“Last Year at Marienbad” - Alain Resnais (1961)

Alain Resnais’s second feature film, Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, 1961), was so spectacularly innovative that it became a landmark in the history of cinema [1,2].  There has always been widespread critical discussion not only on the film’s ultimate meaning but even on just what it was about [1,2,3,4].  Nevertheless, the film won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, and it is ranked in the British Film Institute’s Directors’ poll as one of the “100 Greatest Films of All Time” [5]. 

Resnais was already known as a respected and innovative film director, having made the famous documentary Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955) and his even more highly acclaimed  feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  In fact both Resnais and Last Year at Marienbad’s script-writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, were considered to be members of the French intellectual avant-garde of the late 1950s.  Resnais was loosely associated with the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) film movement (which included the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol).  And Robbe-Grillet was associated with the Nouvelle Roman (New Novel) movement (which included the likes of Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino).  So with such an intellectual pedigree behind Last Year at Marienbad, critics could expect a challenge, and that’s what they got. 

The story of Last Year at Marienbad is concerned with an extended encounter between an unnamed man and woman who are staying at an elaborate Baroque hotel that has been fashioned from some palatial aristocratic estate.  The man tries to convince the woman that they had met the previous year and had fallen in love and that they had agreed to meet again at this hotel in order to run away together.  But the woman politely tells this man that she has no recollection of ever having met him, much less of ever having agreed to meet him again here this year. 

Because of the intimate nature of their extended conversation’s subject matter, the man has to meet the woman at various opportune moments and circumstances when they can talk privately; so their conversation is fragmented.  Complicating the man’s problems further is the fact that the woman he desires appears to already have a romantic partner, who may or may not be her husband.  So in order to discuss things further, I will refer to the three unnamed characters in this story by the names that were used to reference them in the screenplay:
  • “X” (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) is the man seeking to reconnect with the woman he allegedly met last year.
  • “A” (Delphine Seyrig) is the woman sought by X.
  • “M” (Sacha Pitoëff) is the alleged husband of A.
Note that this story, which consists mostly of X’s account of what allegedly happened in the past and which constitutes the bulk of what the film shows us, is anything but straightforward.  Much of it is presented in a dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness manner that suggests that the viewer is privy to the sometimes confused imaginings of the main character.  This interiorized effect is further accentuated by the persistent, almost funereal, organ music (by Francis Seyrig, Delphine Seyrig’s brother) in the background. 

The story begins with long tracking shots down mostly vacant corridors of the Baroque hotel, while a disjointed and repetitive voice-over describes recollections of a mostly suffocating social atmosphere there.  Eventually the camera tracks up to door of a chamber inside of which a theatrical play is being presented to the seated hotel guests.  In the narrative scheme of the remembered events of this story, the performance of this play takes place at the end, when X may be in the act of running away with A.  Anyway, it is referred to early on, and the play the guests are shown watching here, titled Rosmer, is probably a version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholmz, a drama about memory and guilt.  But an astute viewer may notice that a placard on the room door advertising Rosmer says it is written by “Niala Sianser”, which is this film’s director’s name spelled backwards.  Such is the malleability of objective reality in this tale.

Afterwards, the hotel guests are shown in the lounge standing in clusters and seemingly chatting, but they are in almost (but not quite) frozen in static positions, as if these are images from X’s memory.  Gradually we move to scenes showing X with A, first dancing with her in a hotel lounge and later talking with her somewhere apart from others.  He is trying to convince her that they met here last year – or perhaps, he says, they met at Frederiksbad, Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa.  So it is clear that his own memory is not perfect.  In any case, he insists, the two of them fell in love back then, but A had told him to wait for a year before they would be free to run away together.  But A demurely continues to insist that she doesn’t remember X at all.

The rest of the film continues along the lines of this extended conversation, with some interspersed scenes showing occasional interactions with M, who is A’s presumed partner.  M is an austere, somewhat forbidding character who contrasts markedly with X.  While X represents romantic exceptionalism, M represents uncompromising, rule-following rigidity.  M likes to engage in target-practice shooting games with his gun and in the stick-drawing table game of nim, at which he never loses.

Note that as the film proceeds, the viewer may begin to have questions concerning the reality of what he or she is seeing:
  • Is the story of what X claims happened between himself and A one year ago a figment of his imagination?
  • Is what is happening “now” also a figment of X’s imagination?
There is conflicting evidence in this regard.  X and A are sometimes shown conversing on the patio outside the hotel next to a statue of mythical figures.  But the background garden seen behind this statue is markedly different for different scenes of this conversation.  And although the focalization of the film is mostly on X, there are a few sometimes contradictory shots and scenes shown at which X was not present.  In one bedroom scene, the otherwise dour and taciturn M professes his love for A.  And there is also even one shot in which M is shown shooting and killing A.  So how “real” is what is being presented in those shots?

