Last Year In Marienbad (1961)

Director:  Alain Resnais
Cast:  Delphine SeyrigGiorgio AlbertazziSacha Pitoëff
Plot:  In a huge, old-fashioned luxury hotel a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him.

Genre:  Drama 
Awards:  Won Golden Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Original Screenplay.
Runtime:  94min
Rating:  PG for some mature themes.
International Sales:  Tamasa Distribution

If you were to ask me which is the best film ever made by Alain Resnais, the answer is right here.  The legendary ‘French New Wave’ icon has made several influential films including Hiroshima mon amour (his most well-known), but Last Year In Marienbad is in my opinion his masterpiece. 

Made in 1961, it received a solitary Oscar nomination for the original screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet.  The film works more like experimental cinema than one for the art-house crowd.  Over the years, Last Year In Marienbad has neither lost its aura nor charm. 

Resnais’ often revisits themes of memory, time, and imagination in his films. But nothing he has done in his career in cinema comes close to what he has achieved in Last Year In Marienbad

Using a non-chronological structure for its story and dismissing objective reality, Resnais successfully attempts to weave a unique variation of the standard ‘love triangle’ scenario.  He replaces conventional, slow flashbacks with instantaneous ‘flash-ins’ that can cut into the narrative suddenly. 

These ‘flash-ins’ allow filmmakers to present something essential to character or story development that is appropriate to reveal at that instance.  This technique is so influential that it has become a staple in contemporary filmmaking. 

Last Year In Marienbad has a strong Gothic feel to it.  The costumes and décor are stylishly baroque and the haunting organ music echoes along the endless walkways that characterize the vast mansion where the film is set. 

The black-and-white cinematography has a certain dream-like quality that blurs the line between what is reality and fantasy.  Midway into the film, there is a short still shot of a large geometrically-shaped landscape garden with several people standing in it, frozen in time.  

What is so stunning (or unsettling) about this scene is that while the shrubs and statues have shadows cast on the ground, there are no shadows cast by the people. 

Last Year In Marienbad is a hypnotic excursion to the unknowns of the past, present, and the uncertain future.  Resnais’ steady and fluid Kubrickian tracking shots in the mansion are unforgettable, forcing viewers to bury themselves in a potent mix of satisfying puzzlement and haunting unease.  Till this day, the film’s greatness still remains. 

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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daniel said…
Wow! I'm impressed that you like this film. The cinematography is great, though it was a snooze fest. I felt the same way too with La Strada and Rules of the game too (ive also seen both of your fantastic reviews) I might be giving these films another shot. Could you rank this 3 films according to your preference; which would you recommend? Thanks a lot !!
Eternality said…
Hi Daniel, thanks for reading. It has been a long time since I last saw the three films that you mentioned. But if I were to revisit these films again, I would pick in the order: (1) La Strada, (2) Rules of the Game, and (3) Last Year at Marienbad.

However, in terms of which film is better in my opinion, I would rank them as such: (1) Last Year at Marienbad, (2) La Strada, and (3) Rules of the Game.

If you have time to only re-watch one film, choose La Strada.

daniel said…
Thanks to you, i re-watched this film and i appreciate it much more than the last time. Its hypnotic brillance astounds me. What do you think happens in this film? What are your interpretations of it? Ive heard a couple of interpretations of this film from different perspectives so i'm curious to know what you think of it.
Eternality said…
I am glad that you liked the film. It's quite a complex film to interpret, thematically or symbolically, so I will not attempt to try to. It's really beyond my level. Besides I haven't seen the film in almost 3 years.

But what I loved is how Resnais played around with the idea of cinematic time - flashbacks, flashforwards, tracking shots, quick inserts - until one is completely dazed but hypnotized by the whole experience. What is real time? What is a dream? Is it a nightmare? Is time bound by physicality? Or is it better understood in terms of metaphysics or subjective psychology, something that is not bound by the rules of reality?
daniel said…
Well, here's my interpretation of it:
Basically in this film, X comes to take away A from her supposed husband M. She denies, he insists. Gradually, he starts convincing her that they both have met last year at fredericsbad, marienbad or some other place. Slowly, she yields, but still in denial. Towards the end, X fumbles and starts having doubts in his story. The film ends as X takes A away in the night.

Now, how i see it is that this entire film purely exists in the mind of X. X recalls his meeting with A through flashbacks and double flashbacks, and his slow narrative guides the viewer through the barroque hotel like an invisible hand. The 'dreamlike' sequences have a surreal feel, and the deadpan expressions of the guests all serve to illustrate that it is X who is recalling the past incident from different perspectives, all of which are fabricated by himself only.

What i like about this film is that everything, and almost everything, is subjected to change without notice. Conversations which take place in a scene seem to describe a totally different scene, distorting the viewer's perception between what he sees on screen and the narration.

Why then do i say that this film is X's dream? Whether or not a murder took place in the film is uncertain. Was A murdered by X, or by her husband M who knew of her relationship with X, or did A successfully escape with X? The answer is unclear. However, i feel that a murder indeed took place. The deadpan expressions, the gloomy style, the man who always seem to win the match-stick game, the confining rooms, endless corridors which seem to entrap them all seem to hint that the place is like a cemetary. We can even argue that X is death itself, who comes after one year on the same day to take away A.

I interpret it as X trying to reconcile himself with the fact that A was murdered. His regret manifested on the screen when we hear him fumbling towards the end. "No, no... but you werent dead. That was not how it ended", a strange line uttered by the narrator X. And the viewer is invited to live in his memory, and sub-consciously, we the audience are fooled by him. In a certain sense, the whole premise of this film is for X to convince us that he did not inevitably cause the death of A. The judgment therefore lies with us, to choose how it ended, what the "correct" story should be.

What Resnais did here is absolutely remarkable. Not only did he manage to break the fourth wall, he made a film which actually engaged, baffled, frustrated viewers (myself included) to analyse it. Resnais has explicitly said that there is no symbolism in this film. However, it has not stopped many critics and fans from analysing it. I've heard many opinions. I think the above interpretation is the most succinct and logically, and i hope to share it with you. But heck, this film defies logic. Everything seems so opaque, yet so clear, as if everything made sense.

I hope you will spend some time reading this, probably agreeing or disagreeing with it. That's the beauty of art films; the argument, the immense joy of taking apart a movie and giving your opinion on it. Cheers!
Eternality said…
I need to relook the film again if I have the chance. I can't offer any opinion now, so I can't agree or disagree with you. But I must say that your interpretation is excellent.

I wanted to curate this film for Perspectives Film Festival 2010, but unfortunately it was not in my A-list.

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