Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad: Intertextuality via cinematic 'touchstone.'
Forget all prior claims you've read about Alain Resnais,” 90-minute, black-and-white effort L'année dernière à Marienbad / Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – from the bad to the good, from publicity nonsense which declaims the three main characters are named after letters (they are actually unnamed), and watch it raw, for only then you'll realize why greatness is its own company.
That's because the differences are minimal between the great Last Year at Marienbad, a work of art considered a cinematic high point, and Herk Harvey's 1962 B-horror film Carnival of Souls. Their similarities, on the other hand, are considerable, even though I doubt that Harvey had even seen Last Year at Marienbad while making his only feature. I say this because Last Year at Marienbad is one of those works of art that the moment it is experienced the viewer connects with it as something they feel has always been. It is like that tune you hear that becomes a Top 40 hit, and you swear you've known it for years.
Therefore, the fact that Last Year at Marienbad has been dubbed one of the most influential films of all time should not come as a surprise. Perhaps only Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and Frank Capra's It Happened One Night can claim to have been more influential. Yet, Last Year at Marienbad is less “influential” than it is a touchstone – a film that, before any other, reached a source common to the human experience.
In addition to Carnival of Souls, a number of other productions were profoundly influenced by – or rather, dipped their toes in the same waters as – Last Year at Marienbad. Those range from George Lucas,” THX-1138 to Kubrick's aforementioned 2001 and The Shining; from Ingmar Bergman's The Silence to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Even the brilliant 1967 British television series The Prisoner and the low-budget 1990s Canadian sci-fi feature Cube seem to have been influenced by Last Year at Marienbad in its M. C. Escherian manifolds. This is further proof that quality transcends ephemeral labeling.
Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad screenplay follows the workings of a symphony, with ideas and dialogue repeated in varying patterns and degrees – softly, loudly, enigmatically, and obviously – from the actual words and intonations of speech to the way shadows play along walls and the repeated game of cards or sticks. The one who wins is a nameless, swarthy Mediterranean type (Sacha Pitoëff), who seems to be the lover or husband of the female lead, an equally unnamed, beautiful brunette (Delphine Seyrig).
The man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who loses at the game seems to narrate a portion of the film: “I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century; this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors; silent deserted corridors.” This narration echoes numerous tracking shots of the hotel's corridors, and would be quoted in shots in The Silence and The Shining, as well as the latter-day Russian Ark.
As Last Year at Marienbad progresses, the man who lost the game seems intent on conquering the woman. He approaches her at a gathering, claiming they had been lovers the previous year at the Czechoslovakian town of Marienbad. The woman denies it, then seems to recall their relationship, only to deny it again. Thus begins the process of seduction and rejection.
Through several turns at this dance, the questioning grows more intense, and so does a series of brilliant flashbacks – or dreams. What makes them brilliant is that they are momentarily flashed, making the viewer experience the woman's near-recollection. Or is it not recollection, but wish fulfillment, in wanting to believe this delusional stranger?
The man claims she said she would leave her husband and run off with him. Cue the entrance of the first man, the one who always won at his game. Is this the woman's husband? The game continues.
Then, some elements seem to repeat and time distinctions blur as if the viewer and the characters are caught in some sort of Möbius strip. Another layer of the chronological conundrum comes not only from the temporal warp, but from the fact that the film's costuming and mannerisms, as well as a few other hints, seem to place Last Year at Marienbad in the late 1920s or early 1930s – not in the early 1960s.
Finally, all of these visual and narrative repetitions lead to a scene where the woman is set to meet the first man, who does not show up, and then runs off with the second man. We do not know if this is happening in the present, in the past (where she supposedly might later change her mind and set forth the film's “current” events), or in the mind or minds of one or more of the three main characters.
Naturally, critics were divided. Some have praised it as a masterpiece, while Pauline Kael and others have loathed it. Even worse than the divided critical opinion of Last Year at Marienbad is all of the bloated, pretentious, and nonsensical critical and theoretical writing the film has engendered. Terms like “psychoanalytic theory,” “phenomenology,” “critical social theory,” “Cartesian philosophy,” “stream of consciousness,” and “aesthetic philosophy” are bandied about in reviews, articles, and treatises on Resnais' film, even though it is clear the claimant has no real idea what the terms mean, twisting elements and scenes from Last Year at Marienbad to match whichever philosophic or political niche they inhabit.
Perhaps the greatest misclaim about Last Year at Marienbad is that it is about memory. It is not. There are possible memories shown, and the characters each disagree about what memories they claim are real or unreal, but the film never directly addresses that concept of memory, for even the flashbacks are only possible memories. They could just as well be fabrications or wishes.
Thus, memory is not the central issue; the nature of perception, the material vs. the immaterial, while related topics to memories are clearly not the same thing. Imagine, for example, someone claiming that it did not matter whether or not The Bridge on the River Kwai was set during the Second World War or the Korean War because, after all, it takes place in East Asia, around the middle of the twentieth century. That's about the magnitude of the difference between a claim that the film focuses on memory and versus a claim that it focuses on reality and perception. The former claim is about how one can experience the latter claim, while the latter claim is the concept itself.
