Wednesday, November 25, 2009

two movies about nothing

Last Year at Marienbad is infamous for being an inscrutable art film. Endlessly parodied, it introduces us to three people: A, a beautiful woman, X, the man who says they met last year and planned a tryst this year, and M, who may be the woman's husband or lover. They converse and walk through a dreamy, immense mansion and grounds built around strict geometric patterns, endlessly repeating themselves in variations of what may be the past, fantasies of it, and fantasies of the present and future. In some scenes it seems as if X and A are lovers and did plan a romantic rendezvous, and in others it seems he is pestering her.
Alain Resnais has said the film has no meaning, but it inspires endless conversation. The only other film I've seen of his was Night and Fog, the brutal documentary about the Holocaust that remains the best film made about it. In Marienbad, he makes masterful use of tracking shots, mirrored compositions, reflections and frames where the actors pause while the camera slowly tracks around them. The cinematography makes the mansion seem endless and confusing, the gray outdoor scenes recall a house of purgatory lost in the mist, as in the ghost tale The Others. The slow tracking shots were an obvious influence on Kubrick for The Shining, and like his haunted Overlook Hotel, the very setting here seems dreamlike and unreal.
Like a cross between the ennui of L'Avventura, where the people are so shallow that they might disappear into the background, and the emptiness of the suits in American Psycho, where one can be mistaken for another, Last Year at Marienbad could be about the mutable persistence of memory, as Dali painted it; one party drifts into another, one year of vacationing at Marienbad is like the next, and who's to say what was promised, and who forgot whom? Was someone shot, and did we flirt, and make plans we never meant to keep?
There are obviously many interpretations and this is the kind of film, like Doubt, which claims the final act is the discussion you have afterward. Ebert loves how gripping it is, and it is true- though little happens, like the other infamous film of this sort My Dinner with Andre- which is merely a conversation over a meal- it can be hard to look away. The narration- something Resnais is masterful at using, as in Night and Fog- and the incredible camera work and framing, whether it is A's face or watching the men play endless, fruitless games of matchsticks- draw you in. "Seinfeld" was famously a show about nothing- a bare framework that master comedians and writers used to prove that even with nothing, they could make us laugh. And here, with barest semblance of plot, characters drawn from archetype, and dialogue that circles in on itself and goes nowhere, a masterful director can make us watch.
It helps that A is a stunning beauty, and X, who narrates, is a master seducer. M, by contrast, has a severe brow and resembles Peter Cushing at his most villainous. We are told little, but we begin to think of him as her husband or lover, for he dominates her in some way. M also has an unerring habit of winning all the games he plays, with ruthless skill. The film became a puzzle during its time and it remains as intriguing, though admittedly hearing those who saw it in theaters during its release gush about it is a "you had to be there" situation. What can compare? Will Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York rise to the challenge? I enjoyed this, it appealed to my love of German Expressionism. Do I know what it means? I like to think Resnais was playing with minimalism, and showing how film techniques can draw us in and make even the gauziest image feel three dimensional.
The exact opposite technique is used in the excellent, ahead of its time, feminist masterpiece: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Directed by Chantal Akerman, the camera is beyond static and almost seems to disappear. At the same height, unobtrusively observing the monotonous life that unfolds before it. It is over 3 hours long, and in theaters it was an excruciating test of both bladder and concentration to watch. The maddening rote is its message; Jeanne is a widowed housewife who fends for her son and herself- she prepares and serves dinner thanklessly, cleans the plates, and tends the house. We see three days of her Sisyphean toil.
The first introduces us, and we pore over the minutiae of housewife habitat and behavior. In the early '70s, women were becoming liberated and this is a stark reminder of how few choices they had. That becomes even more evident as we see day two, when a gentleman arrives at the apartment for sex. Her son is unaware of what she does to send him to school, of course, and is even callous in his disregard. He takes his life for granted. When he describes sex as disgusting, and wonders how women can tolerate it, she begins to unravel. Her sacrifices are utterly disrespected. I won't tell you what happens on day 3; you can watch all 210 minutes to find out, but the ending is incredibly powerful.
Director Chantal Akerman surely was a great influence on Michael Haneke, one of my favorite film makers. He's probably best known for Cache and Funny Games, but his film most resembling this one would be The Seventh Continent, which brutally depicts the empty life of a nuclear family. Classic film fans, and fans of Haneke especially, should give Jeanne Diehlman a shot.

2 comments:

Ed Howard said...

Great writeup of two fascinating and challenging films. I love Last Year At Marienbad, though understanding it is kind of beside the point. It's a purposeful enigma, a puzzle with no answer, but Resnais' gorgeous imagery and the lulling quality of the soundtrack make it a hypnotic experience. I appreciate it as nearly an abstract film, even though it clearly isn't one. Its whispery voiceover, combined with the droning organ music that wafts through the background, reminds me a bit of Robert Ashley's gorgeous piece Automatic Writing; they both conjure up feelings of ghostly hauntings, hazy dreams, hallucinations.

As for Jeanne Dielman, it's a great film for 2 hours and 50 minutes of its length, but I've always felt that the ending is a bit of a cheat, a cop-out into cheap shock cinema in comparison to the patient observational distance of the rest of the film. After spending so much time with the mundane and the routine in this woman's life, the ending feels like an intrusion, shocking not in itself but because it's an outburst of sensationalist drama in a film more concerned with prosaic reality throughout the rest of its length. As a feminist statement, the film's depiction of a woman crumbling under the dull pressures of domestic drudgery is bracing and compelling; but her final act seems like a parody of feminism rather than the real thing.

Tommy Salami said...

Well, I thought it was because her son sneered, "how can women put up with being stabbed over and over" as he described sex.

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