The Architecture of Dreams

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No, this is not going to be about the summer's most talked-about dream architecture, that of Inception.

For all of Christopher Nolan's storytelling skills and finesse in
juggling parallel narrative threads (not to mention ability to fund
successful blockbusters with actual interesting ideas behind them!) —
for all of this, Nolan is a rigidly rational thinker. His dreamworlds
are concrete things, and even when they break the rules in visually
arresting ways, they still can only do it via a hard, formal
dream-physics that has little in common with the disorientation of real
dreams. If the hotel hallway didn't rotate (in admittedly the best
practical effects construct of its sort since Poltergeist), it'd
be indistinguishable from a normal hotel hallway. Not so for several
other much more, well, dream-like dream architectures I've run across
in recent weeks.

I began thinking about dream architecture a week before Inception's release, when I happened to watch two very different movies on subsequent nights, Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Dario Argento's Inferno
(1980). They bear little obvious resemblance: one a surrealist vision
of the early French New Wave, the other Italian supernatural horror at
its most stylized. Both, however, are highly impressionistic works bound
by only the slipperiest narrative cages, and convey much through unconventional architecture.

Marienbad opens with a sensation like going under hypnosis.
The main titles and their orchestral accompaniment are deceptively
dated, but soon head into modernism. The orchestra fades out and a new
soundtrack eases in: interminable organ, vaguely church-like but
dissonant, babbling, maddening, fading in already in full effect as if
it had been there all along, as if it was only incidentally bounded by
the film, as if it continued before and after in all directions, as an Adolf Wölfli design
seems to escape the page at its edges. Over this: a man's voice, also
fading without beginning or end, describing an endless procession of
architectural and decorative features. Empty hallways, ornate mouldings,
deep sound-damping carpets. The descriptions repeat, but alter subtly
each time, hazy memories of memories. This will become a unifying aspect
of the film's dream-reality. Soon, the camera joins the voice, gliding
through a palatial building in long, disortienting tracking shots of
embellished ceilings, lavish chandeliers, opulently worked walls,
obscure lattice-work. Sometimes, narration and images move in sync to
describe feature, more often not. As will also occur throughout the
film. It is some minutes before any of this overture takes on context,
and until then the viewer is left to wander in architectural

The opening ends when we see that the words are part of a theatrical
production. A man waits for a women to elope with him. At last, a bell
chimes, she accepts, the curtain descends, a sweeping orchestration
returns, and we are broken free of the dream. Or are we? The audience,
dispersed to adjoining halls and parlors begin to speak amongst
themselves but almost immediately begin to freeze into unsteady tableaus
as the camera resumes its gliding motions. The uneasy organ creeps back
in, then the narration. It is the voice of one guest at this
palace-resort, a man seeking to convince a woman (both are
denoted only by letters, X and A), that they had met a year ago, and
that they had agreed to leave together upon their meeting this year. She
is married or involved with another, M, and does not remember, or
pretends not to remember, or they've never met at all. But she is
intrigued enough to prompt the man for more details of their supposed
shared past, which he offers in a continuous series of repetitions and
revisions, moving in and out of sync with more images of halls and
gardens and colonnades and statuary which could be past, or present, or
both, or neither. Amplifying this sense of dislocation, the architecture
shown is always a conflation of multiple shooting locations, multiple
palace-resorts which are never differentiated. And so, as in dreams, it
is impossible to construct any logical layout of the building and
grounds. That hall might lead to this, or that. That statue might have a
promenade behind it, or a reflecting pool, or another wing of the
building. Even static locations, like A's bedroom, alter drastically
upon recurrence.

It is also a film of frames, narrative and visual. Arches and
windows isolate characters, or frame entirely different scenes at
different points. Framed paintings and photographs display other rooms
or exteriors. The theatrical curtains near the beginning deceptively
frame a story that is both within and without the main narrative. The
present dialogue — did we meet or not? — frames the past meetings,
which slip free and become the dialogue again. Later, frames intrude on
the interpretation of a sculpture of two classically dressed figures and
a dog: X suggests that the dog has joined the pair only in order to
stay back from the edge of the sculpture's pedestal, a suggestion that
the sculpture's reality has been invaded by its external frame: a good
metaphor for what happens in this film again and again. At times, X even
seems to be directing A in his memories, or rewriting them, an
intrusion of film-making itself. (As with the repetitions, all of this
ambiguous framing is a marked feature of the work of the screenwriter
Alain Robbe-Grillet, who deserves as much credit for Marienbad as
director Alain Resnais). Through this frame-breaking, it is never clear
if the story unfolds over a single year, or two, or an infinite
progression of them. Perhaps this is limbo, a state suggested both by
the unceasing dissonant organ soundtrack, and by the ambiguous
architecture of endlessly interlocking halls and rooms. (Perhaps it is
the infinite infernal hotel of Sartre's No Exit).

Twenty years later, giallo maestro Dario Argento was in his prime. He'd just directed his best known and most loved films, Deep Red and Suspiria. Then in 1980 Inferno, easily his most maligned of those golden years from Deep Red to Opera,
critically and popularly panned, banned in the UK as a Video Nasty, and
languishing in distribution twilight for years in the States despite
its New York setting. But in some ways it's not really so hard to see
why. Taking to the extreme Suspiria's diffuse impressionist plotting and
heavily unnatural lighting, Inferno's storyline is reduced almost to
nonexistence (or incoherence) and its lighting is a constant
fever-theater of harsh reds, blues, and greens.

The plot (such as there is), in brief: Rose, a young women in an aging
New York City apartment building reads in an old book of The Three
, malevolent apparitions inhabiting three buildings constructed
for them in three cities. One, Mater Suspiria, was the subject of
Argento's prior film; Rose begins to suspect that the second, Mater Tenebrarum, may inhabit her own building. Unsettled by an encounter in
the cellar, she summons her brother Mark from Rome, but has disappeared
by the time he arrives. Mysterious violent deaths ensue. It would be
fairly typical Argento plotting but for the minimalism that pushes the
narrative elements into near-abstraction.

Or into dream-logic. From the first, the film seems submerged in
atmosphere and scripting far removed from waking life. The opening seems
innocuous enough, as Rose reads from The Three Mothers in her
apartment. But already, the decor around her has edged into abstraction:
inexplicable geometric panels in luminous mustard and mint. Varelli,
the author of the strange manuscript, identifies himself as an architect
and alchemist, a combination that already suggests that Inferno's
constructions will not resemble our own. When Rose steps outside, the
building is revealed in all its looming, intricately carved monstrosity,
illuminated in unearthly blue and pink (sodium lights always appearing
an incongruous red or pink here). Shortly afterward, recalling a line
from the book, she descends to the cellar to investigate. This is a
classic “don't go in the basement” moment, familiar from so many other genre films, but Argento takes it several steps further. The cellar,
also lit in livid red and blue like stage lights, is an irrational
tangle of half-finished construction and deteriorating pipes, columns,
wires. Others have observed that descending to the cellar can be a
descent to the subconscious, and this fitting dwelling-place of dreams
certainly looks the part. At the back of the room, Rose finds a pool of
water, the upper part of some vast, submerged space. When she
accidentally drops her keys in and they quickly sink out of reach, she
barely pauses before following.

There's a lot in this gesture worth noting. Here is the basement of
the basement, the depths of the subconscious, the ultimate font of the
illogical and fear typically sourced to cellars (and from there permeating
the entire film). When Rose descends, she seems to be obeying the
insatiable logic of dreams, where an irrational dangerous action must be
performed, though the urgency has usually dissipated on waking. Of
course, this sort of irrational action is a common device in horror, but
by sending the heroine not only into the dark but into a water-flooded
dark, Argento surely must be winking at the convention, even as
heightens it. Fully submerged, we see that the sub-cellar space contains
chandeliers, paintings, furniture. In a highly surreal architectural
inversion, it may be a ballroom. Visually, the sequence filled with
elusive splendor and mystery. In fact, stepping in to handle this
sequence was the final directorial act in the extensive career of Mario
Bava, whose son Lamberto served as assistant director to Argento.

In any event, this dream-descent seems to unleash the mysterious
vicious forces that govern the rest of the film, literally and
figuratively. Rose's stirring of the water kicks up the remains of a
long-sunken body, and inexplicable deaths (by knife, by guillotine, by
fire, by cats) can unexpectedly claim any character from here forward.
Perhaps we never return from deepest dreaming. The stilted, disjointed
dialogue later on suggests it. And certainly the implied layouts of
Varelli's building from this point forward — a maze of corridors,
courtyards, crawlspaces, hidden stairs, and speaking-tubes resting atop a
bizarre art deco lobby — certainly these layouts defy spatial
plausibility and seem as dream-devised as those in Marienbad. And
not for nothing the inscription on the side of the building, shown
briefly upon Mark's arrival later: “G. Gurdjieff, 1877 – 1949, Resided
here during the year 1924”. Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff
(who was, in fact, in America in 1924) was noted for teaching that
humanity was not conscious but in fact in a perpetual state of hypnosis
or “waking sleep” from which it could potentially awake — from
“unconscious automaton” to fully-aware human. Unfortunately, no one in Inferno ever seems to.

Another angle for interpreting the cryptically indistinct narrative
originally frustrating to critics and viewers — throughout, this is not
so much the search-for-the-killer typical of gialli, but a search for
the hidden rules of a world falling off its axis — another angle lies
in the inciting book, The Three Mothers. When Rose consults him
for details, the bookseller she bought it from (incidentally played by
Sacha Pitoëff, formerly one of the three principles, M, in Marienbad)
only offers his own insensible remarks, unhelpful as any dour nightmare
bystander could be. But in fact, Varelli, the author and presumed architect of the apartment block, seems likely to have been
modeled on semi-apocryphal alchemist/occultist Fulcanelli, who vanished in 1926, leaving behind The Mystery of the Cathedrals,
a manuscript detailing the hidden alchemical meanings of gothic
architecture and embellishment. If this is the sort of architectural
occultism that Argento was reading when he devised Inferno, as he
has suggested in interviews, it suggests that narrative continuity may
have been supplanted by a sort of architectural continuity, a story
perhaps told in the reliefs of tangled serpents adorning the facade, or
in the eerily arranged paneling and sinister windows captured in the drifting Marienbad-like forward-tracking hallway shots within.

But perhaps this grasping at details is besides point. Both these films excel most in creating and sustaining their strange, floating dreamstates, full of suggestion, ambiguity, intrigue. As opposed to a film like Inception, which tends towards (requires, probably) a level of over-explanation, these films invite, and perhaps can only truly be understood through, a sort of surrender. As into the waiting arms of sleep.