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Last Year At Marienbad (#110 of 6)

Women in Chains Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure

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Women in Chains: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure
Women in Chains: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s films are as intricate and enigmatic as you might expect from the man who scripted the seminal French New Wave puzzle-picture Last Year at Marienbad. They’re also slyly humorous, intellectually playful, and intensely and perversely erotic. This last element was present in the Alain Resnais film in a more diffuse fashion: discernible in the fetishistic attention lavished on Delphine Seyrig’s flamboyant costumes and the chateau’s rococo décor, and, more to the point, in an act of (at least hypothetical) rape and murder whose lack of depiction within the film itself formed the structural absence at the center of Robbe-Grillet’s labyrinthine narrative. In the films he both wrote and directed, this unruly and often sadistic eroticism takes center stage, even if it’s never entirely uncomplicated by the filmmaker’s love of ontological ambiguity and narrative uncertainty.

Trans-Europ-Express opens with a film director (Robbe-Grillet), his producer (Paul Louyet), and script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet) boarding the titular high-speed train headed for Antwerp. While on board, they brainstorm the director’s latest opus, which they immediately decide to set on board a train. Taking their cue from a magazine news headline, they concoct a “trench-coat tale” (not unlike the Lemmy Caution stories Godard pilfered for Alphaville) about a drug mule, Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), en route to Belgium on a trial run for his new employers. As their scenario unspools like the portable reel-to-reel tape it’s being recorded on, we will return to this compartment for a series of narrative tweaks and emendations. Lest all this seem too straightforward, Trintignant also plays a fictionalized version of himself (possibly), even though the director claims not to recognize him when attempts to share their compartment.

Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

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Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds
Roger Ebert in Illinois: A Tribute to the Man From His Permanent Stomping Grounds

On Monday, April 1, the day after Easter, I was in Chicago with a few hours to kill before getting on an Amtrak train to go back south to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I went out to lunch with a friend, and he brought somebody who runs an AMC theater in the Near North Side, the one that shows the press screenings for critics. I mentioned to my friend’s guest that I had just moved back to Urbana, and was going to write about Ebertfest this year. He interrupted me and said Ebert wouldn’t be there this year—that he wasn’t doing well and had stopped going to his press screenings.

I got on my train and returned to Urbana thinking that what the guy had said about Ebert could probably count as a legitimate (albeit invasive) news item. On Thursday, April 4, I saw that Ebert had announced his “leave of presence,” thus breaking the news himself about a setback, health-wise. On Friday, April 5, in the morning, I saw the news that he had died. A couple of hours later, I walked outside to check the mail. Inside my mailbox was a manila envelope from the University of Illinois’s College of Media, and inside was my press pass to Ebertfest. I then headed toward the library, took a different turn than usual, and saw some flowers on the sidewalk in front of a house. “Somebody must’ve died,” I thought. Then I saw that there was a bag from Steak ’n Shakeamong the flowers, and a plaque that had been set in the concrete.

Film Comment Selects 2012: Mortem

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Film Comment Selects 2012: <em>Mortem</em>
Film Comment Selects 2012: <em>Mortem</em>

French filmmaker Eric Atlan’s black-and-white Mortem has been billed as a “metaphysical thriller” inspired by David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman. The more obvious comparison, however, would have been to French film noir. Mortem’s opening scenes, in which two young women arrive by nightfall at an empty hotel, bring to mind Georges Franju’s haunted Eyes Without a Face, based on Jean Redon’s novel that also inspired Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. In all three movies, bizarre experimentation, psychic or physical, and plot reversals ensue.

House Playlist: Sleigh Bells, Ifan Dafydd, & Julia Holter

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<em>House</em> Playlist: Sleigh Bells, Ifan Dafydd, & Julia Holter
<em>House</em> Playlist: Sleigh Bells, Ifan Dafydd, & Julia Holter

Sleigh Bells, “Born to Lose.” The trailer for Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album, Reign of Terror, shows singer Alexis Krauss primping in front of a mirror while rocking a severe haircut and a military jacket. “Born to Lose” is animated by the same martial pulse, with Krauss singing over pummeling blastbeats and lurching power chords. The track is only differentiated from the duo’s established sound by its far slicker production: Treats’s everything-in-the-red approach was integral to its charm, adding to the impression that Sleigh Bells were a couple of kids fighting over scraps in the pop-music junkyard, but the sound here skews distinctly toward polished mall-metal a la Victory Records. Derek Miller’s alien guitar coda, which sounds like a huge machine powering down, shows that the group’s soundsmith still has an innovator’s mind, but it will be equally important that he hold on to his underdog’s heart. Matthew Cole

New York Film Festival 2010: Certified Copy

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Certified Copy</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Certified Copy</em>

[Writer’s note: Certified Copy is best seen cold. However, discussion of it requires spoiling elements. If you have not seen it yet, do not read this piece. Just know that the film is incredible.]

If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another forever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.—Natalia Ginzburg, He and I

A man and a woman stop in a café. They’re perfect strangers or just-acquaintances, and having a perfectly good time. Then the man tells a joke that the woman doesn’t enjoy. She starts crying, and the man conveniently gets up to take a phone call outside. A waitress asks the woman what’s wrong, and the woman describes the problems that arise once you’ve been married for 15 years. When the man comes back inside, we no longer know the nature of their relationship. They laugh at the absurdity of the thought of being married, only to argue eventually over whether he’s neglected her and the kid.

This is the point during Certified Copy when a lot of viewers check out, the spot where it shifts from a funny, sunny jaunt through Italy to a rom-com version of Persona. But Abbas Kiarostami’s new movie has been preparing us for this moment all along. The two people are simultaneously playing the new couple and the old one, plus the actors playing them. The dissolution of personal identity is merely the last goal of Kiarostami’s overall project in this film, which is to dissolve the line between copy and original altogether.

It Hasn’t Even Passed: Last Year at Marienbad

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It Hasn’t Even Passed: <em>Last Year at Marienbad</em>
It Hasn’t Even Passed: <em>Last Year at Marienbad</em>

Sophomore year of film school: I’ve just turned nineteen and am taking a production class called Sight & Sound: Film. At one point, watching the work of a fellow student, I become thrilled for the first time all semester. Her film opens with a camera dollying through a dorm room, filled with extras frozen like statues. “Oh my God!” I say to myself, “She’s doing Last Year At Marienbad! Someone else in my class has seen this film! Fantastic!” The thrill slowly subsides as I realize that the film is not an homage to, but a snide parody of Alain Resnais’ masterwork. Getting up in front of the class after the screening, the filmmaker explains that a friend had recommended the film to her, and she was shocked by how awful and boring it was. So shocked, in fact, that she felt the need to make this short film, which ultimately served no other purpose than to mock it.

Make no mistake, Last Year At Marienbad is a difficult film—one of the most difficult I’ve seen. It’s difficult to sit through, difficult to understand, and easy, as my classmate taught me, to satirize. But if one is willing to put a significant amount of work in, it is also incredibly rewarding.