Delve into the nature of memory tonight when Cinema at the Whitney presents “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Muriel,” two films by acclaimed French New Wave director Alain Resnais. Originally released in the early ’60s, these avant-garde works remain as controversial and alluring today as they were over forty years ago.
“Last Year at Marienbad” centers around a European hotel where aristocrats leisurely sift through rooms and empty corridors recall a more decadent era. The plot is seemingly simple — a mysterious stranger (Giorgio Albertazzi) attempts to convince a beautiful woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they had an affair the year before. Throughout the course of the film, details of their affair change and even a man so thoroughly convinced of what transpired finds it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
It is Resnais’ style that transforms this film into a metaphysical meditation on memory and human emotion. Visions from the past and present become juxtaposed upon one another, as a haunting, chorus-like narration reveals details from the affair. The chorus repeats itself from the start, but differs a little more each time in a hypnotizing but unsettling way as this woman offers her refrain, “I’m tired, leave me alone!” Resnais proves himself to be a master at disconnecting the viewer from reality, while at the same time inviting him to feel the tension between these characters.
The hotel itself is just as significant as the key players in this film. The camera glides over gold-plated walls, focusing on the sickeningly ornate decorations. The aristocrats who sojourn at this hideaway are trapped within these walls, just as they are trapped within this film. Resnais freezes and silences the party guests as he pleases, leaving us privy to only bits and pieces of their lofty but empty conversations.
Though it may feel as if we are coming closer to some truth in this mystery by the end, Resnais makes us conscious of the fact that the truth is fleeting, as are memories. Ultimately, Resnais leaves it up to the viewer to put the puzzle pieces together, and the result will likely be different for everyone.
Released two years later, “Muriel” is, at first glance, a much more accessible work. Though the film meditates on the same themes of memory and the past, it replaces the avant-garde incomprehensibility of “Last Year in Marienbad” with a traditional narrative structure. Set in the coastal town of Boulogne, Helene (Delphine Seyrig) sells antiques out of her home while living with her step-son Bernard (Jean-Baptise Thierree), a disturbed filmmaker who recently returned from duty in Algiers. An old lover of Helene’s, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), who has just returned from running a café in Algiers, visits at the start of the film with his supposed niece, Francoise (Nita Klein). From this point follows a mess of lies, guilt and twisted memories that traps these characters in their own versions of the past.
Resnais, again, uses his own cinematic style in such a way that we can identify with their scarred lives. As these characters struggle to piece their lives together, their actions are torn apart by jarring cuts, and they remain hopelessly lost in their own isolations. Such drama is at its pinnacle during a scene in which Bernard tells the story of how he witnessed the rape of an Algerian girl, Muriel, during the war. His narration is offset by actual footage of French-occupied Algeria, a controversial scene that most directors would not have dared to do at the time.
Both films reveal Resnais’ ability to force the viewer to actively interpret the images presented before the camera. But even with concentrated analysis, the truth won’t come easily. The past is always hazy.
“Last Year at Marienbad” and “Muriel” will be presented tonight at the Whitney Humanities Center at 7 and 9 p.m., respectively.