At the end of the film, supposedly during the performance of the play Rosmer, X and A meet at an appointed time and place in the hotel and apparently depart together, at last.  Or do they?  It’s not clear. 

Given these ambiguities, there have been various critical interpretations of Last Year at Marienbad.  And these different opinions may be associated with questions concerning who was the real author of Marienbad, Robbe–Grillet or Resnais?  Robbe-Grillet originally submitted a detailed shooting script and storyboard for the film.  But he was not present for the shooting of the film, and Resnais introduced some changes, including the use of the interiorizing organ music.  In any case these two creators probably had some conflicting perspectives [6].
“According to Resnais, Robbe-Grillet used to insist that it was he who wrote Marienbad, without question, and that Resnais's filming of it was a betrayal—but that since he found it very beautiful he did not blame him for it.” [1]   
So there have been a number of planes of interpretation.  Here are a few.

Memory and Narrative
It is true that most all of our memories are narrative constructions.  And these involve a selection of supposedly factual details that fit into the narratives we construct.  So the film can be considered to be a creative exploration of this aspect of “reality” [3].
“Resnais’ film may be a study in the workings of memory, but not necessarily memory as guarantor of history and truth. Marienbad may also be about memory as power, false memory masquerading as history.”
Since Resnais’s earlier films featured an emphasis on mass social empathy, it would likely cause some critics to look in this direction.  So some people view the film as showing a decadent pre-War European culture (represented by M) that was oblivious of the social issues that were threatening it.  The whole film is then seen as a parody of such escapism [3,7].

Romanticism vs. Classicism
To some extent X represents Romanticism and M represents Classicism.  This contrast is sometimes discussed in the context of comparisons between English Gardens (Romanticism ) and French Gardens (Classicism).  And the Baroque hotel’s surrounding French Gardens offer a visual reminder of this contrast.

Male vs. Female  
To some extent A may represent an embodiment of the eternal female mystery to X [3].  It is interesting that the female character, A, is said to have been the product of Resnais, while the two male characters, X and M, are said to have been products or Robbe-Grillet [8].

But then there are also some critics who just love to be immersed in the mesmerizing narrative flow of Last Year at Marienbad, without giving analytical thought to the film’s ultimate meaning [2,9,10,11,12].  Even Robbe-Grillet, himself, observed in the introduction to the published screenplay of the film [1]:
"(E)ither the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme — the most linear, the most rational he can devise — and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him…and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling."
And similarly, critic Roger Ebert remarked [2]:
"Viewing the film again, I expected to have a cerebral experience, to see a film more fun to talk about than to watch. What I was not prepared for was the voluptuous quality of 'Marienbad', its command of tone and mood, its hypnotic way of drawing us into its puzzle, its austere visual beauty. Yes, it involves a story that remains a mystery, even to the characters themselves. But one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.”
And that is more or less the way that I look at Last Year at Marienbad, too.  It is truly a hypnotic cinematic dream.

  1. “Last Year at Marienbad”, Wikipedia, (10 May 2020).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Last Year at Marienbad”, RogerEbert.com, (30 May 1999).   
  3. Darragh O’Donoghue, “L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)”. Senses of Cinema, (October 2004).   
  4. Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal”, The Village Voice, (15 March 1962).   
  5. “Directors’ top 100", Sight & Sound, British Film Institute”, (2012).  
  6. Mark Polizzotti, “Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year at Where?”, The Criterion Collection, (22 June 2009).   
  7. Richard Brody, “DVD of the Week: Last Year at Marienbad”, The New Yorker, (19 March 2011).   
  8. Luc Lagier, Dans le Labyrinthe de Marienbad, (In the Labyrinthe of Marienbad), [film], (2008).
  9. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Last Year at Marienbad”, Chicago Reader, (n.d.).   
  10. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Greatest Film Ever Made?”, Chicago Reader, (1 May 2008).   
  11. Edward Copeland, “No explanations for the inexplicable  Why do we feel the need to force meaning upon magic?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (7 March 2012).  
  12. Edward Copeland, “What's so funny about critics, taste and Marienbad?”, Edward Copeland's Tangents, (11 March 2012).   

No comments: