestial journey, or remain entrenched in the spirit of a loveless marriage.
Simple, huh? Well, yes and no. For a start this doesn’t explain how M dies, although it’s quite possible he may either have been the victim of a shooting accident at the chateau’s indoor pistol range, or was executed for killing his wife the previous year. On the other hand, maybe he has a sixth sense and can see dead people.
Secondly, Resnais and his writer Alain Robbe-Grillet provide alternative takes of the same action (and dialogue), meaning it’s ultimately up to viewers to decide what information they want to use while attempting to interpret the whole thing.
In his review for the film which appeared in The Guardian during 2011, for instance, Michael Wood highlighted the problems one faced when trying to attach meaning to the movie: “The process is clearest when the man (X) narrates his various arrivals in the woman’s room. In one version she is aghast, afraid of his violence. In another she welcomes him with dizzy joy, arms open. In yet another she is dead, presumably shot by the man who is presumably her husband (M). I don’t know whether it says something about the film or about me that I found the picture of her fear by far the most convincing. But the real point, no doubt, is not which version is true – the likeliest case is that he has never been in her room at all – but whether any of them could become true, and whether there are other truths.”
Not surprisingly, Wood hasn’t been the only critic baffled by Last Year in Marienbad’s logic.
Back in 1962 The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who was instrumental in introducing American filmgoers to international cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, pretty much echoed some of Medved and Dreyfuss’ feelings when he wrote at the beginning of his March 8 piece: “It may grip you with a strange enchantment, it may twist your wits into a snarl, it may leave your mind and senses toddling vaguely in the regions in between. But this we can reasonably promise: when you stagger away from it, you will feel you have delighted in (or suffered) a unique and intense experience.”
Meanwhile, in 1999, Roger Ebert revisited the movie after 37 years (he first saw it as a 19 year-old) and indicated he still didn’t have a problem with the fact the story remained a mystery “even to the characters themselves”.
“But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery,” he maintained.
“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.” (As an aside, it would be interesting to know what the Medveds and Dreyfuss thought about Terence Malick’s 2011 abstraction The Tree of Life given it was one of Ebert’s top 10 films**.)
Peter Bradshaw, also of The Guardian, tried to provide a “psychological realist explanation” for the narrative in his brief 2011 analysis: “… last year, their (A and X’s) flirtation escalated into something shocking and transgressive – this man raped the woman, and both have gone into amnesiac shock and denial. All we see on screen, the bizarre somnambulist behaviour, the anxiety and confusion, are delusional symptoms.”
Even if one disagrees with this take, Bradshaw deserves some points for trying – it is, after all, an interpretation that is as good as any other.
Although it’s tempting to dismiss Medved and Dreyfuss’ analysis of Last Year in Marienbad as a tad disingenuous and generally sophomoric, perhaps – as with the Peckinpah film – they really did miss an important point or two.
Looking back at their barbs, it seems they were a little too American in their outlook and, maybe, didn’t have a fuller appreciation of European cinema. The fact they tried to make absolutely every turn of phrase funny also worked against them as it injected a little too much smugness into the tenor of their discourse.
Of course it’s true this slow-paced movie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s not the issue.
Beautifully photographed in high contrast black and white on a widescreen tableau by the great Sacha Vierny, it’s a dream – a surreal and sometimes baffling exercise in alternate realities where any explanation is possible and, in some instances, probable. And bearing this in mind, it could be argued it has pure Expressionistic qualities, just like a ridgy didge horror movie.
As Ebert said: “The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat.”
Despite the fact they wrote a quite enjoyable (and at the end of the day a fairly useful) book, this observation sums up the problem when looking at Medved and Dreyfuss’ approach to Last Year in Marienbad. While they may have thought they had some of the answers, all they were doing was ignoring a number of the bigger questions and yapping from the sidelines.
*The literary significance of the play’s title is explained by film historian Ginette Vincendeau in one of the Blu-ray’s extras. Also, these may not be the actors – identifying them wasn’t a straight-forward task given the scant information provided by the credits.
**See Tribute: Roger Ebert’s Top 10 Films which first appeared on this website on April 5, 2013
Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss: “Last Year in Marienbad”, The 50 Worst Movies of All Time (and how they got that way), Angus and Robertson, 1978, pp 9-12, 143-146
Michael Wood: “Last Year in Marienbad: Return to the Ice Palace”, theguardian.com, July 14, 2011
Bosley Crowther: “Last Year in Marienbad: Carnegie Hall Cinema Shows Resnais Film”, The New York Times, March 8, 1962
Roger Ebert: “Last Year in Marienbad”, roger ebert.com, May 30, 1999
Peter Bradshaw: “Last Year in Marienbad – Review”, the guardian.com, July 8, 2011
Words by Mark Fraser
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