Last Year at Marienbad
Last Year at Marienbad opens with a point of view camera sequence revealing a sumptuous Baroque hotel interior, filmed in high contrast black and white. Eerie, warbling organ music plays, and the monotone voice of the narrator speaking:
I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors…
What unfolds is a play within a play, a spookily atmospheric hall of mirrors, an aesthetic feast, and an intellection mind game. An unnamed male protagonist attempts to convince a woman of their love affair a year ago in Marienbad, a relationship that either: never happened, that she can’t remember, or she refuses to accept.
There’s a love/power triangle – the other man could be a symbolic representation of Death. The cinematography, especially the composition is remarkable: gothic-like darkness, twilight stillness, the surrealism echoing Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux’s weird and erotically charged night landscape, the strange theatricality of Balthus, and Edvard Munch’s dance of death.
Last Year in Marienbad exudes enigmatic ambiguity, maintaining our interest with stunning cinematography and a unique vision that went on to influence The Shining and Mulholland Drive.
- The world appears ordinary, and then the snow falls. Like a mysteriously wrapped Christo sculpture, everything becomes new again. It’s the same world, but different. Snow, like a work of art, changes how we see things. Snowfall hides the land, replacing green and muddy browns with pristine white, filling in the dips and hollows. This blanketing effect is sometimes likened to memory, or hidden emotion. Inner reflection plays a crucial role in Snow falling on Cedars, where the central character recalls a past love, and comes to terms with his life. A small town, surrounded by a snow covered forest, and the icy sea – visually represents the human struggle within a harsh landscape, and the protagonist’s feelings of desolation and loss. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the evil witch casts a spell that turns Narnia into a perpetual winter world, essentially condemning the entire realm into an ongoing state of depression. The emotional resonance of snow, ice and winter is heightened in Misery, when a psychopath ‘takes care’ of an injured man after his car crashes during a blizzard. She keeps him prisoner, all the while maintaining that she is looking after his welfare. The impenetrable winter snow outside accentuates his isolation and disconnect from the rest of the world. Here, snow is associated with melancholy, isolation, and horror. The ‘cabin fever’ in The Hateful Eight forms a crucible for the action, which takes place at a staging post, in the middle of nowhere. The frozen wilderness forces the characters together and makes it impossible for them to escape. In The Thing scientists defend themselves against a mutating alien life-form, while having to keep alive in the unforgiving Antarctic environment. The cold adds an additional challenge to the hero’s survival. In The Shining, the central character loses his mind and ends up chasing his wife and son around a creepy hotel, and finally outside into the snow. The winter snow provides a resonant horror location; sounds are mysteriously muffled, antagonists and monsters can slip away, and rescue may not be possible until the weather changes. In Groundhog Day the hero is forced to relive the same day, repeatedly enduring the same snow storm. While in The Ice Storm, the frozen world of a snap storm heightens the domestic drama, externalising social distance and emotional coldness, creating a visible danger within the everyday world. In Frozen, New in Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life, the winter snow increases the challenge faced by the protagonist.
- It starts with the end. At least that’s how you know you have an exceptional story – think of an amazing ending and work back to the beginning. Whatever way your look at a story, the end is critical. Would Chinatown have been so memorable with a happy ending? Would Blade Runner have been as powerful if we’d known what had happened to Rachael and Deckard? Happy, or sad, a great ending does more than complete a remarkable story – it makes the story remarkable. That’s why so many stories are both entertaining and forgettable – because the ending is a missed opportunity. In the buddy movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is set in the old American West, the film ends with the two heroes making a suicidal charge. Just before they die the film goes into freeze frame. We know what will happen next, but because the story ends where it does – on that single frame – the reality of their death never occurs within the narrative. Stories are ‘arbitrary’ moments, ‘start’ and ‘end’ points decided by the author. Dr Zhivago has a dramatic ending when Zhivago chases a woman in the street – the love of his life who he has lost contact with (she’s also the mother of his daughter). He falls to the ground suffering from a fatal heart attack. The story could end there, but it continues with a low-key resolution. The denouement allows the audience reaction time, time to reflect on what’s happened and get over the shock before they leave the cinema. The last scene of a film sums up the story’s overarching tone. It’s what the audience leaves with and remembers. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly the good character enjoys the last laugh, literally. He has deservedly won, defeated evil, and shown mercy to the ‘ugly’. He rides off into the sunset. His victory is total and the audience is left feeling upbeat. Some films have ambiguous endings, like The Bike Thieves or The Graduate. We don’t know what will happen next. When an unremittingly bleak story ends with a glimpse of hope, as it does with THX 1138 (where the hero breaks free of a repressive technocracy) the audience is literally taken from a dark place into the light. Alternatively, positive experiences like discovery and adventure can be subverted through the ending. In The Wicker Man the delight of experiencing an unfamiliar culture ends in horror. The pointless death of the hero is a tragedy and a warning. The hero who dies to serve a purpose finds redemption. The hero who defeats his or her enemy is celebrated as a success. The tone of a story is decided through its ending.
- Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They usually open at the start of this sequence and close at ‘the end’. They can open in ‘the middle’, or at ‘the end’ and jump about back and forth in time. Non-linear narratives use flashbacks and backstories to fill in the missing gaps. Opening at ‘the end’ produces a how-did-we-get-here story. Opening in the middle creates a how-did-this-begin-and-how-will-it-end story. The storyteller chooses where the narrative opens. Graham Green acknowledges this in the first line of The End of the Affair, ‘The Story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.’ Green acknowledges the writer’s control of the entry and exit points of their narrative. He hooks the reader by giving us an insight behind the creator’s curtain, mesmerising the reader with his ‘honesty’ (giving away the storyteller’s secrets), while offering us an intellectual conundrum. Sunset Boulevard opens at ‘the end’, a body floating in a swimming pool, the narrator is the voice of the murdered man. Tension in storytelling can be created through the audience wondering what happens next. It can also be produced by telling the audience what will happen, but not when it happens. Mystery, tension, and suspense come from making the audience wait; making them wonder how the plot will play out. In Sunset Boulevard we wonder: how did that floating body get into the swimming pool? What was the sequence of events that took the character to that moment? Writers consciously play games with the narrative sequence. In Groundhog Day Phil Connors relives the same day; Phil (and the audience) experience a series of mini-stories, multiple versions of the same challenge. Leonard Shelby in Memento has amnesia. At the opening and the close, he doesn’t know where he is in the story, at the start, the middle or the end.
- Historically, the representations of Chinese people in European and Hollywood cinema tends to veer from: the dangerous ‘other’, to racial stereotypes, and the mysterious exotic. Chinese men and women are also portrayed differently, men are often represented as villains, greedy and calculating, or weak and subservient; and women as a ‘Dragon Lady’, controlling and treacherous (reminiscent of a sexually manipulative female, Film Noir character), often presented as an object of desire. The Communist Chinese are portrayed as overly aggressive, out for a fight with the West. In Seven Years in Tibet (1997) the Communist Chinese are seen as hostile, militaristic, fired up by hate-filled ideology and Chinese expansionism, invading gentle and peace-loving Tibet. The paranoia about ‘Red China’ becomes almost cartoon-like in paranoid films like Battle beneath the Earth (1967) where a renegade section of the Chinese military begins a war with America by tunnelling beneath US cities to plant atomic bombs. The Chinese martial arts expert represents a more positive image of Chinese people – empowered by the physical and mental discipline of their Kung Fu skills. Bruce Lee’s series of Hong Kong produced films were popular in Europe and America in the 1970s. The siren or ‘Dragon Lady’ character dates back to some of the very early representations of Chinese people in Western cinema. In Piccadilly (1929) a nightclub owner introduces a new Chinese dancer Shosho (previously employed to wash the dishes). Her success sets off a disastrous series of events, rivalries and jealousies. Shosho, like the dancing robot Maria from Metropolis (1927) is able to magically mesmerise men with her moves. She is a mysterious object of desire, possessing magic-like, charismatic power. By the early 1980s Chinese people were gradually being presented as real people, which is to say believable, complete, characters. The BBC television series The Chinese Detective (1981-82) had a British Chinese central character who was presented in a positive light, and as an ordinary person. Peggy Su! (1998) is a story about various Chinese characters in 1960s Liverpool, focusing on their story – rather than appearing as an exotic ‘accessory’ in a narrative focused on White people’s experiences. The British Italian film, The Last Emperor (1987) sympathetically presented the story of Puyia, the last Chinese Emperor, by understanding him as a real person