The attraction of the enigmatic has rarely been so strong as in a pair of French avant-garde films, one returning to DVD and one new to the format. Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Stanislav Stanjoevic's Diary of a Suicide (1972) share not just two actors — the sphinx-like Delphine Seyrig and the inscrutable, deadpan Sacha Pitoeff — but also a common romanticized ideal regarding the mystery of narrative. The central action of both films is, essentially, one character telling a story to another, though this hardly does justice to either of the films' richly nuanced scripts or the entrancing performances of the actors. Both films feed off our desire for resolution and clarity, and in denying — or drawing out — our needs, they become commentaries on listening and perception as much as storytelling.
Criterion has finally brought Resnais' landmark Last Year at Marienbad back to DVD, after years out of print, in an expectedly impeccable print whose transfer was supervised by the director himself. Forty-eight years has done little in the way of answering the film's dense layers of mysteries, contradictions, and uncertainties. Written by modernist author Alain Robbe-Grillet (The Voyeur), the story (on its most basic level) revolves around a man (Giogrio Albertazzi) who encounters a woman (Seyrig) at a resort, and whom he professes to have met last year. She denies any such meeting. Like a Sisyphus of missed connections, Albertazzi recounts their meeting over and over, each time getting further lost in his memory, to the point where he is wrestling with his own consciousness over what did and did not happen. The statuesque Seyrig remains steadfast: no, they did not meet.
The pleasures of the film come not in deciphering its cinematic code, but in its vast array of possible interpretations (of which the film offers many), as well as the sensuous photography by Sacha Vierny and eerily dissonant organ score by Francis Seyrig (Delphine's brother). The ornate, labyrinthine corridors of the resort and its garden maze were clearly an influence on Stanley Kubrick's visual conception of The Overlook Hotel in The Shining — not to mention Resnais' somnambulate actors and their supernatural aura, which imbue Last Year at Marienbad with a foreboding sense of the uncanny.
Making its American premiere is Diary of a Suicide, just out from Chicago's champion of overlooked films, Facets. Seyrig stars as an aloof interpreter in the Mediterranean who hides behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Tour guide Sami Frey (Band of Outsiders) vies in vain for her attention, until one afternoon she finally responds. "Tell me a beautiful story," she asks of him. Frey's stories unfold like a narrative matryoshka — those Russian dolls that open up only to reveal another doll containing another one, until you finally reach the core. The heart of Frey's story-within-a-story is the tale of a young female anarchist whose suicide mission failed, and her jailer (Sacha Pitoeff), a man haunted by his experiences in the war that robbed him of his memories.
Diary of a Suicide makes an unexpected gender reversal halfway towards the end of the movie. No longer the enigmatic female, Seyrig finds herself hooked on Frey's story, demanding the resolution that she herself has denied him throughout the movie. It's almost as if Seyrig's alter-ego at Marienbad were to say to Albertazzi, "Tell me more of our meeting, tell me everything." A self-described "comedy," Diary of a Suicide playfully subverts narrative politics (and takes a few cracks at "political" politics, as well). Stanojevic's innovative and highly original structure is a clever testament to the tantalizing, perpetually elusive mystery of storytelling.
Also on DVD this week:
Catlow (1971) (Warner, Region 1) - Yul Brenner (The Magnificent Seven) and Richard Crenna (Wait Until Dark, Un Flic, First Blood, Body Heat) team up in this Western about a two million dollar gold robbery, based off a novel by one of the pioneers of the genre, Louis L'Amour.
Parade (1974) (BFI, Region 2 PAL) -This is the last film of the playful modernist Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Playtime) — a behind-the-scenes look at a circus, shot on video for Swedish television.
Silent Western Classics Double Feature: Thundering Hoofs (1924)/The King Of The Wild Horses (1924) (Televista/MVD, Region 1) - A collection of rarely seen silent Westerns with animal stars. Underappreciated silent comedian Charley Chase plays second fiddle to Rex the Wonder House in The King of the Wild Horses, while Silver King the Horse gets first billing in Thundering Hoofs.