With the near-simultaneous deaths last summer of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, it became possible to revive a long-dormant intellectual parlor game: naming the greatest living filmmaker. Jean-Luc Godard? Theo Angelopoulos? Bela Tarr?
Consider another candidate, a director once seen to rival Bergman and Antonioni as art-house god but now barely remembered (even unknown) on this side of the Atlantic: Alain Resnais. Still active at 85, Resnais released a feature two years ago, "Coeurs." According to IMDb, he currently has a film in pre-production. Resnais' heyday, though, was more than 40 years ago. "Hiroshima mon amour" (1959), "Muriel" (1963), and "La guerre est finie" (1966) were landmark films, cultural events.
Above all, there was "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961), that movie monument to enigmatic stylization - or should it be stylized enigma? "Marienbad" won the Golden Lion at Venice, back when such things seemed to matter, and even earned its screenwriter, the celebrated French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. "M. Robbe-Grillet, allow us to present Mlle. Cody!" Alas, that meeting can never take place - the father of the nouveau roman died last week, at 85.
"Marienbad" did not win universal acclaim. Pauline Kael, for one, derided it as "high-fashion experimental film, the snow job in the ice palace." Yet the controversy was part of what made Resnais' film special. It truly excited people, many people - detractors no less than advocates - about the possibilities of film as an art form. When was the last time that happened?
Today "Marienbad" begins a weeklong run at the Brattle in a newly struck 35mm print. " 'Marienbad' . . . the Brattle . . . 35mm": Reaching for the nearest madeleine, you might almost convince yourself that something called film culture still exists.
Plot is something that may drive other movies, but not "Marienbad." It revels in inscrutability the way "Juno" (speaking of Diablo Cody) does in glibness. What plot there is is simple, so simple as to be outside time - if not place. A man (Giorgio Albertazzi) may or may not have had a brief liaison with a woman (Delphine Seyrig) the previous year at the luxurious hotel where she was staying with her husband (Sacha Pitoëff). All three are there again.
To the extent this story emerges, it does so only in the final third of the movie. "Marienbad" lies at the intersection of dream, memory, and desire, a place grounded in where far more than why, how, or even what. As the title indicates, the resort is the true star. Resnais opens with a series of palatial tracking shots of the hotel's ceilings and furnishings. It could be a Max Ophuls movie about walls instead of women. Or "The Shining" without snow.
The resort is a vast stage set. It even includes a small theater, as well as formal gardens, a ballroom, many, many mirrors, and a pistol range. (A lineup of dark-suited male shooters could be a premonition of "Reservoir Dogs.") The decor is emotive as the people are not. The actors display an affectlessness and sense of dislocation that border on Brechtian alienation - except that Brecht never wrote parts for men who exclusively wear black tie or suits and women in gowns or designer dresses. Resnais underscores this air of detachment with formal, even stilted line readings; sometimes dropping out dialogue; much visual and verbal repetition; some stop-motion; and extensive use of voice-over.
Meaning may not matter in "Marienbad," but words do. Two fundamental tensions define the film. There's the obvious one, real versus false. Robbe-Grillet said the original meeting between Seyrig's and Albertazzi's characters never happened - while Resnais said that under those circumstances "I could never have shot this film." Even more important - and fruitful - is the tension between word (Robbe-Grillet's), and image (Resnais's).
Of those two elements, Resnais's matters far more. "Marienbad" is elegantly hermetic, a ravishing waxworks that has stillness at its heart. (No matter how vivid the dream, the dreamer lies motionless.) And the whole thing is just a stumble or two away from being a "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of a zombie movie. Nor does the liturgical/spooky organ music by Francis Seyrig - Delphine's brother - help matters any. But Resnais' unerring gliding camera never falters. It's the only truly living thing in the movie. Its eloquence and grace are what give the sublime airlessness of "Marienbad" its sublimity.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.