304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)

L’Année Dernière à Marienbad

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“Who knows what true loneliness is, not the conventional word—but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory, or some illusion.”–Joseph Conrad,  Under Western Eyes

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff

PLOT: In the confines of the corridors, salons, and gardens of an outlandishly extravagant spa hotel, one man attempts to persuade a female guest that they met a year prior and had planned to run off together. At first she resists his suggestions, but as he repeats his reminiscences, her denial becomes more and more strained. As they flit about the hotel, other guests fade in and out of focus, and the young woman’s male companion looms ever more ominously.

Still from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • Last Year at Marienbad was born of a collaboration between , who had achieved fame for his revolutionary non-narrative novels (dubbed nouveau roman), and Alain Resnais, who had recently completed Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the opening credits, Robbe-Grillet is billed before Resnais. Afterwards, Robbe-Grillet was inspired to become a (defiantly strange) director himself, eventually notching two Certified Weird films (L’Immortelle and Eden and After) under his own leadership.
  • Cannes had refused to accept the movie as an entry, officially citing the fact that the lead actor was not French, but according to rumor because of Resnais’ public stance against the Algerian War.
  • Winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 forced the distributors to rethink their strategy of a very limited release.
  • In hopes of recreating a “silent movie” feel for Marienbad, Resnais requested some old-fashioned film stock from Eastman Kodak. Unfortunately, they were unable to provide it.
  • (The Tin Drum) apprenticed on this film as second assistant director.
  • Included in both Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way) and Steven Shneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The movie divided contemporary critics and audiences, as well.
  • The alternately somber and jarring score (performed mostly on solo organ) was written by Francis Seyrig, the lead actress’ brother.
  • Robbe-Grillet was nominated for a “Best Original Screenplay” Oscar (losing to Divorce Italian Style).
  • Selected by 366 Weird Movies readers as one of two winners of our penultimate readers’ choice poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Talk about being spoiled for a choice! Any given scene in Marienbad is a showcase of divinely arranged formalist beauty. What sets the tone (and stands out the most), however, is the alternately freezing and unfreezing of the actors immediately following the play performance that begins the film’s “action” (so to speak). The camera gracefully slinks around the the hotel’s inhabitants as the characters’ action and chatter stop dead, only to start anew a few moments after being silenced.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Living freeze-frames; “I always win”; shadowless trees

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Narratively speaking, Marienbad is about as bare-boned as a film can be without slipping into the realm of incomprehensible. A man and a woman met, or possibly didn’t meet, a year ago, and now the man wants the woman to run away with him. Alain Resnais brings Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dreamy script to geometric life with time fluxes, repetitions, and stylized acting by stylized hotel patrons. The black and white cinematography and challenging edits heighten the sense of shattered narrative that, much like the vicissitudes of human memory, can’t fully coalesce.


Original Trailer for Last Year at Marienbad

COMMENTS: As an art form, film exceeds its competition in manipulation: manipulation of emotions, of perceptions, and of ambiguity. The successive painterly images of Last Year at Marienbad deny the viewer a firm grip on space. The inconsistent repetitions of voice-over and dialogue deny the viewer a firm grip on narrative. The alternating subdued and flaring score deny the viewer a grip on tonality. With all three working together, Alain Resnais’ ultimate art house drama refuses to allow the audience to agree on one interpretation of the work. Even the credits for Last Year at Marienbad prevent the characters from being concrete. A mannered fever-dream, the digressions, diversions, trackings, cuts, and slips and slides of narrative, dialogue, and camera-work in the film force us to assemble a coherency that all its stylistic choices refuse us.

