Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad, or A Lot of Art is Boring

This sounds like a cool movie: a mysterious man with psycho-stalker looks and phrases tells a woman the story of how they met and had a week-long affair the year before; she doesn't believe him so he has to repeat the story over and over but, each time, the story changes a bit but still employs the familiar phrases, gets a bit more involved with details or encounters or other people, she believes him a bit more and changes the story herself . . . .; and then there is always the lingering question of whether force was involved.

I want to watch that movie.

Except I did and it sucks.

This film is a super case of how a good idea is taken and made into "art" and ruined. What I described above sounds like an awesome psychological thriller in which the woman and the audience don't and can't know the truth by the end--Has she actually ever met this man? Did the affair happen? Or has this man coerced her simply through this conversation? Even the location is fuzzy--the title of the film is Last Year at Marienbad but the narrative makes it clear that Marienbad is just one option. Add in the glamour of a fancy hotel with an apparently incessant black tie dress code and the black and white film and we should have a really engaging film.

Additionally, the screenplay is apparently the reimagined plot of the novel, The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares which Wikipedia tells me is about "A fugitive hides on a deserted island somewhere in Polynesia. Tourists arrive, and his fear of being discovered becomes a mixed emotion when he falls in love with one of them. He wants to tell her his feelings, but an anomalous phenomenon keeps them apart." (

I want to read that book. [Ok--I ordered it so maybe I'll get it and can read it before this posts and, if not, I'll update when I do--it's only 103 pages]

This movie, however, takes those ideas and makes them as slow and boring and painful as La Strada, The Russian Ark, and Umberto D rolled into one. There is no thrill. There is no suspense. And, at the end, I don't care what the truth is other than the movie is over (and it's not a long film at 90-ish minutes).

1001 Movies says that this film "marked a radical departure from movies shaped by the long-dominant 'tradition of quality'" and that "it wasn't just offbeat or eccentric [but] mounted a full-blooded assault on the ingrained assumptions of narrative film, interrogating and subverting every aspect of 'correct' moviemaking from temporal structure to photographic composition to characters development." Ok. So here is where I probably can't divorce myself from the fact that I am watching this film almost 50 years after its creation and this "full-blooded assualt" is now just normal (I've seen Inception, for example). And, while I appreciate that this was one of the first films to break standard, I don't think it does it well. Just because you're knowingly breaking the rules and are the first to do so doesn't make what you're doing worthy of praise. Just ask the first kid who colored on the wall with Sharpies.

1001 Movies continues, "With characteristic modesty, he [the director] once called Marienbad a 'crude and primitive . . . attempt' to capture 'the complexity of thought and its mechanisms. He was wrong in his choice of adjectives, but right about everything else . . . . Nowhere else in cinema have the labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory been evoked more forcefully or explored more resonantly." I don't know that I'd choose "crude" or "primitive" but the film is just that in a sense and it has to be--it was a test run for this sort of film. But, about that "nowhere else in cinema part . . . um . . . off the top of my head:

Memento (on the list)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Being John Malkovich (on the list)
Inception (too new to be on the list)
The Science of Sleep
50 First Dates
Fight Club (on the list)
The Matrix (on the list) . . .

Any films you can think of that are explorations of the "labyrinthine workings of consciousness and memory"--that are either better explorations or just better movies?


  1. GOD, Eternal Sunshine should be on this list. So glad you brought it up. I think it manages to make the same points about how love, memory, and obsession intersect in a postmodern context and still maintain meaning in a way this one didn't for me.

    How about Vertigo? I think if the Kim Novak character were one woman instead of two, this movie would be a lot like it. But it's so important that she is two! I just keep coming back to the idea that for obsession to be believable, there has to be more investment in a depth model of meaning.

  2. Interesting about Vertigo. It's not one I thought of but I think it works--except that she's two people. And interesting that you bring up Hitchcock since he basically made all of the rules this movie breaks starting 20-ish years earlier with his peak at about the same time as this film with Psycho in 60 and Birds in 63. What Hitchcock managed with genius that so many filmmakers fail miserably at is what to show the audience and what to keep from the audience. Marienbad keeps WAY too much from the audience.