Stimulation and spectacle

The top 10 films of 2010

by J.R. Cumming

Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, Dupa Craciun)

Radu Muntean, Romania

Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, Dupa Craciun)

Surprisingly, the film that left the most profound impression upon me this year was also the most subdued and reserved. Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, one of the finest entries into the increasingly remarkable series of films currently emerging out of Romania, stylistically bears much in common with its peers. Markedly minimalistic, the film, concerning a man involved in an affair with another woman who must choose between her and his wife, plays out entirely in extended takes (there can't be more than 25 shots in the entire film). Instead of relying on virtuosic camera movement or techniques, Muntean's shots are content to simply sit and observe, letting the scene play out at its own pace. Where this could still easily give way to the dry and stilted trappings of many films attempting likewise (the poorest of the American 'mumblecore' films come to mind), Tuesday, After Christmas is saved by its terrific dialogue and tremendous performances, as well as a genuine tenderness and sympathy running through it. 2010 may have brought the loss of the great Eric Rohmer, yet watching Tuesday, After Christmas one can't help but feel that if anyone is ready to carry his torch, Radu Muntean might be our man.

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski, France/Germany/UK

The Ghost Writer

Sadly slept on by most, Polanski's The Ghost Writer has much in common with it's titular character, seemingly omnipresent and frank while remaining incredibly mysterious (it's only as the credits roll you realize he doesn't even have a name other than 'the ghost writer'). While ostensibly nothing more than a good, simple, political thriller, the film is a slow-burner, gradually revealing its remarkable craftsmanship upon reflection. Nearly everything about the film is impeccable and remarkably taught — truly the work of a master. While the film was able to transcend its own generic restraints it sadly, but evidently, wasn't able to rise above Polanski's personal controversy that overshadowed much of its press. Those who bothered, however, were rewarded gratefully.

Another Year

Mike Leigh, UK

Another Year

Mike Leigh has been at the top of his game for years, but watching Another Year one can't help but feel they're watching the work of a different, older, filmmaker. Separated into four seasons, the film traces a joyful aging couple that acts as pillars to their friends and family suffering around them. Leigh has never been afraid to touch on darker subjects but Another Year feels like a remarkably mature work, informed by a director ever aware of death and sorrow of passing time, a somberness delicately balanced by Leigh's tenderness and humanism.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
(Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat)

The latest piece of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's singular cinematic puzzle, Uncle Boomnee was the 'art-film' to beat in 2010, and with good reason. By turns starkly realist and majestically surreal, while always infused with his signature delicate style, it proves Weerasethakul is making films unlike anyone else in the world right now. One can't help but be eager for more, but for the time being, Uncle Boonmee has much to merit repeated viewings and reflections.

The Social Network

David Fincher, USA

The Social Network

Similar to The Ghost Writer, David Fincher's The Social Network was a rather straightforward narrative that managed to surpass its high cheese potential to become one of the finest American dramas in years. Carried enormously by Fincher's taught directing, Jesse Eisenberg's incredibly strong performance, and Aaron Sorkin's terrific script, the film was magically able to turn what amounted to a series of meetings and business decisions into something utterly captivating and compelling.

Mother (Madeo)

Bong Joon-ho, South Korea

Mother (Madeo)

Bong Joon-ho seems like a strange character to pin down, following his successful monster movie The Host with an understated thriller about a mother trying to prove the innocence of her accused son. Joon-ho turns the unlikely heroine into an incredible character study showing the depths of desperation. The story itself is equally well-crafted and executed, with incredible composition and photography to boot.

A Prophet (Un Prophète)

Jacques Audiard, France

A Prophet (Un Prophète)

Other than a few exceptions one doesn't exactly associate French Cinema with prison dramas, let alone ones as gritty as Un Prophète. Perhaps that's the reason why the latest film from Jacques Audriard comes off as so vibrant and fresh. Tracing a young Arab prisoner throughout a six-year bid, the film follows his attempts to survive and advance among prison bureaucracy, gangs, and racial ties, managing to be inspiring without falling into melodramatic traps.

