Last Year at Marienbad

Influential's a term film critics love to casually toss about like a dorm-room Nerf ball, yet few films can measure up to the real and lasting impact of Alain Resnais' stunning Last Year at Marienbad. It's a masterpiece that instantly rewrote the genetic code of filmmaking, yet remains more talked about than actually seen. A major hit among the burgeoning art-house crowd in 1961, it became an endlessly debated curiosity, a film that makes folks feel smarter just by mentioning it, and a punch line to those who decry film snobs. In the decades since, it's fallen into relative obscurity, popping up in cheapie video dubs until finally receiving the deluxe treatment with a gloriously restored 35mm print that brings the splendid black-and-white compositions into stark focus. Nearly 50 years on, the film's as mesmerizing and maddening as ever, with its obliquely beautiful existential lovers forever frozen in a moment that's both dated and eternal, iconic symbols caught in a singularly quirky rumination on love and memory.

A man known only as "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a married woman called "A" (Delphine Seyrig) at a mammoth, opulent resort, insisting that they met the year before, possibly at Marienbad, where she promised to run away with him. She denies it and rebuffs him, though not strongly enough to really turn him away, and he keeps pursuing her, through mirrored corridors and across vast manicured gardens. This simple story gets retold over and over, with constantly shifting details, locales and timelines, never resolving, a meandering dreamscape of false memories and aborted desires.

The players are cold to the touch — like marble chess pieces that Resnais impassively shuffles around a lush chessboard of geometric precision — but a quiet passion burns just beneath the surfaces. It's an unspoken intensity that keeps the viewer riveted, even as the constant funereal organ music tries to lull you to sleep. This hermetically sealed ambience makes the experience unique but also keeps you at arm's length; it's a steady reminder of artistic calculation, even as the movie works to undermine our every notion of reminiscence, emotion and communication. The actors in their crisp tuxedos and billowy Chanel gowns are the very height of elegant, Euro cool, yet their flinty stoicism was a direct influence on those idiotic Obsession perfume commercials, and the whole thing edges dangerously close to parody. While his peers in the French new wave were working toward a new level of realism, Resnais dared to make an arch, highly formal, stylized experiment in pure visual storytelling, which made him even more of a radical. Love it or hate it, Mareinbad expanded the vocabulary of film, and any dedicated film lover can't truly join the conversation without it.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. Thrusday, April 17, and at 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 18-19, and at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 20.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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