‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961): “… and the mystery of movie watching”

‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (1961): “… and the mystery of movie watching”

Alan Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is a film that poses many questions and offers very little answers. Having watched it, it seems only fitting therefore that I’m left with a question of my own (well two if you include ‘can I write a review about it without sounding pretentious?’) and that is; ‘what do we watch films for?’ Because I believe that question is the key to whether you like this film or not.

Some films offer pure escapism, something to switch on at the end of the day and forget about real life for a while. Other films offer something more emotional, relaying to the viewer something that they may already personally identify or agree with. There are also the films that are more cerebral, ones that do not allow you to leave your brain at the door or give you the opportunity to experience something you personally feel or believe to. These films require you to think – to consider different viewpoints and to challenge your own.

Initially, Last Year at Marienbad is a film that falls into the latter category. It is a film that is distinctly cerebral, however it does divert somewhat from this style (and your expectations) because the plot and narrative is so enigmatic and ambiguous that to watch it feels less like a movie experience and more like a puzzle – something to consider and decipher for yourself – that refuses to divulge its secrets. This is perhaps why Last Year in Marienbad is such a deeply divisive experience for audiences. Complex puzzles can be frustrating or intriguing, depending on your taste. But crucially, whether you love it or hate it, you must admit that it is a film that offers an experience like no other.

The ambiguous and enigmatic story focuses on a luxury, baroque spa hotel and the unnamed, wealthy sophisticates residing there. A man (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig) and attempts to persuade her that they have not only previously met there a year earlier, but they were also lovers who had agreed to meet on this date to decide on their future together.  The woman has no such recollections of this encounter and appears to be married to another man (Sacha Pitoëff), who repeatedly asserts his dominance over the first man by playing a version of Nim, a seemingly impossible mathematical game of strategy, whilst she continually rebuffs his version of events. Unperturbed, the man persists with his attempts to jog the woman’s memory and rekindle the romance he claims they once shared.

Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad is a perplexing, fascinating cinematic experience that relies heavily on a narrative structure that refuses to adhere to the classical conventions of storytelling. It’s manner is that of a recurring dream; a deeply bewildering approach that deliberately plays fast and loose with spatial and temporal continuity through Resnais’ filming and editing style. The director was influenced by the look and style of silent cinema and the fashions of the 1920s, which naturally lends the film a timeless quality which, in turn, suggests its setting and characters may indeed be somehow lost in time. The other guests at the hotel are often seen behaving as artificially as silent movie performers,  their actions precise and their poses like statues, frozen in time. The latter is never more so apparent that in the garden scene where they stand stock still, casting shadows that the trees in true surreal fashion do not; this feat was achieved by shooting on an overcast day where no shadows were thrown. The shadows coming from the figures were in fact painted upon the ground! Occasionally, you overhear snatches of conversations from these fellow guests that not only suggest that they also share the central ambiguity of the main characters but are also wickedly funny too; one man is overheard to protest that his wife does not hear him and her immediate response is to talk more quietly.

But what is it about? What is going on here? Well, it’s open to interpretation and I would say there is probably no right or wrong answer, which may infuriate some audiences who expect a clear cut answer. Some claim it is the literal depiction of a recurring dream, or perhaps more fittingly a nightmare; the man is forced to convince the woman over and over again of their relationship and is destined to fail. Others claim that it is a play on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, as signposted by the statues the man and woman find so intriguing in the hotel’s grounds. The man represents Orpheus in that he must try to lead his lover (Eurydice) from the underworld (as represented here by the spa) and back to the upper world (which is the reality of what he is saying and the promise of their future together) but again he is doomed to fail.  For me personally, I feel the film is set in purgatory. Everyone behaves like ghosts or lost souls in limbo and it is clear that, a year earlier, a violent act (possibly rape and murder – it’s only ever hinted at by Resnais) occurred that the woman has understandably wiped from her memory, unfortunately along with everything else. Tasked with persuading her to accept what has gone before, the man ultimately finds it impossible to convince his lost love because he refuses to acknowledge his own guilt for the part he played in the trauma. As such, they are both destined to remain trapped between worlds where they are forced to repeat their moves over and over again.  This analogy seems to be backed up by Robbe-Grillet himself in his introduction to the screenplay published in 1962; “The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a persuading [“une persuasion”]: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words.”

Deeply influential (everything from Kubrick’s The Shining to Blur’s music video for their 1994 single To The End are said to owe a debt to this, and I sense British telefantasy like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner and Sapphire and Steel also have themes and tropes that can be traced back to this film) Last Year at Marienbad rightly deserves its classic status in the French New Wave movement. It boasts excellent cinematography from Sacha Vierny, elliptical editing from Jasmine Chasney and Henri Colpi, an atmospheric score from Francis Seyrig and excellent Munich locations. I can see why people do not like Last Year at Marienbad, because it is not an easy film experience that allows you to leave your brain at the door, and nor is it one that necessarily speaks to you on a personal level either. People will call it a puzzling film and that is ultimately the key; it is not a film that you can simply watch, it is a puzzle you must invest in totally.

So in conclusion, we watch films for a variety of reasons and our appreciation of film sometimes depends on whether that reason is met. And no, I don’t think I succeeded in writing a review for this without sounding pretentious.



Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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