Carlos

Olivier Assayas, France/Germany

Carlos

Following hot on the heels of other revolutionary-focused biopics Che and The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Assayas' five-hour portrait of Venezuelan terrorist 'Carlos The Jackel' might be the most epic of the three and Assayas' best work to date. Through remarkably varied techniques (albeit relying largely on hand-held cameras) Carlos manages to be both enormous and grandiose in scope while remaining raw in style, with hardly a dull moment to spare throughout the entire film.

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

Woody Allen, USA/UK

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

Every time Woody Allen releases a new film it evokes critical mention of it being 'his best in years,' yet this time it may well be true. The themes are familiar but an excellent cast manages to help boost the film's appeal. Formally the film finds Allen revitalized, returning to hand-held cameras for the first time in ages as well as incorporating healthy doses of ambiguity. It's little gems like You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger that show how thankful we should all be to still have the man around and active.

Inception

Christopher Nolan, USA

Inception

While not a perfect film, one can't help but appreciate Nolan taking his massive budget from Warner Brothers and actually attempting to make something interesting as well as entertaining. Between Inception and The Dark Knight, he has managed to raise the bar for big-budget blockbusters, proving that they can serve up both stimulation and spectacle.

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Morpharotica

Selections by J.R. Cumming

1. Carpenters – “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”

With this cover of the Canadian band Klaatu (a weird enough group on their own, who were rumored upon the release of their album to be the actual Beatles reformed and performing under aliases), the Carpenters make their ode to tour pals out there even zanier, adding ornate accompanying arrangements, a bitchin’ guitar solo, and a bizarre telephone exchange between the aliens and a radio DJ.

2. Black Eyes – “Commencement”

[MP3]

The lone entry, to my knowledge, into what can only be classified ‘klzemer-punk’ Black Eyes’s second and final album, Cough, is wholly unique. The incorporation of traditional instruments and song structures into the band’s already manic fury (complete with two drummers and two vocalists) works shockingly well, creating something incredibly strange and incredibly fresh.

3. Jeanne-Mance Cormier – “La Chanson De L’Handicapé”

Tragically born as a dwarf without legs, losing her mother, and living with an alcoholic father you would think that Québécoise singer Jeanne-Mance Cormier would be a rather bitter person, but magically she is not; she understands that everything is as God planned and takes it all in stride. In this track, “The Song of the Handicapped”, she make the case that while her story is a sad one, she hopes it can inspire others. Merci, Jeanne-Mance.

4. Dreamies/Bill Holt – “Program Ten, Part One”

The apparent story behind Bill Holt is that he was a pretty normal family man from the midwest who one day had his mind blown by The Beatles’ “Revolution #9” and the potential for sound collage in pop music. The subsequent LP he recorded consists of two sidelong experiments layering and drifting between political sound bytes, cartoon sound effects, Holt’s hypnotic acoustic guitar and voice, and even splices of the Beatles themselves. Bizarre and beautiful.

5. Serge Gainsbourg – “Evguenie Sokolov”

[MP3]

In the 1980s Gainsbourg decided to split down to Jamaica to try his hand at some reggae under the guidance and production of top dogs Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare at the Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, with mixed results. The song in question is based off of a story that Gainsbourg wrote about a young Slavic artist of the ‘hyperabstract’ school who finds inspiration in his flatulence.

6. Mr. T – “Don’t Talk To Strangers”

On his children’s album, Mr. T’s Commandments, the man expounds about the dangers of taking rides or opening the door to strangers over a beat that could easily be mistaken for a contemporary ‘chill-wave’ group (provided by Ice T). My favorite part is when he pleads with such sincerity to the children, “Please, don’t talk to them. Please, don’t talk to them.” If you can’t trust Mr. T, who can you trust?

