Why I Love… #55: Last Year At Marienbad

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Year: 1961

Director: Alain Resnais

Stars: Delphine Seyrig (A), Giogrio Albertazzi (X), Sacha Pitoeff (M)

Genre: Mystery / Drama / Surreal Film

It begins with one of the most strangely arresting openings in cinema. As credits give way to Resnais’ extraordinary visuals of the interiors of a lavish old hotel, a disembodied voice intones repeated phrases…

“Along these corridors and through these rooms… silent rooms where the sound of footsteps is absorbed by carpets so heavy, so thick that all sound escapes the ear…”

…The camera drifts dreamily, hypnotically as the voice continues, as though damned, trapped in the exquisite corridors like a phantom. Eventually an auditorium is revealed. People sit motionless like waxworks. Cuts and composition tease us. A woman on the stage is identified by her costume, yet she is as inanimate as her audience. And who is speaking? The voice continues, the words looping like the mantra of some occultist. There is a feeling of reverence. Only when the speaker is revealed does the spell break and the sequence ends. The audience applaud. Welcome to Last Year At Marienbad.

Alain Resnais’ celebrated cinematic puzzle courts as much praise as it does confusion and disinterest, its own curious logic repelling as many as it captivates. It is often labelled as pretentious, but it depends entirely on your tolerance and expectations. I often feel that as understandably necessary and popular as conventional narratives are, film as an art form is capable of so much more. Resnais’ work here is less about giving the audience a story, and more about changing the way they feel, engaging their interest and curiosity, creating discussion. In that sense Last Year At Marienbad is as generous as it is secretive, offering the viewer a riddle, but dressing it as beautifully as you can imagine.

The oddities, of course, do not end with that mesmeric opening 10 minutes. Even as one spell is broken, another is seeded. The people in the film seem to come back into being in fits and starts, only to lapse back into a strange stasis. Conversation stutters and shifts from audible to inaudible. Resnais treats us to one striking composition after another as the film glides (there’s no better word for it) into its main conceit; that a man, ‘X’, will try to persuade a woman, ‘A’, that they met the year before at Marienbad. Not only met, but planned to elope. She does not remember, yet he persists.

With the film’s extras posed like mannequins, and with its ‘hotel’ setting, Last Year At Marienbad quickly evokes a timelessness and otherwordliness. A hotel is a mezzanine place. Somewhere between other places. So the characters feel as though they are trapped in some kind of limbo. Is it the afterlife, or a shared dream? Something else entirely? Resnais doesn’t incline one way or another, in fact he promotes the debate. In one sequence ‘X’ tells of how he and ‘A’ assumed different stories behind the posing of a statue. It serves a point. Meaning is divined through perspective. This film is the same as the statue. It invites the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Resnais may have had one intention, but an alternative is not invalid.

As certain as ‘X’ is that they have met before, he freely admits his memories are fallible. Was it Marienbad? Perhaps it was elsewhere? And when ‘A’ falters and appears to share his memories, albeit with uncertainty, is it genuine recollection or simple persuasion? Has ‘X’ created and insisted on a past narrative so fervently that it can be regarded by ‘A’ as a new truth? Existential questions tumble forth as perception and reality are further merged. Resnais is an artist dipping his paintbrush in the water, watching as the paint and the water coalesce, creating something different.

Which is not to suggest he is a bystander to the result. The film is firmly in his control. Experimentation with expression is abound, marking this as one of the masterpieces of the French New Wave. Just look at how a scene in a bar transitions to one in a boudoir; not through a fade or a simple cut, but through a series of jagged, flickering intercuts, as though a new film is roughly taking control of the present one. And yet it works, the soporific mood remains. The experiment pays off.

Last Year At Marienbad recalls the sensation of dreaming like few other pictures. It has the uneasiness of a nightmare just as much as it has the sensuality of an erotic dream. Its portentous, suggestive, provocative in equal measure.

All of which marks this out as something of an acquired taste. I can completely understand how a film like this can be seen as tiresome drivel, pompous and rambling. That word pretentious, rearing its head again like an ungainly elephant in the room. If you’re not taken by it I imagine the constant waffling of ‘X’ is as interminable as the seemingly ever-present organ music.

For my part, I find it an enriching and intoxicating experience, yet strangely intangible, like trying to hold on to a sense of deja vu. Capturing that feeling is no mean feat though, marking Last Year At Marienbad as a wholly successful experience, evoking complex, almost subliminal sensations. Its influence is undeniable, echoing in the work of auteurs like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. It exists in its own strange bubble, a bubble blown on the same breeze that carries the likes of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.

These reference points should hopefully help guide the uninitiated into deciding whether this is an indulgence for them to partake in. But even if you put aside the willfully unusually content, there’s no arguing with how beautiful this film is to look at. Every frame is superb. Technically speaking, Marienbad touches on perfection and should prove a hugely enjoyable experience for anyone with an appreciation for the aesthetics of cinema. And as for the setting – filmed on location at a number of different chateaus around Munich – and the costumes, all are impeccable, as specified in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s meticulous screenplay.

Robbe-Grillet and Resnais spoke of the uncanny symbiosis of thought between them which brought about this film, and the resulting work is resplendent with doubles, mirror images and pairings. Light and dark. Man and woman. Reason and rumination.  The duality extends to its appreciation. Either confounding folly or inspired art, perhaps it is appropriate that both are true, and that it is up to the audience to decide.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Love… #55: Last Year At Marienbad

  1. Excellent and very detailed review, I loved your writing about the opening.

  2. Thanks. I’m still proofing (I always post too soon, then find myself needing to make revisions) so I apologise for any slapdash turns of phrase or typos. Weeding these out now. You got in very quickly!

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