The story, as much as there is one, concerns a mysterious woman credited only as “A” (Delphine Seyrig) as she is pursued by the steadfast “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) through the corridors of both some monstrous hotel as well as their collective memory. Lurking in the background, perhaps as some protective angel or some diabolical warden, is A’s diamond-cut consort, “M” (Sacha Pitoëff). As X tirelessly grinds A down, other hotel guests flit about, phantom-like, providing quips and snatches of conversation; fodder that may mean nothing in particular. Within the cryptic narrative rests the significant play, “Rosmer,” which bookends the action. After the opening of vaulted ceilings and Y’s rambling, repeated voice-over, the camera eventually sets its sights on a black gulf flanked by curtains, and dives in. At the film’s end, we find ourselves at the beginning performance once more, with A’s fate hanging in the balance. Will M come to stop her, or will she go off into a miasmic future with X?

This is, of course, but one interpretation of the events. What makes Last Year at Marienbad simultaneously so wonderful for some, so pointless for others, and so weird for everyone is that it provides us with so many different and differently interlocking pieces that we’re all but guaranteed to walk away having experienced something different. Some may slip through the film as if it were but a dream within a dream—quietly absorbing the beauty of the actors and the sets, the wonder of the camera movement, and the liturgical beauty of the organ score. Others may see an intricate dissection of the nature of memory, something on which we found our sense of self and our perceptions, but whose pieces are almost wholly unreliable. Memory, in effect, is the mind bringing the past forward to the present, but always necessarily in the present context. In our efforts to constantly make sense of our immediate circumstances, we apply our own distorted view of the past. Marienbad replicates this inherent inaccuracy as it wends toward synthesis. What we, or the characters, remember may well not have happened, but the demands of Now make that irrelevant. So, A may never have met X before, but if that is a fact, it becomes an irrelevant one. Perhaps, though, she has met him, but not on his terms.

This brings forward a more sinister take on the events. About halfway through Last Year at Marienbad, the heroine hijacks the narrative, correcting details or interpretations of events. While X rambles on, adding a remark here, redacting something there, and then changing things again, A first laughs him off, then digs in her heels against his suggestions. Why? There is a key scene when she has a realization at the hotel’s bar and drops a glass; in flashback, she knocks over a glass bottle as she is approached by someone in her bed chamber. The fractured recollections, the constant denial, and X’s furtive assurance (to her? to himself?) that there was no use of force all further point to something suggested in pieces earlier on. Looked at in this way, Marienbad works well, if troublingly, as a dissection of repressed memory: quite possibly of rape, one year ago, by the charismatic but distressing X. But the corridors all twist, the mirrors show lies, and the witnesses are all absent. Not only is she uncertain, we as an audience cannot be certain what it might be that she’s uncertain about. Indeed, the only assurance we have of anything in Last Year at Marienbad is that we never see the intimidating M character lose anything—except, unfortunately, his ward. M knows that A will leave him before she knows it, and in the movie’s only tender scene, we see him stoically resign himself to that fate.

Resnais’ sure-handed execution of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s exacting script is remarkable. It is remarkably beautiful: clutches of the upper-class never looked so good while ominously milling about a luxurious backdrop. It is remarkably emotional: the cold-as-ice performance from Delphine Seyrig makes her eventual crack up all the more wrenching. And, more than anything else, it is remarkably nebulous. Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most sophisticated works to grace cinema, and it is appropriate that it comes to us from the Nouvelle Vague’s king. Alain Resnais had a long history interpreting memory before this film, having started his career with documentaries, most notably the elegiacally haunting Night and Fog. Focusing on the dangers and wonders of memory, Resnais continued his exploration with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and up through Je T’aime, Je T’aime. All of these are achievements, but none provides an experience so otherworldly, unnerving, beautiful, and weird as his classic Last Year at Marienbad.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I have a pet theory that whenever you see a building in a psychological art movie—a house, a museum, a hotel, whatever—it symbolizes the protagonist’s mind. The repetitive opening monologue, chanted dully by the protagonist (if X is the protagonist) as the camera glides through the “silent and deserted” chateau, visualizing X’s words, reinforces that association, tying interior thoughts to the interiors of the hotel. The corridors of memory, where one may wander looking into nooks and alcoves, glancing at chandeliers and pictures on the wall, frozen moments… Notice that the flashbacks to last year take place outdoors, in the garden. It’s as if the subject is considering the events of “reality” from inside the prison of his own mind. Of course, this interior/exterior dichotomy breaks down because the exteriors themselves are not real or reliable—the trees there cast no shadows—and because at the end the recollected activity moves indoors, to A’s bedroom. Does this suggest my original reading is incorrect, or that the boundaries between subjective and objective have broken down? The action never really leaves the hotel: even the memories are located there, inside X’s mind, which is inside his head, which is inside the hotel, wherein X recalls events of the past, when he was staying at another hotel…

