DAVE DAVIES, host:
Ever since it won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, the French film "Last Year at Marienbad," by Alain Resnais, has inspired wildly divergent passions, often in the same person. The British critic Geoff Andrew declared it as, quote, "either some sort of masterpiece, or meaningless twaddle," unquote.
The movie is now out in a new, two-disc version from Criterion, with a restored high definition digital transfer. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says it's like a monument from an earlier era.
JOHN POWERS: It's been almost half a century since America entered the short-lived glory days of the art film, movies that not only tackled serious themes, but did so with a strikingly modernist insistence on style. Such films felt new and exciting back then. And though it now sounds unbelievable, audiences actually left the theatre arguing about whether they'd seen something revelatory or something merely pretentious.
No movie was more controversial than Alain Resnais' 1961 "Last Year at Marienbad," which became so notorious, that I'd seen it parodied before I actually ever saw the film at my college film society. I still remember how stoked I was to be able to see it, and frankly, how bored and baffled I was when I did.
Here was art cinema with a vengeance. The guy who introduced the film called it great, and I left the theatre asking my girlfriend: Can something be great if it's not any good? Yet the funny thing about "Last Year at Marienbad" is that it stayed with me over the decades, far more than many movies I'd thought better at the time.
Still, this was never enough to get me to watch it again, until a few days ago. That's when I checked out the new DVD version from Criterion, whose ravishing black-and-white widescreen transfer captures the beauty of Sacha Vierny's images in a way that few viewers have ever seen. The story, if you can call it that, takes place at a resort whose chateau is filled with grand rooms, endless corridors, and enough Rococo decor to have Liberace screaming for mercy.
Surrounded by socialites who stand around like zombies, a (unintelligible) Italian man named X, played by Giorgio Albertazzi, pursues a glamorous French woman named Y. That's a riveting Delphine Seyrig, hair swooped tight across her forehead and clad in a series of spectacular gowns designed by Coco Chanel.
Over and over, X tells her that they'd had an affair the previous year, perhaps in the Czech spa town of Marienbad and that she'd agreed to leave M, a faintly Draculean figure who's either her husband or her lover. Over and over, Y resists X's entreaties, insisting - truthfully or not - that she doesn't even remember having met him. And that's pretty much it.
As Resnais' camera glides through the chateau and its spectacular grounds, X and Y play out versions of the same scene so many times, that we soon grasp that all the usual guideposts of a movie have been deliberately erased. The script, by avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, refuses to tell us whether what we're seeing is taking place in the past, the present or the future, or whether it actually took place at all. Fantasy and reality, past and present, have been telescoped into an eternal now.
Over the years, there have been countless theories of what this all might mean. Is the movie a parable of an era haunted by nuclear war? Is it about the repressed memory of a rape? Or could it all be just an intellectual game? Me, I think Resnais is making a connection between two different kinds of wooing. Just as X tries to win over the reluctant Y, the movie itself is trying to seduce us into entering its imaginary world, which, like all movie worlds, is outside time.
Half a century later, the world Resnais wants us to enter remains as unsettling as quicksand, and far more timeless than, say, "Breathless" or "La Dolce Vita." He himself saw the film as an experiment, an exercise in high style. And what's striking is that this hypnotic work feels far more radical, more avant-garde than anything I saw at Cannes this year, much less anything that will actually open in our theatres.
It now seems incredible that such a movie could have been released commercially, let alone become an international touchstone, one that would inspire a zillion fashion shoots and perfume commercials, influencing everything from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," to music videos by Blur.
Does this mean I now like the movie? I can't honestly say that I do, but liking it seems almost beside the point. "Last Year at Marienbad" is one of those primal experiences that's somehow just there, like the Grand Canyon, or the Acropolis, or maybe Las Vegas. However you feel about it, this is one movie you never forget, even if you can't remember much of anything that happens in it.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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