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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Last Year at Marienbad

What excited folks in 1961 about Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was its overpowering formalism and mastery of style. Each shot seems so meticulously composed, down to the mannerism of every actor on the screen, that it leaves the impression that Resnais had absolute, total control over every pixel on the screen. The lack of an immediately apparent narrative-set in a palatial hotel, a man and woman talk about having met previously as other guests engage in equally idle chatter-prevents the film from being more than cinematic modern art. Unlike the films of an intense stylist such as Stanley Kubrick, there is no appreciable sense of humanity (or its insignificance) in Marienbad. The cast is part of the decoration. But the 94-minute feature is so viscerally intoxicating that it remains one of the great movie-going experiences-whether or not one accepts the validity of its art, one is still moved to have a strong opinion about that validity-and nowhere is that experience more compelling in home video than on the Criterion Collection single-platter Blu-ray release. Criterion has also released a two-platter DVD, which substantially supersedes the old Fox Lorber release. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The Fox Lorber release had no 16:9 enhancement. Fox Lorber’s black-and-white source material had stray speckles, the transfer had slightly weak contrasts, the image was a little soft and the monophonic sound was noisy. Criterion’s DVD is a great improvement, with vivid, crisp details, glossy blacks, and clean, solid, monophonic sound. The film is in French with optional English subtitles. It is the BD, however, with its ultra-solid image and uncompressed audio that best enhances the film’s strengths and creates the most transfixing and transcendent viewing experience. Decades after the movie’s creation, its initial notoriety, backlash, and the eventual consensus that it is more of a dead end curiosity than a central promenade in the evolution of cinema, the BD demonstrates why the film can still be the bravura knockout it must have seemed to audiences that had never seen anything like it before.

The special features on the BD are duplicated on the two DVD platters. The first platter contains 6 minutes of trailers. The second DVD platter has a 33-minute audio-only interview with Resnais, played over a montage of images from the film, its production and its promotion. He talks about the challenge of getting the production off the ground (Germany had better locations than France), staging various sequences (the shadows in the film’s most emblematic outdoor scene were painted on the ground) and marketing the film once it was completed. There is also a good 33-minute retrospective documentary that goes over the same topics from other perspectives, and an excellent 23-minute analysis of the film by critic Ginette Vincendeau, who provides a persuasive argument that the story is about rape (Resnais actually eliminated the most obvious references to the rape from the script; just because the story can be decoded doesn’t mean that the narrative is involving, especially if one is not steeped in a familiarity with the movie in the first place) and otherwise enlightens the viewer to the dynamics of its execution.

Finally, two impressive documentary shorts made by Resnais have been included, Toute la mémoire du monde from 1956 and Le chant du styrène from 1958. Highly reminiscent of the works of Charles and Ray Eames, both films are exquisitely composed and achieve an ideal balance of knowledge and poetic expression. In the same way that Eames made use of Elmer Bernstein in his beginning years as a film composer, so does Resnais employ Maurice Jarre in the 21-minute full screen black-and-white Toute la mémoire du monde, a tribute to the Parisian library system that explores the buildings, the books, the cataloging, and the request and retrieval systems with an architectural classicism that underscores the nobility of the services the system provides. In dazzling full screen color, the 14-minute Le chant du styrene begins as if it is a nature film, but turns out to be about the creation of plastic, working its way back from the finished product to its sources, while at the same time reflecting the antithetical ecological impact of the process. It is a masterpiece, and again, on BD, its artistry is transcendent.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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