I do believe the “rape” reading of the film captures Robbe-Grillet’s original “narrative intent”—but I only come to that conclusion based on Resnais’ extratextual comments. It’s clear that Robbe-Grillet’s true intent was to deliberately obscure that reading (or any other). If you provide a solution to Marienbad‘s mystery, the entire structure collapses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Be prepared for an experience such as you’ve never had… It may grip you with a strange enchantment, it may twist your wits into a snarl, it may leave your mind and senses toddling vaguely in the regions in between. But this we can reasonably promise: when you stagger away from it, you will feel you have delighted in (or suffered) a unique and intense experience.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“The overall tone is poker-faced parody of lush Hollywood melodrama, yet the film’s dreamlike cadences, frozen tableaux, and distilled surrealist poetry are too eerie, too terrifying even, to be shaken off as camp.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader

“…profoundly mysterious and disturbing, a para-surrealist masterpiece whose nightmarish scenario appears to have been absorbed from Buñuel and Antonioni and transmitted onward to Greenaway.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

IMDB LINK: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page for the film includes the trailer, a link to Resnais short documentary “Toute la Mémoire du Monde,” and Mark Polizzotti’s essay, “Which Year at Where?”

Last Year at Marienbad Movie Review (1961) – Roger Ebert’s essay on the film for his “Great Movies” series

DVD of the Week: Last Year at Marienbad – Richard Brody essay on the film for the New Yorker, with narrated clips, arguing (not terribly convincingly) that the film is political

Last Year at Marienbad – memories of a cool masterpiece – Assistant director Volker Schlöndorff describes some of the behind-the-scenes footage he used to make a documentary about the making of Marienbad for The Guardian

Film-makers on film: Peter Greenaway – Director calls Last Year at Marienbad the most important influence on his film-making

‘Marienbad’ Returns, Unsettling as Ever – Mark Harris recalls audiences’ and critics’ initial puzzlement over Marienbad during its original U.S. run

L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) – Darragh O’Donoghue’s annotation on the film for Senses of Cinema

Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation – Thomas Belzer argues that Marienbad is an unacknowledged adaptation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s short story “The Invention of Morel”

“Last Year at Marienbad” – The “Philosophical Films” series at Frostburg University discusses Marienbad in the context of Descartes’s “Meditations on First Philosophy”

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Last Year at Marienbad” – Robbe-Grillet’s novelization of the movie (includes an introductory essay that may be useful in defining his aesthetic)

“Last Year in Marienbad: A Film as Art” – A collection of academic essays accompanied by reproductions of Marienbad-inspired artworks

DVD INFO: Lively drum-roll, if you please, as Criterion gets high marks once more for packaging a fine product—and sad trombone for, once again, losing the rights to a movie and letting their release go out of print. For those looking to shell out premium cash, the Criterion Collection edition of the DVD (buy) or Blu Ray (buy) will give your shelf a look of extravagant thoroughness.

A beautiful film transfer, two audio options (at Resnais’s insistence, a truer-to-source, non-cleaned-up audio track is available for those who want to replicate the original screening experience as closely as possible), the trailer, and a smattering of informative documentaries are included, not to mention an audio interview with the director himself. The disc also includes two short Resnais documentaries in their entirety: “Toute la Mémoire du Monde” (1956) and “Le chant du Styrène” (1958). And, this being a Criterion release, there’s a thick booklet with some recent and contemporaneous essays about the film in the pocket of the disc case.