7a. O-Town – “Liquid Dreams”

7b. B4-4 – “Get Down”

Truth be told, when my mind turns to subject matter for teenage pop music it usually gears more towards soda pops and bicycles rather than nocturnal emissions and oral sex, but I guess that’s just me. I can understand that I’ve seen B4-4 croon about the merits of sexual reciprocation about 2000 times due to CANCON regulations, but everything about “Liquid Dreams” baffles me. Aside from the absurd use of made up words (“morpharotic”?), the whole video is made especially disturbing if we understand the song to be about semen and then see O-Town dancing the whole time in a strange opaque liquid… If these aren’t weird than I don’t know what is.

8. Seals & Crofts – “Unborn Child”

For a group who sure know how to make someone kick back and relax, Seals & Crofts also prove their capability on this song for making people horribly awkward and uncomfortable. A pro-life anthem is one thing, but when the lyrics start being sung from the point of view of the unborn fetus begging its mother to “stop, turn around, go back, think it over” it’s pretty tough to handle. This is one of the aforementioned selections that I find pretty awful, but also too weird to ignore.

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My goodness. How interesting! How bizarre!

The top 25 films of the 2000s (part 2 of 2)

By J.R. Cumming

Two quick disclaimers before we begin:

1. This list is naturally highly subjective and does not intend to be any definitive document of the “Greatest Films of the Decade,” merely my favourites (though not to say that I consider any of the films less than superb).

2. I have not seen every movie released in the last 10 years.

12. Snow Angels

David Gordon Green, 2007

Snow Angels

While his second and third features — All the Real Girls (2003) and Undertow (2004) — were still excellent and beautiful films, David Gordon Green’s second true masterstroke came with 2007’s Snow Angels, a full-fledged return to the sparseness and understatement of George Washington (with summer’s dry heat exchanged for the bitter winter). Accented by marvelous performances from Sam Rockwell as an alcoholic dad trying to make good and Kate Beckinsale as his ex-wife, Snow Angels is one of the most touching, tragic, and tremendous films in years. Here’s hoping Green hasn’t abandoned drama for good.

11. Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

While a decade ago the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman seemed to be some of the most radical and mind-bending stuff out there, it’s not quite the same case nowadays. In a time when his work has become almost routine, it’s easy to understand why Kaufman would need to take things to the next level for his directorial debut. While the result isn’t quite perfect (it’s damn close until the overly byzantine final 20 minutes, a problem he’s suffered from before), it’s still his most impressive achievement yet. Remarkably ambitious in scope and complexity (the temporality alone is worthy of its own essay) plus an outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman performance to boot, Synecdoche is nothing short of mind-boggling.

10. Irréversible

Gasper Noé, 2002

Irréversible

There is so much to say about Irréversible but sometimes I still have trouble finding the words. While still one of the more disturbing films I’ve ever seen (and, until this year’s Antichrist, the only film to ever make me nauseous), Irréversible somehow manages to move beyond being a simple shock or exploitation film to a true work of art. Told in reverse chronological order and placing the infamous revenge and rape scenes before the whole story unfolds, Noé forces the audience to watch and analyze such actions in a wholly different way. An absolute assault on film form and audience expectations, from the narrative to the soundtrack, Irréversible may not be easy to stomach but it is completely one of a kind.

9. Wet Hot American Summer

David Wain, 2000

Wet Hot American Summer

What begins as a light send-up to 1980s summer camp movies (set on the last day, naturally) slowly dissolves into one of the greatest absurd comedies of all time. Written by certified jokesters Michael Ian Black, David Wain and Michael Showalter and featuring career highlights from Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, and David Hyde Pierce, Wet Hot American Summer is the kind of ludicrous romp the term cult classic was made for.

8. No Country For Old Men

Ethan and Joel Coen, 2007

No Country For Old Men

While it seems it will be forever mentioned in the same breath as the #5 entry on this list, the comparison is not unjust; aside from being filmed in similar areas both are marvels of atmosphere, acting, and pacing. Though the Coens’ body of work has had its fair share of quality films, No Country For Old Men towers above all others. Aided by the Cormac McCarthy source material, the film follows through on the darkness and rawness the filmmaking brothers have always hinted at but never fully captured.

