Last Year in Marienbad Review
After a prolific career as a short form documentarian, Alain Resnais boldly made the jump to narrative features with his iconic 1959 debut Hiroshima Mon Amour. A metatextual anti-war film set against the backdrop of Japan during World War II, it dramatised many of his own socio-political beliefs that had such a significant bearing on his documentary work - most notably 1957’s Night and Fog, which remains cinema’s most essential account of the holocaust, despite its brief half an hour running time.
Following his debut, Resnais made an uncharacteristic move for his sophomore feature, stripping away any overt political commentary in order to make something much more experimental. Last Year in Marienbad was devised by two of the director’s stylistic impulses; the first was to make a film that followed dream logic, spontaneously jumping from one location to another mid-scene, with no explanation. The second was to hire an untested screenwriter, in this case novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, in order to devise a “new cinematic language” that could support such a break from convention.
Close to sixty years following its initial theatrical release, and Last Year in Marienbad remains an impenetrable enigma. Rereleased in the era of YouTube “explainer” videos, where amateur sleuths aim to uncover definitive meanings in deliberately ambiguous works of cinema, Resnais’ film only feels all the stronger as a result. There is no conclusive manner in which you can understand this narrative, and yet the visual grandeur and technical intricacies with which this story is told makes trying to decipher a definitive meaning feel besides the point. It’s a work whose screenplay is written in a distinctively literary fashion, and yet it feels like cinema in its purest form - never less than ravishing, despite strategically holding the audience at arm’s length.
After being led through the grandiose interiors of a gorgeous countryside hotel, we are introduced to two unnamed characters; a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), and a woman (Delphine Seyrig), labelled “X” and “A” in the screenplay but never referred to by any moniker here. The man is confused by why the woman doesn’t recognise him, after they had a passionate affair in Marienbad the previous year - but she remains none the wiser, and clueless as to the man’s claims. From there, we watch their relationship unfold in two indistinctive timeframes, and the film never informs us what is present, what is past, and whether these two lost souls ever spent any time together before this meeting.
One of the reasons trying to decipher a meaning is pointless is largely because, as the Blu-ray’s special features attest, Resnais himself was uninterested in uncovering the nature of the central relationship. He’d hired two script editors who could map out which costumes fit which scenes, without ever knowing whether a specific sequence was a flashback, or unfolding in the present - then further obfuscated a longing for understanding by liberally applying poetic voiceover (the sight of characters directly conversing is rare here), as well as mirroring certain shots within the distinctive timeframes. It remains one of the most impressive directorial achievements, perfectly translating the nature of an impenetrable screenplay to the medium, without ever getting a firm hand on the puzzle at its core.
The influence of Marienbad looms large over arthouse cinema to this day. In terms of obvious influences, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy took the central confused relationship dynamic drama and crafted something altogether more playful, if equally illusive. The very nature of the film, with all the drama unfolding in the cavernous interiors or endless grounds of unnamed luxury hotels, also compares to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel a few years later - a socio-political comedy depicting a party where none of the upper class guests were able to leave.
Some viewers have gone so far as to interpret Resnais’ film as a ghost story; the lack of clarity on the period in which the film has set, and the fact the characters don’t leave the grounds, has led to intensive analysis arguing the theory that they are spirits cursed to remain in the hotel forever. With this theory in mind, to a modern viewer, Last Year in Marienbad looks distinctively like a precursor to Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Even on an aesthetic level, with ominous tracking shots down the hotel’s many indistinctive corridors, you can see where Kubrick may have got visual inspiration for his portrayal of the Overlook Hotel, and his pioneering use of steadycam.
The lack of a distinctive time period makes it harder to assess as a clear socio-political allegory that would more neatly fit into this early period of Resnais’ filmography. Arguably, the commentary on offer (if there is any to offer), could be as simple as the timeless critique of wealthy people being so absorbed by their problems, they conceal themselves from the horrors of the world outside. With the luxurious French countryside filming locations, and the dreamlike imagery of guests standing motionless while one person walks by, this is likely an influence on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette biopic in terms of both biting, cynical thematic interpretations and on the subtly hallucinatory nature of its visual aesthetics.
Decades after its initial release, and it’s still not possible for mere mortals to understand the true meaning behind Last Year in Marienbad. But as a pioneering work of cinema, it remains essential viewing regardless; a dense, difficult film that you’ll find yourself wanting to get lost within, even while knowing you’ll never find a way out.
Bonus Features: Not a comprehensive selection of bonus features, but enough to give as deep an insight as possible into a film peculiarly averse to analysis. A featurette on Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet sees fans and theorists delve in deep on their inspired collaboration, with two additional features on the film. The bigger draw is the beautiful remasters of two Resnais short documentaries that preceded Marienbad; the technicolor wonder of The Styrene's Song, and his Parisian library documentary All the Memory of the World. Neither is essential to his filmography, but both come highly recommended regardless.