I was talking with a student yesterday after class, and he mentioned seeing, and appreciating, Last Year at Marienbad recently, so I thought I’d say a few words on this iconic arthouse classic. For some people, Marienbad is easy to dismiss; the central “plot,” if one can call it that, is very simple: a man and woman meet at a luxurious resort hotel, but have they met before? What are their identities, if any? Can we trust our memories, and that which we think we know? Or is human existence a mystery, to be ceaselessly repeated over and over again, whether we know it or not?
As the Criterion website for the film puts it, “Not just a defining work of the French New Wave but one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art, Alain Resnais’ epochal Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad) has been puzzling appreciative viewers for decades. Written by radical master of the New Novel Alain Robbe-Grillet, this surreal fever dream, or nightmare, gorgeously fuses the past with the present in telling its ambiguous tale of a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) who may or may not have met a year ago, perhaps at the very same cathedral-like, mirror-filled château they now find themselves wandering. Unforgettable in both its confounding details (gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a loaded gun) and haunting scope, Resnais’ investigation into the nature of memory is disturbing, romantic, and maybe even a ghost story.”
To which critic Mark Polizzotti adds, “So much critical ink has been shed over Last Year at Marienbad that one might wonder if the flood of commentary, once receded, would take the film along with it. Alain Resnais’ second feature has been lavishly praised and royally slammed; awarded the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar, but also branded an ‘aimless disaster’ by Pauline Kael; lauded by some as a great leap forward in the battle against linear storytelling and a worthy successor to Hoffmann, Proust, and Borges, dismissed by others as hopelessly old-fashioned.
The ambivalence is understandable. Marienbad blatantly toys with our expectations regarding plotline, character development, continuity, conflict, resolution—all those elements we’ve come to expect from a satisfying motion picture. Like its nameless hero, the film relentlessly pursues us with a barrage of assertions while giving us little to hold on to as convincingly true, until in the end, we, like Delphine Seyrig’s equally nameless heroine, have only two choices: remain steadfast in our resistance to the seduction or just plain submit.
The plot is disarmingly simple: At a retreat for the Other Half located somewhere in Europe, a man (referred to in the screenplay as X, and played by Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (A, Seyrig’s character) that they had fallen in love the previous summer, ‘in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon.’ In his telling, the putative couple had planned to run away together, but she had asked him to wait one year. The woman at first refutes X’s claim but is gradually swayed by his insistence. After several episodes of muted sparring between X and A’s cooler-than-thou husband-guardian, M (Sacha Pitoëff), mainly over hands of the game Nim that M always wins, A finally agrees to leave with X.
So far, it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and bragging rights. The devil, as always, lurks in the details. Indeed, the more evidence X provides as proof of veracity, the more discrepancies emerge, and the more the enigma thickens. As the film progresses, the image on-screen appears almost willfully to clash with X’s voice-over description, sometimes prompting him to shout at it like an exasperated director with an especially temperamental star.
Incidents and settings frequently repeat, but their details change disconcertingly between one iteration and the next: A’s remembered bedroom veers from bare to baroque; the hotel gardens sometimes boast a maze of shrubbery, sometimes grand alleys as stiff and straight as the gentlemen’s tuxedos. (Resnais obtained this effect by shooting at three different palaces—none actually located in Marienbad.) Added to the narrator’s stalkerlike pursuit of the reticent heroine, these inconsistencies imbue the film with an atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and threat.”
The image above serves as an apt emblem for the entire film; the people cast images, but the trees that so symmetrically surround them don’t. They exist in a state of eternal stasis, unable to move forwards, condemned to repeat a past which may or may not exist. All the games they play within the film — and the game of Nim quickly became a college fad at the time of the film’s first release — will avail them nothing. Resnais’ cool, distanced images perfectly evoke the equally detached vision of scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who would top this film the next year with the even more mesmeric L’Immortelle, which sadly remains out of print on DVD due to a tangle of rights problems.
But whether you consider Marienbad a mystery, or an exercise in style, or ultimately a statement of the futility of human endeavor, the film is certainly worth watching and thinking about, particularly when many people either dismiss it, or take it for granted that everyone has seen it. Each new generation discovers these films for themselves. This is how it has always been, and should always be.