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July 9, 2005

El Dorado, 1921

eldorado.gifIn 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.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 09, 2005 | | Filed under 2005


Acquarello, you're taking me back. I acquired the Monaco/Resnais book in time for the Cinematheque Ontario Resnais program five years ago. The book made the series so much more fun. Pity the book stopped in the 70s though, I wish he'd do a revised edition. I think Resnais' post-70s cinema is horribly under-appreciated.

The mental realism idea has always been very near and dear to my heart (my awe for Bazin notwithstanding). Come to think of it, L'Intrus is one of the most daring examples of "mental realism" in recent cinema!

Sorry for the tangents! I've never seen anything by L'Herbier. This sounds absolutely wonderful. Where did you see it?

Posted by: girish on Jul 10, 2005 7:34 AM | Permalink

Yeah, that Monaco book is definitely the most insightful one available on Resnais out there on his early films (at least in the English language). I'd love to see an update of his post 70s work too, particularly if he has a theory on how to reconcile these seemingly divergent phases.

We had a combined Marcel L'Herbier and Sacha Guitry retrospective at the National Gallery about two years ago, and other than the DVD for Fantastic Night which is a sound film, this was my first exposure to L'Herbier's silent films. I've had the French DVD of El Dorado for a while, but the intertitles are in French. The film is gorgeously restored by Gaumont though, so everything is very legible.

There is this dreamlike quality to L'Herbier's films that seems to visually translate the psychology of the characters. L'Intrus is another good example of this mental realism, as are Dreyer's films where he himself calls the approach 'psychological realism'.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 10, 2005 11:26 AM | Permalink

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