FILM / Style victims: Last Year in Marienbad (U), Director: Alain Resnais (Fr)

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Alain Resnais's Last Year in Marienbad (U) from 1961, rereleased in a crisp new print, is the definitive art movie. Other films - Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game - qualify as art by a sort of addition: strong script plus extraordinary performance plus distinctiveness of vision. Last Year in Marienbad seeks to impose itself as art directly, without passing through a zone of entertainment along the way.

It is art or it is nothing: that is the message it communicates. Any cinema that shows Marienbad is an art cinema by definition, and anyone who sincerely likes it has moved beyond being a film lover and earned the accolade of cineaste.

At the same time, the film is known above all for refusing the wholeness that once seemed an absolute precondition for art. The conventions by which film language coheres are meticulously violated - continuity between shots, the distinction between a voiceover and something spoken 'aloud' on the screen.

Even something as neutral as a cut between scenes is rethought at one point so as to disrupt the impression of flow, 'the so-called logarithmic cut', so as to deliver a subliminal lecture on the artificiality of meaning.

The story runs together the categories of Before and After. The difference between inside and outside is effaced wherever it threatens to occur. The enigmatic action takes place inside and outside a palatial hotel, but the grounds with their geometric gardens - trees turned into pyramids, bushes into spheres, are as stylised as any interior. Effects that would normally be worked during editing, such as freeze frames, are enacted during shooting instead, reproduced in front of the camera. What makes all these violations suspect is precisely their meticulousness. It is possible, after all, with sufficient confidence to disregard conventions, as opposed to either adopting them or obsessively flouting them. Anyone who breaks all the rules can seem like a bourgeois bohemian, alienated but still in some way a parasite.

Viewed from a philosophical perspective, no doubt, all coherence is an illusion, but what Last Year in Marienbad offers is pseudo-incoherence, an incoherence that betrays all the hard work backstage that would normally be bent towards coherence. Only an artificially incoherent construction could contain such calculated images of itself: the group of statues in the hotel grounds, on which different characters project incompatible narratives, and the game that one of them keeps setting up on table tops, and which he always wins, even if his opponent makes his first moves for him.

The game is played at different times with cards, with matchsticks, even with photographs, while on the soundtrack spectators volunteer interpretations with the desperate confidence of critics (the first player always wins, or to win you have to divide by three, or the whole thing is a logarithmic progression).

The game, though, is the same whatever tokens are used to play it, and the same is true by implication of the various permutations of seduction and betrayal that are played out by the three characters, A, X and M. That certainly seems to be one of the ideas behind Alain Robbe-Grillet's screenplay (although the words 'idea' and 'behind' would certainly give offence): that there are no essences, only performances, no inside as opposed to outside. But in practice the effect of the film is inseparable from the particular presences of its actors.

Delphine Seyrig as A, with her stylised composure, stiff lashes, made-up eyelids and dark hair tucked round her ears, has a beauty that is both timeless and as much of its period as Jackie Kennedy's. Giorgio Albertazzi as X has the sleekness of an operatic tenor, or perhaps of Roland Barthes. Sacha Pitoeff as M, the game player, looks like an emaciated Humphrey Bogart impersonator, a menacing presence whenever the camera chooses to look at him from below eye-level.

Last Year in Marienbad is a prolonged refusal of narrative, but still it feels the need for a climax at the same point in its progress as a feature-length narrative would. Voices are raised, and a crisis felt for, in the last 15 minutes. The use of music is also a give-away. Francis Seyrig's score, both crabbed and lush, an organ concerto that is mostly soliloquy, keeps dramatising and emotionalising, even when the images are consciously dry and flat. The visual moments that remain in the mind are without exception locked into place by the intensity of the score. Music conjures up what the images relentlessly disavow, and without such an intensity, however deceptive, Resnais would have nothing to work with, no recurring appetite to thwart and thwart again. A useful comparison would be with Bunuel. Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or) is wildly subversive with narrative along with everything else, but even so he is interested in cracking open the world and seeing what desires really drive it. The Exterminating Angel, from the year after Marienbad, takes a group of formally dressed socialites, not unlike the personages of Resnais's film, and subjects them to comic frustrations of purpose.

If you saw Angel and Marienbad on a double bill, Bunuel's film would seem hopelessly scrappy by contrast, but also somehow endearing, and Marienbad would seem oppressively smug and hermetic. Above all, it would be clear that Resnais violates everything but visual good taste. Delphine Seyrig may in the film's false endings be shot or raped, but she never wears anything but Chanel. The contrast between Marienbad's elegant look and its nihilism is what makes it distinctive but it is also proof that the avant-garde can as easily be reactionary as progressive, decadent as revolutionary.

The elegance of Marienbad turned into the sterility of a later Resnais film like Stavisky (1974); in the 1980s he started filming boulevard melodramas, as if he needed a steady supply of illusions to deconstruct. Bunuel, on the other hand, took the star of Marienbad and made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with her, a film where the irrepressible human desire to make things hang together is reluctantly celebrated as well as mocked. Both Bunuel and the Resnais Last Year in Marienbad are in the business of breaking their promises to an audience, but Bunuel's broken promises are so much more fulfilling than Resnais's.