7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile)

Cristian Mungiu, 2007

4 months, 3 weeks, & 2 days

The leading light of the blossoming Romanian New Wave, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days is a tale of two girls attempting to organize an illegal abortion in communist Romania over the course of one day in 1987. As you would imagine, it’s also one of the most intense and potent films in years. Distinctly Eastern European and adroitly utilizing the extremely long take, 4 Months can almost be seen a parallel to the work of Bela Tarr. However, where Tarr is more occupied with highly stylized realism and virtuosic camera-work (not a slag at all), Mungiu instead aims to achieve realism with style (if that makes sense), preferring scenes to play out in real time as a way to subtly force the audience to experience every excruciatingly fraught minute, though not at any aesthetic expense. Indeed, 4 Months’ photography is truly magnificent, though not a means to an end; it instead exists to enhance and further nuance what is already a powerhouse work.

6. The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson, 2001

The Royal Tenenbaums

If Rushmore was Wes Anderson's appropriation or homage to The Catcher In The Rye, then The Royal Tenenbaums finds him following through on his Salinger infatuation with the creation of his very own Glass family, one every bit as erudite and dysfunctional as the original. While in 2009 Anderson’s knack for dry wit, perpetually perfect, symmetrical compositions, clever soundtracks and his revolving team of key actors have all become such a stereotype (a negative for some, though I remain an unabashed fan), it’s hard to not find in The Royal Tenenbaums the uniqueness and mastery that, though several others have tried, is all his.

5. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

There Will Be Blood

With P.T. Anderson’s name becoming near synonymous with his tremendous representations of disconnect in contemporary urban culture (Boogie Nights being a temporal, though not thematic exception), it was tough to know what to expect when it was announced that his follow-up to Punch-Drunk Love would instead be a literary adaption set in the early 20th century American South. Thankfully, with Anderson’s proficient balance between the epic and the intimate, There Will Be Blood ended up being one of the greatest and most powerful films of the decade, truly solidifying him as our finest filmmaker working today.

4. George Washington

David Gordon Green, 2000

George Washington

One of the most accomplished directorial debuts and astonishingly beautiful independent films in years, David Gordon Green's George Washington is the stuff film school dreams are made of. Following the tale of a group of children over the course of long, hot summer Green is able to perfectly capture the pervading sense of ennui altering everyday moments into images of splendor. Equal parts Terence Malick and Southern Gothic, George Washington remains the peak in Green’s already incredibly rich career.

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák)

Bela Tarr, 2000

Werckmeister Harmonies (Werckmeister harmóniák)

Seven years after his near eight-hour opus, Sátántangó (1994), Bela Tarr plunged us back into his own, one-of-a-kind world: cold wet, and dark. The plot may seem simple (a circus arrives in a small Hungarian town and a keen and curious youth becomes fascinated by an enormous dead whale [no joke]), yet Tarr’s signature style of high-contrast black and white photography and incredibly long takes transforms images that might seems mundane into moments of pure meditative splendor (noticing a running trend on this list yet?). Maddeningly slow and almost two and a half hours in length, Werckmeister Harmonies is a film that will surely frustrate anyone not willing to give in to it's rhythm but reward the patient with some of the most elegant and awesome moments in post-millennial cinema.

2. Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

Thomas Alfredson, 2008

Let The Right One In

The anti-Twilight. The little film that could. Call it what you will, Let The Right One In snuck up on unsuspecting moviegoers the in the fall of 2008 almost as furtively as its star vampire Eli, and like her, when it bit, it bit hard. Shot on a modest budget in northern Sweden, the film has steadily solidified its status as a modern masterpiece of atmosphere, pacing, and photography (especially for its use of the so-called spray light technique), one that exists completely out of time. Effectively subverting the typical stereotypes of vampire flicks to create one of the most interesting and unique “horror” films in years, Let The Right One In displaces the savagery and terror of prototypical vampire movies to accentuate the melancholy of eternal life and the burden of their urges. Truly, it’s a work of wonder that must be seen to be believed.

