MCN Columnists
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

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

The Ultimate DVD Geek

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon