In her 1964 article “Are Movies Going to Pieces?” Pauline Kael famously derided the then-precipitous disintegration of traditional narrative and and style, with Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad receiving much of the blame: “We can’t even leave Marienbad behind because, although it isn’t particularly memorable, a kind of creeping Marienbadism is the new aesthetics of ‘poetic’ cinema.” Despite typically myopic judgment, Her Highness was correct: while others helped achieve it, Marienbad embodied its era’s sea change of formal innovation. Unmemorable? Only because in Marienbad memory is rendered impossible, as high-society zombies played by Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi puzzle their roles in a haunted and perhaps imaginary melodrama across absurd shifts in time and space, eternally returning through labyrinthine castles and de Chiricoian gardens in search of lost love, or at least sanity. Unfortunately, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet made their film susceptible to the shallowest cribbing (see Blur’s video for ‘To the End’ and various deadening Calvin Klein ads) by forsaking any humor and abstracting decadent chic into an intellectual parlor game, a flaw remedied by earthier responses like Kubrick’s equally somnambulant and mysterious, but much funnier, The Shining. In this sense Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Muriel are more human, political films, and not just “pure cinema,” but that can’t detract from the sensation Marienbad still leaves behind in us: lasting metaphysical dread.
Opens January 18 at Film Forum