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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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