“I could never have shot this film if I had not been convinced that their meeting had actually taken place.” - Alain Resnais, director of Last Year at Marienbad
I met the man who figured out Last Year at Marienbad. He said he could tell me what it meant, but then he’d have to kill me. I said, “Okay, but it better be good.” And so he told me, but then he didn’t. I was shot dead, but then I wasn’t.
The film, from 1961 by French New Wave director Alain Resnais (from a script by the Alain Robbe-Grillet), is without plot and convention, character names and motives. What we’re left with then is the question, “Didn’t we meet at Marienbad last year?”
It is asked by X (Giorgio Albertazzi) to A (Delphine Seyrig). Or maybe it was Frederiksbad they met. Or in a dream. Or never at all. X remembers the gardens where he first saw her, and recalls her precise pose and what they discussed. He tells her she promised to leave her husband (Sacha Pitoëff, maybe). “You must be mistaken,” she says. “Try to remember,” he insists.
He vividly recalls a conversation they had interpreting a statue of a man and a woman. X thinks the man is holding the woman back from harm. A is sure the woman is pointing to something marvelous. “Both were possibilities.”
The possibilities and interpretations of Last Year at Marienbad have been--and remain--infinite. Some suggest that the luxurious château in which the film takes place is haunted, each character a trapped spirit. Others see more significance in the opening theatre scene, suggesting that the entire film is really a play for the viewer. Others note the repetition in dialogue, action, and the use of mirrors throughout. Others who refuse to surrender themselves to the mood are too infuriated to finish it. There are no real clues, and thus debate is pointless and resolution unattainable.
Even as much as the surrealism, the technical aspects are also part of the allure of Last Year at Marienbad. It is gorgeously photographed in widescreen black and white by Sacha Vierny, who had collaborated with Resnais before (most notably on 1959’s Hiroshima mon amour). Vierny encompasses the glamorous château with a tracking camera, capturing those that are there and yet not visible, those that are speaking and yet not audible, those that are breathing and yet not alive, like Stanley Kubrick would mimic two decades later in The Shining, another haunted palace story with a questionable history.
No one will ever truly figure out Last Year at Marienbad. And if they did, they’d keep it to themselves, for fear that the decline of film criticism and the art film would rest on their conscience.
“Make of it what you will,” said Resnais. “Whatever you decide is right.” But then again not.
Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad (HD; 32:37): Interviewees, including assistant directors Jean Lèon and Volker Schlöndorff, discuss working with and the style of their collaborator, Alain Resnais.
Ginette Vincendeau on Last Year at Marienbad (HD; 23:02) might be the first feature many watch, as the film scholar notes in detail the many interpretations of Marienbad: A commentary on the Nuclear Age? A document on “the power of cinema”? A “violently sexual” account of repressed rape?
Documentary Films (HD): Included here are two documentaries--1956’s Toute la mémoire du monde (20:57) and ‘58’s Le chant du Styrène (13:37)--that will fit right in with the Resnais buffs.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 44-page booklet with an essay titled “Which Year at Where?” by critic Mark Polizzotti, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to his screenplay, and an afterword from film scholar François Thomas.