Last Year at Marienbad

Posted on February 10, 2011


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton, T. S. Eliot

I will begin with a confession: The first time I saw the film, I had dozed off.

But I really wanted to see it, so I tried again. Only this time, I couldn’t shake Eliot’s poem out of my head. Did Alain Resnais or Robbe-Grillet read Burnt Norton? Surely, they must have been aware of Henri Bergson’s work.

I saw it again last week after someone mentioned it. This time I was stuck by the similarity between the film and the artwork of M C Escher. The mathematical puzzle involving the matchsticks, the labyrinthine symmetry of the formal garden (where exactly is that statue? It is never where you expect to find it), the now iconic shot of the trees without shadow, the doorway within a doorway painting, different planes of reality and time in a single shot, and the endless loop.

The film is stunning to look at. Everything is so tightly controlled — shots, sequences, people, objects – everything is so artfully and meticulously arranged that it looks impossibly polished and perfected; not a single proverbial hair/shot is out of place. The setting contributes to the overall formal elegance of the film. From outside, the hotel is an imposing rectangular structure with an austere façade but inside, it is a riot of baroque detailing, frescoed ceilings and marble floors.

What happens in this setting has puzzled everyone. Who are X, A, and M? Who are these guests – impossibly sophisticated and mechanical? And what is a full-size cut out of Alfred Hitchcock doing in one of the scenes? A sly wink?

The odd part is there seems to be a story hidden somewhere along those corridors – an implied rape, murder (or maybe not), a beautiful amnesiac, furtive meeting between lovers, accidental death (X falling off the balustrade) and an elopement!

The film could be a bold lie by M that is played out as a fantasy; it could be the interaction of the old and “new” memories of M and A; it could be M’s stream-of-consciousness. Frankly, I have no clue.

It’s the sort of jigsaw puzzle that only cinema can create. Unlike Mulholland Drive, which packs so many details that it seems to be a solvable mystery, this film commands awe. Its mysteries are so untouchable and cryptic, that we can only gape and wonder.

Posted in: Reviews