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Last Year at Marienbad


Directed by Alain Resnais, with Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff, black & white, 94 minutes, 1961


Beautiful and Indelible Incongruity

Cover of VHS edition of Last Year at Marienbad

Cover of VHS tape edition of "Last Year at Marienbad"

By Carter B. Horsley

"Last Year at Marienbad" would be the greatest movie of all time if it were not so elegant, elitist and ephemeral.

As it is, nonetheless, it is a magical tour de force that befuddles and bedazzles and takes its viewers on a psychedelic voyage into a beautiful place where the sanctity of the soul's yearning is challenged time and time and time again.

Time is a theme, as its contemplation and its escape. This is a movie that tramples ordinary expectations and perceptions. Is what we view a fantasy and whose? Are these facts or merely vague recollections, or incandescent desires?

Certainly there is tremendous passion and even more bewilderment. The three lead characters are astoundingly intense, mysterious and fascinating.

While the movie has always been regarded as an intellectual milestone in the history of cinema for its enigmatic convolution of its realities, it is a very, very beautiful work of art that transcends any relevancy of interpretations.

It is, of course, not merely a succession of images that meanders, an overlay of repetitive incantations, and a stop-frame drama, but a very compelling adventure into realms of the possibly familiar, the intriguingly possible, and the frisson of flirtation.

The plot is simple: a man insists that he has been romantically involved with a woman and wants to get involved again and she maintains that there never was a past romance and that she is involved with another man. They act out this dance of seduction in a splendid and palatial European resort hotel.

The film, which won the grand prize at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, is based on a script by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais, the film's director, and is magnificently photographed by Sacha Vierny.

Resnais's early career was as a director of documentaries and he burst onto the international film world with his first major feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959.

In his excellent essay, "Past Against The Present," which can be found at http://home.uchicago.edu/~jrbeebe/marienbad.html, Jonathan Beebe makes the following observation:

"Two years after Hiroshima, Resnais made L'Année dernière à Marienbad which, in many ways, is one of the least realistic films ever made. Its time structure and location are labyrinthine. People appear and disappear or remain motionless like statues. At one point, the trees in the garden have stopped casting their shadows while the people standing there continue to cast them. [the film breaks] down time's inevitable advance by completely disorienting the viewer's sense of space and time. The film does not privilege one time over the other. There is no way for the viewer to know which time frame represents the 'present.' This breaks down temporal cause and effect."

The stunning film abounds in disorientation. A good, unsigned review of the film at http://www.filethirteen.com/reviews/marienbad/marienbad.htm
notes "One particularly unique and beautiful scene flashes between two settings, one almost all black, the other almost all white, causing a faux strobe effect that punctuates the film's theme of time perpetually both in and out of balance."

Bragan Thomas notes in his April 21, 2001 review of the film at
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1572522240 that "What Marienbad dramatizes is the relative quality of human memory," adding that "We tend to organize our perceptions of the world in linear fashion, but memory is non-linear, collapsing past and present into a single entity."

"Last Year at Marienbad" is remarkably stylized and mesmerizing. It is full of shocks and incongruities. We hear a man's voice reciting words about architecture as the screen shows a fluid panning shot tilted upwards at ornate ceilings in a baronial resort hotel of endless corridors and rich decoration. The narration at times repeats itself. We discover that the voice apparently belongs to a handsome man, played by Giorgio Albertazzi, who tries to convince a strikingly beautiful woman, played by Delphine Seyrig, that they met a year ago, perhaps at Marienbad, and were romantically involved. The woman seems taken by surprise and maintains she has no such recollections. Much, but not all, of the movie is narrated, but the scenes are confusing. Sometimes the lead characters are the only people moving in a scene and sometimes they are frozen while others move and sometimes the narration continues but they are suddenly in different clothes or settings. The man encounters a tall stranger, played by Sacha Pitoeff, who apparently has intrigued many of the resort's guests with a parlor game. The game is played by two people with 16 objects that are placed in four rows of 7, 5, 3 and 1. A player must remove at least one object from any row in his turn and the object of the game is that the person left with only one object loses. Albertazzi cannot beat Pitoeff and as the story evolves Pitoeff clearly has a relationship of some kind with the woman, either as her husband or lover.

While some critics have found "Last Year at Marienbad" pretentious, cryptic and infuriating and suggest it might be a satire on the indulgences of the vacuous rich, it is far too complex and challenging to be so easily dismissed. It is propelled by yearning, fantasy, lust and love and as the camera ricochets around the resort's sumptuous spaces its uncertainties acquire their own certainty. Does it matter if one person's past is imagined if he is persuasive enough in recounting it and it sparks reactions and other imagined thoughts?

The narrator's version of the story sometimes is shown in flashbacks but the flashbacks sometimes contradict the narration and then switch forward to changed circumstances. Life is confusing and Resnais challenges the viewer to deal with such confusion.

A review of the film by Bryant Frazer at http://www.deep-focus.com/flicker/lastyear.html maintains that Alain Robbe-Grillet has said that he believes that the man in pursuit of the woman is lying but that Resnais has said he worked on the assumption that he was telling the truth and that the woman had forgotten him.