1. Punch-Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002

Punch Drunk Love

Despite having come to be considered the odd man out of his career, Punch-Drunk Love also serves to stand as P.T. Anderson’s most personal, tender, beautiful, and all around perfect film. Even with a stacked team — knockout acting from Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, a Jon Brion score, and intertitle art from the late, great Jeremy Blake — the film somehow succeeds in being greater than the sum of its parts. Punch-Drunk Love’s true magic exists in the understated moments born between all of the above; the power of glance or a smile. Indeed, I’ve yet to see a film so honestly translate the awkwardness, anxiety and exhilaration of burgeoning love, one which hasn’t aged a day in eight years and hopefully won’t any time soon.

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My goodness. How interesting! How bizarre!

The top 25 films of the 2000s (part 1 of 2)

By J.R. Cumming

Two quick disclaimers before we begin:

1. This list is naturally highly subjective and does not intend to be any definitive document of the “Greatest Films of the Decade,” merely my favourites (though not to say that I consider any of the films less than superb).

2. I have not seen every movie released in the last 10 years.

25. Still Walking (歩いても 歩いても)

Hirokau Koreeda, 2008

Still Walking (歩いても 歩いても)

With his tender portrait of a family reunion taking place years after the accidental death of their son, director Hirokazu Koreeda is at last able to claim the title of heir to the great Yasujirō Ozu. Delicate camerawork and even more delicate handling of the often tense emotions hiding beneath each character’s smile, Still Walking is one of the finest Japanese films in years.

24. 28 Days Later

Danny Boyle, 2002

28 Days Later

A radical re-imagining of the zombie genre, much to the chagrin of classical horror fans (though the difference between the “rage-infected” and the undead should be noted), 28 Days Later is one of the most interesting and effective genre films in years. Using a very much contemporary setting and incorporating concepts of contamination and quarantine, the film stands as the antithesis of the countless asinine slasher re-makes that make up most horror cinema today, standing as a perfect piece of post-millennial terror.

23. Time of The Wolf (Le Temps du Loup)

Michael Haneke, 2003

Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup)

Though it seems to be the most overlooked of Haneke’s 21st century output, I find The Time of The Wolf truly stands among the director’s finest work (my predilection for post-apocalyptic films perhaps having a minor influence on my opinion...). Tracing a breakdown of humanity seen though the eyes of Isabelle Huppert and her children as they wander across a near desolate France following an undisclosed incident, The Time of The Wolf is one of Haneke’s most scathing criticisms of the cultural and societal tensions that lie just beneath the surface.

22. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind

The perfect meeting between one of the most original and creative filmmakers today (Gondry) with one of its most original and creative screenwriters (Charlie Kaufman), Eternal Sunshine is a unique and beautiful love story, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.

21. Songs from the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen)

Roy Andersson, 2000

Songs from the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen)

Shot in his own unique palate of greys, dark blues, and sickly greens with each scene contained in a single, static take, Roy Andersson's delightfully dark comedy is equal parts Jacques Tati and Jim Jarmusch. A serious of (largely) disconnected vignettes following an incident over a single day, some slow and subtle, other pure slapstick, Songs from the Second Floor is an incredibly bizarre comedy from one of Europe’s most intriguing filmmakers.

20. The Man From London (A Londoni férfi)

Bela Tarr, 2007

The Man From London (A Londoni férfi)

Working from a Georges Simonen novel co-adapted by his creative partner László Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr’s follow-up to Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) offers up something different while still very much his own. His distinct style (read: slow) might seem at odds with the suspense needed to propel a typical thriller narrative, yet The Man From London perfectly captures the type of foggy, dark atmosphere that most noir filmmakers would kill for. Alongside an excellent performance from Tilda Swinton and Tarr’s typically mesmerizing camera work, it all serves to create another tremendous work from the master.

