LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, directed by Alain Resnais and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, over the years has served as a perfect example of many things to many people: modernist brilliance, unwatchable pretension, etc. To me, it's a perfect example of what I mean by cinema-as-music. Film is closest to music of all the arts, closer than to the novel or even the drama. So if we think of a movie in terms of something that can be replayed infinitely like a symphony, its visual movements and motifs organized in time, presenting variations on its themes of style and image rather than something that follows characters in a narrative, then this picture fits the bill. All by herself, Delphine Seyrig in her many poses makes one heck of a visual motif.
When the movie came out, it was even sold by its admirers as a movie without any conventional characters or story, or at least as a story that the viewers partly make up themselves. After more than 40 years of postmodernism and immersed as we are now in what I call Millennial Unreality, we are so used to these forms and ideas that it doesn't seem so revolutionary or impossibly brain-teasing anymore, and indeed the movie doesn't really look like it has no story. Compared with much of what followed, it's a model of clarity.
And clarity is certainly the word for the astonishing visual and audial restoration on the new Criterion disc. I've seen the movie twice before, the first time in a tattered college screening, and I never dreamed the image could be so sharp. Nor do I remember the organ score by Francis Seyrig (Delphine's brother, and a second choice after Messiaen said he didn't do film scores) as so overpowering, and indeed it wasn't. The booklet contains a statement from Resnais explaining why he insisted that the unrestored soundtrack be included as an option. It reads in part:
"If one remasters a film so as to tailor it to the standards of 2009, there is a danger of altering drastically the balance of the voices, the sound effects, and the music. By correcting so-called flaws, one may lose the style of a film altogether. It is better to respect the sound characteristics of the time, especially as in most cases they do not disturb the viewer anymore after two minutes. Above all, if one removes the background hiss from the soundtrack, one takes out all the harmonic frequencies of the actors' voices in the process. Be it in the low, the medium, or the treble range, the voices become neutral, flat, mannered . . . Every time I have had the opportunity to compare an unrestored and a restored soundtrack in the recording studio, the loss was obvious. The same goes for the music; if one corrects a distorted spot, the music is likely to sound dead. As a director, I do not object to a carefully considered, nonmechanical remastering of my films, but I am keen on giving the viewer the choice between the two soundtracks. As a viewer, I always prefer what may be called the original version."
There are two delightful shorts included as extras and whose scores seem to be unavailable. "All the Memory of the World" is about the French National Bibliotheque, their equivalent to the Library of Congress. As a dry run for MARIENBAD, it glides smoothly along the corridors, gazing up at ceilings and down at floors. The widescreen, brightly colored "The Song of Styrene" is basically an industrial documentary about plastics, how they are molded and where they come from. It's presented almost as an abstract film, or a "futuristic" nature documentary about machines.
Both films have continual soundtracks that are little symphonic masterpieces. Both are conducted by Georges Delerue though not composed by him. "Memory" (shot by Ghislain Cloquet) is scored by Maurice Jarre. "Styrene" (shot by Sacha Vierny!) is scored by Pierre Barbaud. These scores have many sections to them and I will give only a sketchy idea of highlights. I think it's unfortunate that these tracks are an unrestored option only, and I even wish I could turn off the narrators and just enjoy the music videos.
Jarre's score elaborates on the film's presentation of the Bibliotheque as an exotic place, akin to being inside a cathedral or a pharaoh's pyramid. For one brief sequence of drifting rapidly through the shelves, he sounds exactly like Philip Glass a couple of decades in advance. He produces a jaunty theme for bustling scenes of unpacking and stamping items, then slows it down and gets more percussive as we descend into the rituals underground, then seques into flute and reeds that sound like a snake charmer. For the closing god's-eye-view as we pass over patrons at tables, who are described as insects chewing paper, Jarre rises to close on a flourish of trumpets.
"Styrene" also emphasizes the exotic nature of what we see with many distinctive colors in the score. There are native drums in addition to winds and strings, vaguely evocative of The Rite of Spring as plastic items "bloom" in a manner designed to remind us of high-speed nature footage, underwater fauna or bacterial microphotography. Mechanical swirls, sometimes with metronomic rhythms, and other curious sounds accompany our glide through an oil refinery, which is shot like a monument of mod glamour. The music becomes more majestic as we follow the giant pipes, then verges on the outer spacey suspended in high-pitched tones, then lyrical strings, then bursts into a waltz! This film is even narrated in rhyme.
I'm not familiar with Barbaud but Wikipedia (French only) calls him the inventor of "algorithmic music." It says "Il est le premier en France, le second au monde après Lejaren Hiller à utiliser systématiquement l'ordinateur pour la composition musicale, avec des œuvres comme Factorielle 7 (1960) ou Saturnia Tellus (1980)," which means he's the first in France and second in the world to systematically use a computer for musical composition.
His IMDB page is obviously incomplete and should be skipped in favor of a website devoted to him at http://www.associationpierrebarbaud.fr/. It has an English option and an amazing catalogue of his works for films, advertising, ballets, radio, etc, and it even lists the instrumentation (in French). For the film I'm talking about, it gives the instruments as "flûte, hautbois, clarinette, basson, trompette, cor, trombone, timbales, cordes." He's scored projects for Agnes Varda and Chris Marker. He died in 1990. Apparently a company called Terra Ignota once released a disc of his algorithmic music but that seems to be it.