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APRIL 5, 2008

Out of Place

Reviewed: Last Year at Marienbad,
Body of War, Shine a Light

By Mark Jenkins

Gardens of Stone: Obsessive order and crazy shadows at Marienbad.

YOU CAN'T GO HOME to Marienbad again, no matter how comfortable — or uncomfortable — you were on the first visit. Alain Resnais's perplexing 1961 masterpiece, like Godard's '60 films, never presents itself the same way twice. Which is all the more reason to view it again, especially in dazzling new print now available from reissue specialists Rialto.

Admittedly, only the cinematically sheltered can see LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD the way it was seen in its time. From rock videos to perfume commercials, the film's stately, almost fetishistic style has been too often copied, parodied, and even scorned. (It was featured in a 1978 book that alleged to list the 50 worst films of all time.) Like so much that was revolutionary in the '60s, Resnais's coinages are now part of the standard vocabulary. Marienbad echoes in such diverse films as Funny Games and The Blair Witch Project, and in everything Peter Greenaway has ever done.

Scripted in great detail by "new novelist" Alain Robbe-Grillet — and apparently inspired by Argentinian fantasy writer Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel — the film features three mysterious characters and a baroque mansion (impersonating a resort hotel) that's every bit as important as the people who inhabit it. In fact, the movie opens with tracking shots of endless hallways and intricate ceilings, indicating that space and motion are of the essence.

Space and motion, but also Resnais's signature theme: time. The story, which isn't really one, consists of a series of looping vignettes that could be flashbacks, flash-forwards, fantasies, or — as in the director's 1977 Providence — an author's rough-draft narrative. An elegant if insistent man (Giorgio Albertazzi) courts a striking, enigmatic woman (Delphine Seyrig). He says they met last year at Marienbad, and made plans to reunite. (Where are they at that moment? We'll never know.) She denies everything, sort of, forceful in her vagueness. Meanwhile, her skull-faced husband or lover (Sacha Pitoeff) prowls the hotel, challenging people to rounds of Nim, a simple yet diabolical game in which the last man standing is the loser. Quickly intercut scenes suggest that the three-sided relationship will lead to violence, or already has. But maybe that gunshot is just someone's fear or hope, and no one's reality.

Marienbad was one of the first art movies I ever saw, at a film club that occasionally used the basement of the then-unrenovated Sumner School. I was mesmerized by the doomy organ music, Sacha Vierny's wide-screen cinematography, the gliding camera movements, the play between artifice and naturalism, and Resnais's ability to conjure menace with such elementary means. The obsessively geometric gardens, their artificiality exaggerated by long (and physically impossible) painted-on shadows, embodied the film's vision of orderliness taken to the brink of mania. Nim, played with nothing more exotic than matchsticks, conjured incredible tension.

In subsequent viewings, Marienbad has never again seemed so ominous. But it remains ghostly and bewitching, an exercise in temporal dislocation that shuns the historical contexts of the director's Hiroshima, Mon Amour (which feverishly evokes World War II) and Muriel (which is haunted by France's Algerian War). Always dressed formally, and with infinite time on their hands, the characters stand apart from everyday life. That doesn't mean, however, that they represent some sort of elitist ideal. Their detachment might indicate that they're dead, or never even lived at all. It could be that the people are mere ornaments of the absurdly ornate building. (Most of the film was shot at a Bavarian castle, although not the one that inspired Disneyland's.)

Marienbad owes something to French surrealism, but not that much. Most of its antecedents are more mainstream than that. It's telling that the first people who appear on screen in this intensely theatrical film are watching the performance of an Ibsen play. (Most of Resnais's movies of the last 20 years are based on stage plays.) Life is the chateau, the chateau is a stage set, therefore....

As much as anything, though, this paragon of pretentious French cinema is a riff on hyper-stylized mid-century studio melodramas, with their extravagant poses and heightened emotions. The monochromatic aesthetic, which requires Seyrig to wear white at day and black at night, reflects Hitchcock as surely as Man Ray. And Seyrig (who would later turn the tables as feminist director Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman) embodies a notion of baffling, fickle womanhood that's very '40s Hollywood. Last Year at Marienbad has an undeniably European sensibility, but gaze at it from the just the right angle and you'll see how it reflects the very vision of tortured elegance that American cinema peddled to the world. (1961, 94 min; American Film Institute Silver Theater)

A REASONABLY EFFECTIVE if mostly redundant propaganda piece, BODY OF WAR interweaves the story of one man — paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young — with an indictment of the bulk of the U.S. Senate. Co-directors Phil Donahue (yes, that Phil Donahue) and Ellen Spiro spend most of their time with Young, who signed up to fight Al Quaeda in Afghanistan, but instead was sent to Sadr City, where a bullet severed his spinal cord. We see Young's slow, painful, and inevitably partial rehabilitation, and the unraveling of his marriage to the well-meaning Brie (who married him after his injury). As Eddie Vedder sings antiwar ditties, discomfiting medical details alternate with the roll call vote on the war-authorizing resolution. The informed skepticism seen in clips of the 23 "no" voters (notably Sen. Robert Byrd) rebukes the unthinking alarmism of the pro-war lawmakers, whose comments are cut together to show how they all read from the same deceitful script. The central problem is that, while Young provides the movie's humanity, he doesn't support its message. Lots of Americans have been killed or injured in "good" wars, and Young could very well have been maimed in Afghanistan. Even Paul Wolfowitz never promised that Iraq could be invaded without any casualties — although he did make a lot of other predictions for which Young, Donahue, Spiro, and the rest of us have every reason to be indignant. (2008, min; Landmark E Street)

ROCK ISN'T EXACTLY YOUTH MUSIC ANYMORE, so all the cracks about the Rolling Stones' longevity are, well, outdated. This band (or the remains of it) should keep playing as long as it wants, despite the jibes of Jay Leno and the late Joe Strummer (who vowed "no more Elvis Beatles or the Rolling Stones" way back in 1977). Yet director Martin Scorsese's SHINE A LIGHT, a portrait of the band onstage in New York in 2006, is a strong argument for retirement. It's not that Jagger and the boys look tired; they can still wind it up. But then they're not making all that much of the music, which is bolstered by nine auxiliary players. (Have you seen the real musicians, baby, standing in the shadows?) This version of the Stones is effectively a cabaret act, with everyone from Jack White to Bill Clinton on stage. (The nadir is Christina Aguilera, whose gutter-diva shtik is about as rock'n'roll as Perry Como.) The film's intro, a playful pre-concert battle of wills between director and lead singer, is brisk and amusing, but Scorsese never recaptures that spirit. His only other trick is to interject snippets of interviews with the mid-'60s Stones, who don't suppose they'll last past 1970. With songs as weak as "She Was Hot" or "Sympathy for the Devil" (the band's dumbest high-profile number), it's a wonder they did. But maybe they're better on nights when there are no Clintons on hand, and more of the material was written before Brian Jones died. (2008, 122 min; at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center IMAX theater, AMC Uptown, and suburban multiplexes)