19. Pineapple Express

David Gordon Green, 2008

Pineapple Express

The first entry from the most represented director on this list, Pineapple Express was David Gordon Green’s surprising 180 from sober drama to stoner comedy. Though the film remains very much a Judd Apatow-brand slapstick, there is no denying the distinct maestro’s eye in even the most banal of moments. It’s unsure at the moment whether Green hopes to straddle the commercial/independent fence a la Steven Soderbergh or Gus Van Sant or embrace his comedic side, but judging from his recent work with Pineapple Express star Danny McBride’s TV series Eastbound & Down and their in-production medieval comedy Your Highness, it seems that for now he’s opting for the latter. This is not a problem for me if what we’ve seen so far has been any sort of promise.

18. Oldboy (올드보이)

Park Chan-wook, 2003

Oldboy (올드보이)

While it’s easy for Oldboy to slip between the cracks (or should I say gashes) of Asian ultraviolence cinema, Park Chan-wook’s gripping revenge tale is truly a whirlwind tour of genres. There are elements of ultraviolence, but Chan-wook places them alongside equal servings of film noir, action, sci-fi, horror, psychological thrillers and European art cinema, resulting in a unique piece of art from this interesting and constantly surprising auteur.

17. The Life Aquatic

Wes Anderson, 2004

The Life Aquatic

While still a retelling of his favorite themes of disjointed families, The Life Aquatic shows Wes Anderson as capable of much more. Less tennis and more pirates, less Nick Drake and more Iggy Pop, The Life Aquatic proves that everyone’s favourite dandy can actually kick ass and his sense of humour extends beyond dry wit (though there’s still plenty present). It’s still one of the most fun films I’ve seen all decade.

16. Mutual Appreciation

Andrew Bujalski, 2005

Mutual Appreciation

An intriguing albeit atrociously named chapter in the book of American independent cinema, “Mumblecore” (I prefer the alternate “Bedhead Cinema”) has been gaining steady ground in recent years, largely due to its torchbearer Andrew Bujalski and his Mutual Appreciation. In a film genre commonly typified by non-professional actors and low budgets it’s often difficult to escape the feel (and cringe-worthy moments) of countless student art films, and while Mutual Appreciation may not be entirely exempt, it’s certainly an exception. While still a polarizing, dialogue-heavy movie about a group of 20 year olds discussing music, love, and life, Bujalski is somehow able to drop all pretenses and deliver a piece of work that is at times almost achingly sincere (it might just be that I’m a sucker for black and white). Even if life ends up imitating art and the entire Bedhead movement winds up going nowhere, we’ll always have Mutual Appreciation.

15. Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes, 2002

Far From Heaven

Crafted as a stylistic and thematic homage to the 1950s melodramas of the great Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven perfectly embodies the later master’s grace. In a time when colour has become ubiquitous and often taken for granted Haynes here reclaims its majesty, using it — along with editing, mise-en-scene and lighting — as not only an experimental but subversive tool. The impact and social commentary might not be quite as intense as in Sirk’s masterpieces, but Far From Heaven remains an extraordinary exercise of film style.

14. Pootie Tang

Louis C.K., 2001

Pootie Tang

Sa-Da-Tay! With countless cold tonies and fly damies (not to the baddy daddy lamatai tebby chai, Dirty Dee), you’d better cole yourself down on the panni-sty for Pootie Tang, the tine-tanie of the clammy D. Before you wappatah to the bammies, don’t forget the cain a piddle on the panny-sti and then leepa-chai all the way to sepatown. Don’t make him sine your pity on the runny kine.

13. Adaptation

Spike Jonze, 2002

Adaptation

One of the most impressive films to come out of Hollywood this decade (and one of the few to actually be recognized for it), Adaptation was the first glimpse at the type of complexity that would come to characterize Synecdoche, New York and still stands as the career highlight for Spike Jonze, Meryl Steep and (arguably) Nicolas Cage.

Tune in next week for part 2...

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Each truth reveals two lies

Exploring the labyrinth of Last Year at Marienbad

by J.R. Cumming

Marienbad

Some puzzles are never meant to be solved. It’s the absence and lack of resolution that adds, the ambiguities surrounding what will be or what was that enrich a piece of art far more than an all-inclusive package ever could. Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad) is such a case, a wholly enigmatic and labyrinthine maze not only of the corridors which shape the titular mansion, but of truth, lies, memory, time, and space; a film whose relentlessly abstract and ethereal form hasn’t stopped it from forming a solid pillar in the canon of modernist art.

