Last Year in Marienbad, Last Year at Marienbad
Wilhelm von Deek
Running Time: 94 minutes
UK Certificate: U
Country: France, Italy
If Alain Resnais' 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour' (1959) marked the first ripplings of the French 'new wave', then within a year, with the release of Jean-Luc Godard's 'À Bout de Souffle' (1960), that wave had crested into a cinematic tsunami. Now the traditional and the conventional were things to be resisted, novelty was everything, and the past had become, well, passé. In this context, Resnais' second feature, 'Last Year in Marienbad', might at first seem an out-of-place throwback – after all, its setting is a palatial oldworld hotel with antique furnishings and classical statuary, and its characters dress as though they are from the early thirties, and comport themselves with the demure etiquette of an epoch long gone. Yet in Resnais' mannered and mannerly mystery, the past is a stifling, lifeless place that must be interrogated, mastered and reinvented before it can ever really be escaped for pastures new.
In an opulent hotel with vast gardens, as guests gossip languidly about a past scandal and the impossibly icy weather of a previous summer, an intense man who may or may not be called Frank (Giorgio Albertazzi) has a series of encounters with an elegant woman (Delphine Seyrig), and tries to convince her that in the previous year, perhaps in Marienbad, they had met, become lovers, and even planned to leave together. At first she denies remembering either him or the affair, but over the course of the days, months, or possibly even years which he divides between talking with her and playing (not to mention consistently losing) a parlour game with a tall, dour man who may or may not be the woman's husband (Sacha Pitoëff), his seductive words draw her out of her oblivion into complicity with his memory (or fantasy), and the two decide to try, perhaps for the second time, to leave together.
For all its cool composure, 'Last Year in Marienbad' is an intricately designed enigma that will mesmerise, confound and entrap viewers in layer upon layer of ambiguity and paradox. The lavish hotel set (filmed in the castles of Schleißheim and Nieuwenburg) is like a hall of mirrors, where every action and gesture is echoed in the many reflective surfaces, or (more figuratively) in the paintings that adorn the walls, in the statues that overlook the grounds, or in the play that is performed in the theatre. The stylised monotones and unnaturally still poses of the players leave it unclear whether they are supposed to be real or imagined, awake or dreaming, living or dead, human or enchanted stone. In his first screenplay, pioneer of the 'nouveau roman' Alain Robbe-Grillet has constructed a modernist labyrinth of verbal repetitions and chronological inscrutability, forming an ideal complement to the hotel's maze-like corridors and trompe l'oeil perspectives, while Sacha Vierney's exquisitely fluid cinematography is full of time-leaping match-cuts and uncanny tracking shots (where, for example, the camera moves from one room where a character is seated to the next where, impossibly, the same character is standing). Viewers will quickly find themselves as lost as the principal characters, led literally up the garden path.
With its starkly beautiful photography, its calmly infuriating intrigue, its endless game-playing (where the stake is meaning itself) and its well-concealed passions, 'Last Year in Marienbad' is one of very few films that I regard as perfect in every respect. So step into its haunted hallways, and see if you can find your way out.
It's Got: Haunting performances; gracefully fluid cinematography; a diabolical screenplay full of suggestion and contradiction; an infuriating (lack of) chronology, marked by dreamlike irrationality; and an ending as ambiguous as everything that has preceded it.
It Needs: To be seen - now!
DVD Extras A flawless digitally re-mastered print, aspect 2.35:1, black and white, French language with English subtitles; scene selection; introduction by film historian Ginette Vincendeau (19min) on the films reception, its formalism, and its openness to multiple interpretations; In the Labyrinth of Marienbad (33min) excellent documentary by Luc Lagier covering the careers of writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (including brief audio interviews) and of director Alain Resnais, and offering several contradictory (but equally persuasive) readings of the film, and lastly pointing out some unexpected links to the works of Hitchcock (and a blink-and-youll-miss-it epiphany of Hitchcock ten minutes into the film); Toute la Mémoire du Monde (21min) a short film (1956) by Resnais on Paris Bibliothèque Nationale (with fluid tracking shots down the librarys corridors that appear to be a dry run for the cinematography used in Last Year in Marienbad); original theatrical trailer. Version reviewed: Last Year at Marienbad (Optimum World). DVD Extras Rating: 7/10
Alternatives:2046, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fear X, Groundhog Day, In the Mood for Love, L'Âge d'Or, Orphée, The Shining
Leading the viewer up more than one garden path and forever haunting the corridors of the mind, this perplexing enigma is a labyrinth of chillingly perfect construction.