Film Reviews

Last Year at Marienbad Alain Resnais

Rating - 10/10

Deriving its intentions from the radical 'nouveau roman' literary movement, Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad is a stylistically intrepid, surrealist avant-garde product of the French New Wave.  Exemplified by its lack of character names, estranged narrative structure, emphasis on lavish camera movements and poetically stilted dialogue, the film emerges as a stunning meditation on the essence and power of form and burgeoning sentimentalities of a transforming world of cinema.  Intellectually driven, ambiguous, and chronologically disorienting, Last Year at Marienbad's iconoclastic elements were inevitably a chore for audiences to deconstruct and interpret at time of release, but dialogue in the film openly exposes a tale of unrequited lust, emotional repression, and subjective versus objective reality (or memory).  The juxtaposition of Sacha Vierny's brilliant black and white cinematography aids the film particularly well, simultaneously elucidating and mystifying the presence of time and space.  Progressively emphasizing the obscure and arcane, the film introduces viewers to the theoretical and fantastical idea of the future confronting the past.  Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau makes light of potential readings in a parallel Criterion Collection video interview, suggesting a representation of contemporary anxieties in the nuclear age and an oblique violently sexual incident inhibited by the female protagonist "A" (Delphine Seyrig).

Commencing with its proposals laid bare, a man's voice (the nameless "X") echoes over the opening credits, verbosely describing the historic opulence and of an anonymous château, which is subsequently immortalized visually through a series of slow tracking shots of ceiling frescos, baroque architecture, furniture, and mirrors.  Francis Seyrig's ominous organ drone analogously lures viewers into a beautifully vacant, singular and almost terrifying atmosphere.  Following the opening visualizations, the camera gently descends on a formally dressed and statuesque audience attending a play entitled Rosmer as X's voiceover continually loops the same poetic rhetoric that opened the film.  Breaking from the lavish descriptions of the hotel, he speaks of a woman in these moments.  "I was waiting for you far from this setting in which I now find myself... will you come?"  Resnais' technique in these eight minutes immediately approaches the avant-garde and attempts to reconstruct cinematic form in an open-ended artistic manner.  In interviews, Resnais stated that his creation of Last Year at Marienbad was a desire witness the resulting creative offspring from the exercise.  Although this notion sounds rather trivial in the entire landscape of cinema, it is quite audacious, particularly because Resnais' explorative vision helped shape the emerging French New Wave scene in 1961 and illuminate the 'nouveau roman' literary style.  Comparatively, both movements expressed disdain for realist traditions in favor of the experimentation with form to create a singular "art house" impression.  In this case, Resnais' direction masterfully complements Alain Robbe-Grillet's ambiguous screenplay, which promotes the analysis of human behavior and mistaken intentions as much as its own indulgent declarations.

Through the dominance of male narrator, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), the film comes to revolve around a subjective retelling of a meeting between two people that may or may not have occurred.  X's motive to attract the object of his affection, "A," is compromised by his relentless adoration and obsession that eventually turns maddening.  His suspicions of her potential husband, emotional confusion, and other unfounded assumptions converge in the sequence "A broken glass," which integrates a rapid series of split-second flashback cutaways that angelically frame "A" bathed in a white light in a grand bedroom.  The potency of the transition can be attributed to the cinematography's contrast of the murky shadowed scene of the present with the fondly glowing one of the past, but the cutaways also serve to disturb the nature of time.  The dozen cutaways are implemented so quickly and sporadically that they increasingly appear to be superimposed over the present, and this technique distinctly correlates with the idea of the present or future confronting the past.  To coincide further with that notion, X's riveting role as the first-person narrator gradually becomes obscured, because his oversight clarifies the events of scene in which he does not participate, yet he is blind to A's ambitions in the scenes in which he delivers voiceover.  In a sense, one could label the implementation of his narration as an exercise in which a character exists in present time with possession of future knowledge and therefore narrating it omnisciently; concurrently, Resnais emphasizes the unreliability of his recollection through a series of cuts from different physical locations which are then integrated to provide the semblance of a cohesive landscape.  This marriage of images provides a segue or vehicle to achieve a cumulative magnitude that is more resonant than the individual fractions.

Film critic Mark Polizotti more thoroughly concentrates on the discrepancies of time and place in his essay, "Which year at where?" for Criterion.  He writes:

The more evidence X provides as proof of veracity, the more discrepancies emerge... Incidents and settings frequently repeat, but their details change disconcertingly between one iteration and the next: A's remembered bedroom veers from bare to baroque; the hotel gardens sometimes boast a maze of shrubbery, sometimes grand alleys as stiff and straight as the gentlemen's tuxedos.

Polizotti appropriately frames the minutiae of Marienbad as amorphous and variable; while X dictates loving detail in the narration that overlaps with the opening credits, his increasing unreliability is a sign of general disconcertion.  As a result, the work progressively becomes a surrealist tale of identity and persuasion.  To aid the development of anxiety and shifting identities, the film makes light of a concept called 'mise en abyme,' which equates to "hall of mirrors."  The presence of mirrors in the château is unmistakable; "A" is first introduced as an object in a mirror, and future portrayals of her occasionally result in the multi-angled reflections from the intrusion of mirrors in every room.  Additionally, the mise en abyme terminology suggests a method of repeating images within images (or story within a story), which primarily furnishes the film's illusory qualities.  The paintings of the interiors and garden of the hotel, statuesque people, and circuitous dialogue expound the visceral self-awareness of the screenplay while also allowing the images to amass in a large alluring enigmatic reference.

As Ginette Vincendeau concludes in her video interview, Last Year at Marienbad fosters several suggestions that allude to the act of rape as an indication of A's repression.  Recent feminist literary readings have withdrawn the potency of the hypothetical violent incident involving a gun within the film as well as the inexorable presence of X at A's side in order to seduce her or kindle something dormant.  "Leave me alone," she urges more than once.  The final scenes in the film do little to firmly portray or define the absolute validity of a feminist reading, because Last Year at Marienbad's ambiguity remains steadfast beyond the last haunting words of its tormented narrator.  The only certainty is the impact on filmmakers who identified with Resnais' minimalist exercise; Jim Jarmusch's recent Limits of Control decidedly acts as an offhanded ode to Resnais and general European filmmaking.  Jarmusch deconstructs his film to its essence while stripping characters of their names and leaving the viewer to decipher the lone man's mysterious meetings and visits to art museums to gaze at certain portraits that accrue as premonitions or mood reflections.  Last Year at Marienbad is a transcendent collaboration between revolutionary artists like Resnais and Robbe-Grillet who each understood that in order for cinema to progress, it must be dismantled and reconstituted with a high innovative regard; an intellectual evolution must prevail that implicates more than it clearly identifies, and the film miraculously stands as one of the great landmarks of '60s world cinema.