LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) A
France Italy Germany Austria (94 mi) 1961 ‘Scope d: Alain Resnais
For me the film represents an attempt, still crude and primitive, to approach the complexity of thought and of its mechanisms. But I stress that it is only a small step forward compared to what we should achieve... In reality we don't think chronologically; our decisions never conform to an ordered logic. We all have factors which determine our being but are not successions of logical acts following a perfect sequence.
—Alain Resnais (Films & Filming, Feb. 1962)
To be or not to be: that is the question. This is a puzzling experimental film years ahead of its time, an exquisitely photographed existential reverie shot by cinematographer Sacha Vierny who literally explores the cavernous interior and geometric exterior of one of the more spectacularly palatial estates with his constantly roving camera, using equally oblique, rambling dialogue where actors resemble statues, all dressed in formal attire like fashion photo shoots, where they move slowly within a strictly defined space, usually to highlight the magnificent splendor of the onsite location of the New Schleißheim Palace, Oberschleißheim, Bavaria, Germany (Schleissheim Palace), the former summer residence of the rulers of Bavaria. This location was also used by Stanley Kubrick in PATHS OF GLORY (1957), again featuring the grandeur and immaculate opulence of the palace, including a highly ornate, marble-floored interior which was featured in the ballroom and courtroom scenes. (See also the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich.) Open to multiple interpretations, in my view Resnais uses this location as Salvador Dali would a dreamscape, a somber place where people are caught in a purgatory outside time, where they’re not really human, but the recollection of being human, a place where memory is constantly threatened with disappearing, the idea of being lost or forgotten. On occasion the black and white film is bleached white, where the faint outline of a shape is all that remains of a memory before it disappears from view. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum claims he has watched more repeated viewings of this film, also Tati's PLAYTIME (1967), than any other, considered among the all-time classics, but its utter detachment may leave many viewers completely cold.
There’s not much of a story, though it could be viewed as a ghost story, more likely it’s the suggestion of a memory, or a visualization of thought, thinking first one idea, then another, which is then analyzed from all angles through sight, sound, and speech. From the outset, while we listen to a repeating monologue that fades in and out of range that feels like a man stuck on the same page of his own diary, the camera moves slowly around the interior of the palace, gazing down endless corridors lined with statues, where the magnificent artwork and immense chandeliers are matched by the grand eloquence of huge marble stairways. The camera perfectly frames what we see offering a dazzling visual feast, especially a magnificent outdoor tableaux shot of people standing stationary on a gravel path, a shadow looming from each one, all set in a precisely configurated geometric pattern of perfectly sculptured trees, which strangely offer no shadows at all, outlining a neatly manicured garden. But what is a feast for the eyes is dramatically offsetting to the ears, as besides the constant drone of the single voice, it too is soon drowned out by the deafening, funereal sounds of a pipe organ (composed by the lead actress’s brother, Francis Seyrig) which plays throughout the entire film, like we’re subject to the mad ravings of a delirious funeral parlor organist (a stand-in for the director?). All the characters resemble the walking dead, dressed as they might be in their own coffins, where three central characters come into play. Giorgio Albertazzi is subject X, a man droning to himself in the opening who is in constant pursuit of subject A (Delphine Seyrig, who appears in a myriad of stunning costumes), yet she’s not sure she remembers him at all. He describes an elaborate series of meetings while on vacation in Marienbad last year where they had occasion to meet outdoors hidden underneath the overgrown brush of sumptuous gardens, stopping under each statue to happily declare their romantic intentions, where she was on the verge of leaving her husband, known only as M (Sacha Pito), who bears an eerie resemblance to John Carradine. After waiting a year, a challenge to his sincerity, he’s come to collect her, as they agreed to meet in this exact same spot one year later when she promised to run away with him, but now she’s not sure if any of this ever happened.
By the end of the film, we’re sure of even less, as after facing a state of perpetual ambivalence from A, X starts questioning his own recollections, though we see flashback images of their alleged meetings, even a photograph to attest to the truth, and a strange meeting in her bedroom where she’s dressed in a Bjork-like robe of white swan feathers, where on one occasion she resembles a panicked silent screen star about to be ravaged, where X is outraged in his recollection that nothing happened by force, but she may have been shot by her jealous husband who was lying in wait, where it is even suggested M may not be her husband. In another version of this same event she throws herself in his arms, but this image is disintegrating before our eyes, actually fading to white onscreen. But as she appears to be alive in the present, where that one photograph turns into a drawer filled with multiple copies of that same picture, one wonders if they might all be dead, if perhaps they’re all simply people’s recollections, alive only while someone remembers them. This might explain the continuous state of utter detachment from all of the characters. There are elaborate puzzles being played, including the most elegantly dressed players of pick up sticks one could ever imagine, perhaps accentuating the world of mathematical possibilities, suggesting there are an infinite number of variations of a thought, an idea, or a memory, all of which continues to keep changing over time, dwindling in significance over the years until eventually it fades from view altogether. Memories are held in near sacred reverence, but also suffer their own unique style of death. Time and memory are frequent Resnais themes, where in NIGHT AND FOG (1955), one of the most graphic depictions of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, he questions how long the Holocaust will continue to resonate in our minds, as time changes everything, frequently playing havoc with what we remember. According to Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice, “the film begins and ends in the brain of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the script,” as it’s literally an avant-garde exercise, where all could be real or imaginary, virtually dispensing with narrative altogether, where the viewer has the complete freedom to interpret what is being shown onscreen.