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Last Year at Marienbad – Chanel, Take One

Chanel Redressed
Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais France 1961 94 minutes Black and White 2.35:1 –

Much has been said about Last Year at Marienbad and so little of it has to do with the sensational costume designs of Coco Chanel. Has no one noticed just how well paired Chanel and Resnais, were or more to the point, what a dramatic backdrop Marienbad provides for Chanel couture? Chanel was no stranger to the film industry, but it had 22 years since her last employ at costume design and Marienbad. In 1931, as the behest of Samuel Goldwyn, Chanel came to Hollywood twice a year to design for the actresses Goldwyn had on contract with his studio, he would pay her one million dollars per year. She created the costumes for a forgettable Jean Harlow film called Palmy Days and for a Gloria Swanson box office disaster called Tonight or Never. The third film which featured her costumes was called The Greeks Had a Word for It, directed by Lowell Sherman, 1932, which was a huge success starring Ina Claire, Joan Blondell, and Madge Evans.* While these last two films were still in post-production Chanel, disillusioned with Hollywood, returns to Paris to tend her couture business flailing in the midst of The Depression. In 1937 she collaborates with long time friend Jean Cocteau for his plays Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde and Oedipus Rex and continues with theatrical costume designs in early French cinema classics including Port of Shadows, directed by Marcel Carne, 1938, and Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La Règle du jeu, 1939.

With the onset of World War II Coco Chanel closed her shop and had taken up with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer 13 years her junior to ride out the war. There are several accounts of her complicity with the Third Reich, but the one I found the best researched is by weekly columnist for the Times (London) Kate Muir and can be found here. Needless to say she was persona non grata in Paris. But time permitted her return and in 1954 she reopened business as usual. Although not a success in France, sales of what became the quintessential Chanel suit sold extremely well in the US and England.

All this being said, it does seem a bit odd that Resnais, one of the first directors to capture the horrors of the holocaust in his 1955 powerful documentary short Night and Fog, would employ a blatant sympathizer. My speculation runs that, regardless of political affiliation, no one could define the culture of the characters of Last Year at Marienbad with as much exactitude as Coco Chanel. Her sensibilities for perfection in workmanship and design were akin to Resnais’s passion and rigor for the art of film making.

But lets get more to the point of this pairing or trining as it were. For the complicity between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet cannot be undone, theirs is an extraordinary partnership. Here is what Robbe Grillet’s script calls for as to people and place in Marienbad. “This takes place in an enormous hotel, a kind of international palace, huge, baroque, opulent but icy: a univere of statues, motionless servants. Here the anonymous, polite, certainly rich and idle guests observe—seriously though without passion—the strict rules of their games (cards, dominoes…), Their ballroom dances, their empty chatter, or their marksmanship contests. In this sealed, stifling world, men and things alike seem victims of some spell, as in the kind of dreams where one feels guided by some fatal inevitability, where it would be futile to try to change the slightest detail as to run away.” Resnais delivers the mise en scène explicitly, and Chanel conjures through her sartorial discernment just the precise expression of the bored upper class which this film so well portrays.

Note: *Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1990)

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