What is absorbing about the film is that the conflicting remembrances make it extremely difficult to know which version is correct, but what is more important is that the man's pursuit of the woman clearly stirs up an emotional response. Even if he is mistaken, his persistent attempts to kindle or re-kindle a romance are not that strongly rebuffed and it is also clear that her relationship with Pitoeff is old and perhaps waning. Pitoeff portrays a man of great confidence, power and mystery and his performance is quite spell-bounding. Indeed, he would make a great Dracula.

Albertazzi's performance is very earnest and his obsession with the woman is very believable. Seyrig's role is the most difficult and she is marvelous as the flattered and intrigued object of Albertazzi's affection. Very beautiful and dressed in haute couture, she is appropriately sexy, whimsical, perturbed, mystified, enchanted, enchanting and edgy, but also the glacial epitome of highly stylized cover-girl glamor. With her raspy, almost child-like voice, she is almost other-worldly, which is appropriate for this film in which discontinuity rules.

Despite the film's confusion for viewers, there is no sense of chaos, or disorder for Resnais has imbued the entire work with evident purpose: the undermining of conventional certainty, the epistemological examination of ever-changing memory.

Do we care about these characters? Certainly, they seem much more interesting than the vapid, idle rich, other characters at the resort who serve primarily as elegant props. The principals do have magnetic personalities, but we learn little about them, their backgrounds, their interests, their problems. We see them existentially and certainly the film was made when existentialism was still popular and when intellectuals such as novelist Robbe-Grillet were experimenting with new ways of communicating and "streams of consciousness" were popular.

In an article entitled "The Stream of Consciousness in the Films of Alain Resnais," which can be found at http://www.tau.ac.il/~haim/str_int.htm, Haim Callev offers the following commentary:

"The cinematic medium presents inherent potentialities for the representation of mental processes. The non-verbal prespeech level of thought can find its equivalent in the primary non-cognitive nature of cinematic images and sounds. Instantaneous transitions between shots can follow the most whimsical connections between images and entire spatial audio-visual configurations, thus stimulating free association. Varying rhythms of exchange between images can be intermittently used to represent mental processes and the external world."

In lecture notes on the film that are posted at http://media-arts.rmit.edu.au/Phil_Brophy/MMAlec/LastYearMarienbad.html, Phillip Brophy discusses the "New Novel" style of Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras and this film and offers the following incisive commentary:

"While many have ridiculed the incomprehensibility of this film, Last Year at Marienbad can fairly clearly be viewed as a hysterical ride through confused emotions which arise from fractured relationships, repressed memories and problematized desires. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais have constructed the film to not only foreground this, but they have chosen baroque architecture as the visual symbolic layer for this hysteria, and theatrical melodrama as the stylized means through which the actors enact the scenario (often gesturing in stilted tableaux fashion). Sometimes characters talk at each other rather than to each other; other times characters in isolation passionately talk to someone who isn't there with them. And other times, there are transitions between the two - sometimes leaving us unsure as to whether an actual transition occurred or whether we misread the function of the voice in the beginning of the supposed transition."

To a great extent, the film has a Cubist rather than a linear narrative and music and narration fade in and out.

Modernism, minimalism, abstraction were rampant, albeit in a still rather conservative world in which the Cold War reigned and the psychedelic years of the mid-60s were yet to explode. The movie gives no clue as to its precise time frame and some have maintained that it takes place in the period between the two world wars.

Because there are no outside pressures and because there is obvious, care-free luxury, the characters can be observed purely on their own merits and while they are elegantly attired, they might just as well be naked. They are Everyman/Everywoman and exist in an eternal and perhaps aimless purgatory - the infinity of life.

Is Albertazzi a figment of Seyrig's imagination? Is Pitoeff God, or the devil? Pitoeff claims he can't lose at the "match" game, but in fact he can. This is a very topsy-turvy world and humpty-dumpty does in fact fall, - at least Albertazzi crumbles a balustrade he leaps over. Although the film seems to center on the cerebral and the emotional, it also lingers long on the physical environment; indeed, it is perhaps the most loving tribute to elaborate, fine architecture in film.

The film's soundtrack has jarring and loud organ music that one critic correctly described as "excruciating," but added that it "injects the film with a[n] overblown sense of dramatics."

There is a fine still from the movie showing the great formal gardens of the resort hotel in an article on Alain Resnais at the website of Filmmaker magazine at http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/spring2000/features/all_tomorrow.html . There is also a good still showing one of the lead actors in the movie, Sacha Pitoeff, standing in front of the same formal gardens at frenchculture.org that is part of a retrospective on Resnais's work and can be found at http://www.info-france-usa.org/culture/cinema/festival/resnais/marienbad.html .

Despite its perplexing vagaries, "Last Year at Marienbad" is a rapturous love story, a mind-boggling mystery, an abstract, stately and sensational tour de force of filmmaking. It is indelible.


This movie is rated 6th on Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films list.


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