The reputation of “Last Year In Marienbad” is that it is an incredibly dense piece of work that is almost impenetrable. Because of this, it has always been a film that I was scared of. Although I knew of its reputation, I realized that I had no idea what the film was actually about, however because it seemed to be mentioned regularly when I was reading about other films that I liked, I made the assumption that it may be something that I would enjoy, or at least get something out of. It wasn’t until David Lynch’s name was mentioned in regards to the film, that sold me and I finally decided to watch it. What was I getting myself into?
Made in 1961 by director Alain Resnais, as his follow-up to his highly acclaimed debut feature, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, “Last Year In Marienbad” is unlike any other film before or after it. It is simply a sublime piece of art. It is all the more special because the viewer plays a huge part in the film’s story. Resnais has laid out all the clues for us to work out what exactly did happen at Marienbad a year earlier, and the viewer puts these clues together how he/she sees fit, making each interpretation of the story entirely subjective. My realization of all this came about after my first viewing of the film. Hearing for so long that it is near impossible to know what actually happened during the film, I was surprised that I had the story laid out in my mind so concretely. I assumed that the complexity of the film was overrated. It wasn’t until I was reading more about the film on the internet that I saw a huge number of different interpretations that could also reasonably fit with what I had just seen. This was amazing to me and I suddenly understood that the viewers own perceptions play an important role in “Last Year In Marienbad”.
The film begins at a gorgeous old (and what appears vacant) hotel, which the camera slowly tracks through, while an unseen narrator keeps repeating the same verses (or variations of the same verses). Since there is no context, these make little sense to the viewer. The way the film opens with this strange dialogue coupled with these gorgeous camera moves through the hotel, it sets the mood for the entire film, which although quite strange, is very beautiful. It almost feels as though you are watching a dream, and it sort of puts you into a trance.
Eventually we come across a play being performed which is where we find everyone and the “story” begins in earnest. An unnamed man (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) meets up with an unnamed woman (played by the exquisite Delphine Seyrig) and attempts to convince her that they have in fact met before – a year ago, in Marienbad, where the two of them had a passionate affair. The woman does not believe the man, as she has no memory of it, and insists that he has made a mistake. He disagrees and continues to try and convince her. That is the story in a nutshell and it is then up to you to work out what did actually happen at Marienbad, if anything at all. Do these two really know each other or is it this man’s fantasy? If they have in fact met before, why does the woman not remember? As I have mentioned, strange clues are spread throughout the film. For instance, we constantly hear certain lines repeated however often it is by a completely different person. There is a shooting (or is there two), or does someone fall to their death instead? A strange man is playing a card game which he never loses. Who is this man and what does the game represent? Why is the woman scared of the bedroom? These are just a select few to give you an idea of what the film is like, but it is these things that make the film so fascinating – answering these sorts of questions and then coming up with a whole theory. Below is my interpretation of what happened at Marienbad a year earlier, so if you want to make up your own mind as to what happened, stop reading now.
My theory is that the characters in the film are living in a kind of purgatory (they are lost souls), forced to re-live the moments that led them to be where they currently are. The man and the woman met a year prior in Marienbad, while the woman was holidaying with her husband, and there was an instant attraction between the two. After some persuasion by the man, she ends up having an affair with him. The two continue to secretly meet, but soon the husband begins to suspect something. With the holiday nearing its end, the couple make plans to rendezvous back in Marienbad in a year’s time, and if they both feel the same way as they do now, the woman will leave her husband for him. However with one night still remaining, they decide to meet one final time after the husband goes downstairs to gamble. The man goes to the woman’s room with the intention of sleeping with her. Although she is entwined in an emotional affair, the woman is reluctant to turn the relationship into a sexual one. Disappointed by this, the man then forces himself on the woman and ends up raping her. It is at that moment that the husband walks in and sees the two of them, and confusing the rape with normal intercourse, proceeds to shot the man and the woman, killing them both. It can then be assumed that the husband kills himself, because he too is in purgatory (he is the man who plays the card game – even in death you cannot beat him).
So that is my theory, but whether or not this is what Resnais had in mind while making it, I am not quite sure. What I like about the film is when the man starts getting confused with his own story when, like the woman, he begins to forget things (or is trying to forget certain things), and it is like he is trying to change the story to the way he wants it to turn out, not what actually happened.
As exciting as the story is, so is the level of filmmaking associated with the film. Probably the greatest thing about “Last Year In Marienbad” is Sacha Vierny’s gorgeous widescreen photography. The film, shot in glorious black and white, is just stunning to look at and without a doubt it is the main contributor towards the eerie atmosphere that permeates it. The performances in the film are all top notch but like the film itself, very strange. You wouldn’t call these naturalistic performances, but rather surreal performances, which suit the story perfectly. In fact I guess this describes everything about the film, it is bizarre, but so perfect (and beautiful to match). The script is by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and although I have had no prior knowledge of his work before this, after doing some research I’ve found out that these kinds of stories are his specialties, and he has written a number of novels that are similar to “Last Year In Marienbad” (which was an original screenplay). I seriously have no idea how you would begin to write something like this and keep it all together so it can make sense. I suppose that job is easy compared to that of Alain Resnais, who must also keep it together, but find a way to translate the story into visuals that the viewer may find initially strange, but is able to make sense of after putting it together with other parts of information fed throughout the films duration, until the finale when the strange puzzle pieces can be put together and the story suddenly makes sense. He does an immaculate job in this department, all the more so, by leaving the story open to multiple interpretations, which is the reason for this film’s lasting legacy. Resnais is often cited as being part of the French New Wave, which is true, but “Last Year In Marienbad” was so far away (in style and content) from anything being made by the rest of those filmmakers during that time, that you would have had trouble picking it. It is actually hard to believe that this was only Resnais’s second feature, because his direction is so assured and never falters, although ironically, when he talks about the film today, he refers to it as a “failed experiment”.
David Lynch’s name was the catalyst to me finally seeing this film, and although I have never heard him talk about it publicly, it would definitely appear as though Lynch has been heavily influenced by “Last Year In Marienbad”. His films share the same sort of eerie atmosphere and feeling of dread, while at the same time being very beautiful and dream-like. There is also a scene in “Last Year In Marienbad” where we see a shot of a bedroom in the daytime, which quickly morphs into a nightmare version of the same room in the night, which is quite scary, and very reminiscent of Lynch’s work, especially a very similar scene in “Rabbits”.
This was once a film I was terrified of, but after finally taking the plunge and seeing it, I can now see why it has the reputation it does, and it is a film that I will be re-visiting regularly in the future. I know some people can have a hard time with films like this, and it is often asked if you can truly enjoy something that you do not fully understand. The answer to this is a resounding “Yes!”, and “Last Year In Marienbad” is quite simply a masterpiece of film and I loved every second of it.