The oneric plot concerns three nameless characters who meet at an enormous chateau we assume to be Marienbad: a young woman, her lover, and second man (referred to as A, M, and X, respectively) who claim that he and she met, had a love affair, and planned to run off together the year before. Where things get tricky is that the young woman has no recollection of any of this (or at least claims as much) and X must try to convince her. Whether she is blatantly being untruthful or that X’s entire case is based on a folly of his memory (among several other possibilities) is never resolved, and we the audience are left unsure what in fact did occur. A string of repeated images and symbols, ambiguous narrations and visions that could be real or imagined all attempt to elucidate the mystery, yet we quickly learn that each truth reveals two lies, each piece that fits introduces two that don’t.

Placed contextually, Last Year at Marienbad represents a watershed meeting between filmmaker Alain Resnais with writer and later filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, two of the most significant and symbolic figures of late modernism (or even early post-modernism). While often considered to be a more peripheral member of the French New Wave movement, Resnais’ 1958 debut Hiroshima, Mon Amour, with it’s quick cutting, contemporary themes, and astonishing camera work, undeniably opened the doors for the flood of young auteurs who were soon to pick up cameras. Akin to the succeeding Marienbad (and much of his work), Hiroshima, Mon Amour’s plot revolves principally around memory, albeit with much more faith in the integrity and truth of its narrator, even relegating a quarter of the plot to an extended flashback.

Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum rests Robbe-Grillet, Marienbad screenwriter and the principal founder of the ‘50s literary movement dubbed the Nouveau Roman (or New Novel). The members of this movement attempted to revolutionize forms of literature they saw as having become stale by often eschewing traditional plot and characters in favor of jagged and elliptical flashes of thought, motion, passion, and instinct, an ambitious concept whose execution can be at times tedious and others brilliant. What makes Last Year at Marienbad so special and firmly a case of the latter is the juxtaposition between Robbe-Grillet’s swift present and Resnais’ eternal lingering in the past, a disjointedness (the former fractured by it’s limited acuity and the latter clouded by the subjectivity of memory) which combined is able to form something wholly new and unique. Though the film actually ends on a relatively close-ended note and does rest upon main characters, at times the camera’s own restlessness tends to abandon them as quickly as it found them in favor of hypnotic tracking shots of ceilings, mirrors, lifeless bourgeois frozen in idle conversation, and abandoned hallways. This is coupled with contrapuntal narrations monotonously reciting actions, thoughts and recollections instead of showing them, further blurring the line between truth and lies.

Though impossible to fully unravel one of the script’s possible influences, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 novella The Invention of Morel (which the filmmakers in fact claimed to have never read, yet we’ve seen how difficult unreliable words can be) is an interesting route for analysis. The invention in question is a machine projecting a holographic video of vacationing socialites on repeat. The only real character stumbles upon it unwittingly and falls madly in love with one of the women, despite the fact (or perhaps even because) he is never able to interact with her, instead resting by her side hoping she will one day respond.

This idea that the inhabitants of Marienbad are merely phantoms or projections as well is not without merit, as throughout the film we see the script and visual imagery littered with continual repetition of phrases, objects and actions (especially the card game M plays with others, which he claims he “never loses”). In another particularly gorgeous scene, we see an overexposed shot of A dressed in white against a wall where she hardly appears to exist at all. Perhaps that is the case; the three lovers are doomed to meet again every year in a pointless endeavor to understand what happened the year before.

Fans of the Casares loop theory will surely be happy to see the everlasting resonance of the film continue to repeat itself elsewhere, from the haunting corridors in The Shining to the music video for Blur’s "To The End". As this month finds the film finally being re-released on DVD after being unavailable for far too long, it seems to be the perfect chance to go back to Marienbad

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