For the economically minded, Amazon has a printed-on-demand DVD-R version (buy), that runs closer to the $20 mark. Other than Criterion, it appears the only other Blu Ray option is for “Region B” players. (I presume the “B” stands for “Bwhy do we still have these regional variations in the age of streaming video?”)

Speaking of streaming video, Marienbad is not currently available in that format, at least not in the U.S.

7 thoughts on “304. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961)”

  1. This is one of my all time favorite enigmatic movies, and if I had my own weekend film festival it would start with Last Year at Marienbad, then Persona, Belle Du Jour, Venus in Furs, 3 Women, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, The Double LIfe of Veronique, Mulholland Drive, Black Swan and then ending with Queen of Earth. It would be called the Labyrinthian Labia Film Fest and if you bring a convincing doppelganger tickets are half price.

    My only quibble with Last Year at Marienbad is that the score is not inviting the way the images are, and that Delphine Seyrig is so gorgeous and perfect in the movie that she makes Albertazzi look like an average clod despite his threads. It might seem odd, but I often imagine that the movie would play better if X and M were switched. Sacha Piteoff, skating into the “ugly hot” vortex occupied by Adrien Brody and Adam Driver, is far more imposing – and might have proved to be a better pursuer/unseemly persuader than the ineffectual Albertazzi, who might have made a better cuckhold husband. Albertazzi’s bland “good looks” might be Marienbad’s only real commercial concession!

    1. I can understand your quibbles, Mike. On the latter point, however, I think the (comparative) blandness of X is important, if only because it makes it that much more believable that A wouldn’t remember him — sure, he’s urbane, attractive, and well-dressed, but that could describe anyone of their milieu.

      Except, of course, for M. Now, A stands out, and it stands to reason that M would have to, as well — he’s not bending over backwards to seduce her, he’s accomplished that already. As a pair to be ultimately broken up, it makes sense that it’s A and M as they’re depicted: vortices of mysterious charm.

      As for the organ score, I, too, have mixed feelings about it. I’m not sure how much back material you’ve read, but you should be thankful that Alain Robbe-Grillet didn’t get his wish — he wanted nothing but dissonance.

  2. Ah, yes, Giles Edwards – your point is equally valid. I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective about X’s blandness. That organ score, though…Yeesh. Sometimes I think it’s comparable in tone to the organ music in Carnival of Souls, but in that movie it fits so wonderfully.

    I had known about Marienbad from seeing stills in film magazines, and I knew it was a famous art movie. But even reading a mini-synopsis in something like the Leonard Maltin movie guide didn’t prepare me for how innovative and visually exciting it would be. I really loved it. I only saw it for the first time watching the gorgeous Criterion DVD. It has a thick booklet with it, but I’ve never read it – because it seems like a movie that the less I know about it the better – keep those layers of the onion intact.

    But because of this movie and this site’s review of Eden After, I ended up taking a plunge into buying the Robbe-Grillet boxset.
    Movies like this always make me ponder the longevity of art. How many times can a movie like Last Year at Marienbad or 2001 or The Holy Mountain be introduced to new generations of film watchers. If millions of people saw Metropolis in the first half of the 20th century and possibly even more during the VHS/DVD era, when will these eyes be whittled down to just a few thousand?

    I recently watched an interesting movie from Vinegar Syndrome called Red Roses of Passion. I really liked it. But the release was only for 2000 copies! And I think more people deserve or should be interesting in seeing it. While on Vinegar Syndrome, a tip for you guys – They will be releasing a 4k version of the long out of print Liquid Sky in December. here’s a link:

    https://vinegarsyndrome.com/shop/liquid-sky-limited-edition/

    1. …speaking of dissonant movie scores.

      Loved “Liquid Sky” when I first stumbled across it in my late teen years. I saw it around the time I Should have seen “Suspiria” as well, but that did not happen until the 4K screening at Fantasia this past summer.

      I make no secret of my belief that “Liquid Sky” should make the list — first off, there’s the whole movie, and Then there’s the folksy German scientist thrown in for good measure.

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