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I had some idea that this was a Marguerite Duras version of Last Year in Marienbad early on in the film. After all the characters we see are in an existential limbo, a comfort zone, staying in a hotel in the countryside that seems to be outside things somehow. There is the Marienbad feel initially that the characters need to break out by a supreme effort, that they need to have the will to love. They are perhaps Beckettian slouches, avoiding the local forest although they constantly resolve to go there; why go into the forest when we can stay in the park they reason. There definitely is that going on but I think so much more as well.
Further into the film you can start to feel similarities to David Cronenberg's wonderful early movie Stereo (incidentally released in the same year). In that movie volunteers in a blank deserted modernist university have brain surgery to remove their ability to speak but increase their power for telepathy. Some characters in the experiment are dominant and control the others, some resist the melding, but a group identity is formed, hideously psychosexual. In this movie you feel that the inhabitants of the hotel are undergoing the same process. Stein is the master, Alissa his Stradivarius, Elisabeth a psychological weakling, becoming a golem, Max Thor Stein's henchman. At one point Elisabeth's husband arrives and all four of the main characters refer to themselves as German Jews, Stein is in them all. Amongst many merging references is the beautiful line that Stein delivers on the subject of Max and Alissa sleeping together every night, "one day they'll find the two of you shapeless, clotted like tar" The location to go into more detail is a hotel absent of staff, absent of the outside. There is a beautiful grove outside where white sun-loungers are thinly spaced out on the daisy-strewn grass, where white cast-iron chairs with backs made of symmetrical curlicues poise. Max and Stein have a conversation at the start of the movie, "What season is it?" "Cold Summer". That sums up the feel of the place. Another point is that there are no children, this is actually reminiscent of another masterpiece Jens Lien's 2006 movie The Bothersome Man, where the lack is the difference between a world with flavour and no flavour.
After a while the movie becomes very stylised, the shots are static and really close up, the scenes conversational. It took me a little while to realise that what's going on is that I was becoming a hotel resident, being enveloped by the scenes, joining the group. The effect is quite overpowering, I felt like reaching out and touching Max's blazer, like kissing Alissa (I have never felt that way in a movie). During a card game I actually felt like I was holding a hand.
Alissa (Nicole Hiss) is so strange, described as having the hair of a child, with a bearing both uncertain and yet sure at the same time, like a Delphic Pythoness. A tactile women who in a key scene has parted lips through which no words emit.
The ending has more than a hint of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). It is no coincidence that this film raises the spectre of so many others brilliant ones.
To keep the mood going after the film is over I recommend playing Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question".
This played to a very sparse audience at the Institut Francais' Cine Lumiere in London on 25 October 2010.
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