July 9, 2005
El Dorado, 1921
In the book Alain Resnais, author James Monaco cites a comment by the filmmaker on Last Year at Marienbad that his idea for the film was to "renew a certain style of the silent cinema", for which Monaco expounds that this overarching vision contributed to the film's multifaceted syntax that "any particular shot can be read as either present tense, past tense, conditional or subjunctive, or pure fantasy. This too is realism, but of a different sort... Robbe-Grillet called it 'mental realism'." It is within this context of creating mental realism, a hermetic, immersive sensorial experience that seems to exist solely in the personal realm of human perspective - a figment of the imagination - that the seminal influence of Marcel L'Herbier's El Dorado may be seen in Resnais' realization of Last Year at Marienbad. Tactile, voluptuous, and otherworldly, the ornate, impeccable architectures and visual geometry of the cabaret El Dorado and the clandestine meeting grounds of the desolate L'Alhambra also reflect this elaborately conceived imaginary construction, a meticulously rendered, but irresolvable fictional aesthetic that is similarly manifested in the baroque interiors and mise-en-scène of Last Year at Marienbad and invariably serve as an essential projection of the characters' own psychological reality and unarticulated desire: a sickly, illegitimate child is confined to a Spartan room adorned with a large cross, a constant reinforcement of his seemingly incurable illness and near death; the smoke-filled, unbridled hothouse of El Dorado, visually distorted under the influence of the patrons' intoxication and lust for the cabaret's feature performer, Sibilla; the recollection of a seduction and ill-fated love affair appears clouded and unfocused, sentimentally diffused by years of estrangement, frigidity, and fading memory; an artist pining for his lover envisions her materialization in the symmetric framing of an arcing fountain, in essence, a figurative mental projection of ephemeral desire onto physical architecture. The influence of L'Herbier's stylistic subversion of melodrama through plot distillation and integration of metaphoric imagery is also evident in Resnais' fractured narrative and metamorphosing imagery, introducing archetypal characters that eschew human complexity in favor of representational acts (note the denouement that occurs behind a translucent stage backdrop, creating a grotesque superimposition of spasmodic shadows). It is this narrative compression through the integral conflation of performance and mise-en-scène that inevitably defines the bold, idiosyncratic spectacle of El Dorado, a film in which the tale of the human condition is revealed, not through expressed character insight, but through the loaded imagery of evocative gestures and malleable architecture.