The second greatest misclaim about Last Year at Marienbad is that it somehow represents a progression of sorts of the characters. That is false, since the film ends with the second man and the woman merely exiting the hotel into the darkness, an ending that emotionally resonates like Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte (another case of dipping into the same artistic well), released just a few months earlier. Given the film's nature, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility, for instance, that the finale actually took place a year earlier, thus setting up a similar situation a year from that time in which the same Möbian events would again unfurl.
Thus, even though Last Year at Marienbad employs elements of Modernism, Postmodernism, Symbolism, Surrealism, and a dozen or more minor schools of thought, it belongs to none of these schools. Perhaps the only -ism not attributed to the film is the one that makes the most sense for a work of art that looks at the same thing from multiple perspectives and then tries to parallax them all at once: Cubism.
But even that critical approach can only be used with limited success in a limited number of scenes, for all great art transcends the silly human desire to box things into a neat package ripe for a Madison Avenue slogan. With that in mind, Last Year at Marienbad offers no evolution of the plot or characters. It is a piece of Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence fit for inclusion in The Twilight Zone, or, even more aptly, the show that preceded that, One Step Beyond. There is no dramatic transformation, nor is there any transcendence.
Earlier in this piece, I linked Last Year at Marienbad to Carnival of Souls, which follows a woman in a trance-like state haunted by apparitions as she travels cross country after being the lone survivor of a car accident. Carnival of Souls boasts some keen cinematography, cheap but effective special effects, a psychological dream-like component that repeats images and motifs, and ends in an old funhouse pavilion on the Utah salt flats that greatly resembles the old hotel in Last Year at Marienbad. The film also has a male zombie who refuses to leave the woman alone, trying to seduce her into accepting her death.
The parallels are scary despite major differences in the two films' aims and accomplishments. In fact, it's undeniable that their makers dipped their quills into the same unconscious fountains. It is the artistic equivalent of convergent evolution, something far too many critics fail to see when trying to link individual artworks in a simplistic Linnaean fashion, rather than in a deeper cladistic one.
Thus, all reviews based upon ideas of influence or intentions of the filmmaker and/or screenwriter are mere piffle, for they avoid what is on screen. The meaning is the totality of the film, and in spite of the oddity of an apparent chronological sequence the relationship between the three main characters remains fixed even to the end – or, possibly, the re-beginning.
The score by Francis Seyrig (Delphine's brother) is stunning in all its permutations, but especially in the organ pieces and the haunting meld of sounds after emotional outbursts – e.g., in the shooting gallery. This stunningness starts right from the sci-fi-like opening-credits music, which gives way to a more 1940s themed intro.
Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad
Sacha Vierny's cinematography, combined with Jasmine Chasney's editing, produces indelible effects. For instance, there are a few passages that swiftly intercut the seeming past with the seeming present, usually with the woman at the center of both scenes. Although the images from both times last only a second or less, the fact that one is set in dark grays and blacks, and the other in beaming whites, mesmerizes the viewer because the flashes back and forth between the two, via direct cuts, subliminally impresses the imagery deeper into the psyche, cementing it there with the strobe-like effect that acts as a cauterizing agent.
Another excellent shot follows the second man and the woman into the hotel's lush Taj Mahal-like garden, where they see sculptures of stones and trees arranged in a geometric pattern. In a manner quite similar to the shadow work in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, made nearly thirty years earlier, the people out there cast long shadows but the sculptures do not.
Another interesting technical aspect of the film is that Last Year at Marienbad was filmed in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, allowing shots in which the three main characters can be seen together: each of them occupy a corner, unaware of one another's presence, thus adding depth to the drama. It's almost as if it's a deliberate split-screen construction, but one that is an organic part of the shot, not a forced imposition.
Elsewhere, there is a quickly repeated series of shots that fly down a dark corridor, as the camera appears to flow into the outstretched arms of the woman in her white boudoir – each take, however, is ever so slightly different from the one that precedes and follows it. (In Woody Allen's great Stardust Memories, this technique is adapted to show the mental breakdown of one of the protagonist's lovers.)
The Last Year at Marienbad DVD I watched is a Region 2 disc put out by Studio Canal. The company has done great restoration work, though there are some scratches here and there. The DVD offers an introduction by Ginette Vincendeau, a theatrical trailer, a black-and-white 1956 short by Resnais called Toute le mémoire du monde, and the documentary Dans le labyrinth de Marienbad, which is a flawed but overall good little feature.
It's a solid DVD package, but it could have reached the heights of the best DVDs from The Criterion Collection, Anchor Bay, and Kino had it only included a good audio film commentary track. Another minor annoyance is the absence of an English-language dubbed track. The white subtitles on the often blanched scenery is difficult to read about 15-20 percent of the time.
Aside from all the other schools and -isms that lay claim to it, the one Last Year at Marienbad is most often lumped with is the French New Wave, even though Resnais' film has only a marginal affinity with the early seminal works of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, Last Year at Marienbad takes deep advantage of its art form's past, subverting those forms in wholly opposite ways from those of the aforementioned directors, as well as artistically succeeding far beyond Truffaut's and Godard's efforts. In short, in this case a difference of degree does become a difference of kind as well.
That such an utterly timeless fictive film as Last Year at Marienbad came from Resnais, who also made the hopelessly dated documentary Night and Fog, shows the results of a director's willingness to change technique to address a certain subject. And Robbe-Grillet's dialogue, although elliptical, has a power and depth that would open wells that later experimental films, like Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, would also mine.
But as I admonished at the start, heed not any claims for Last Year at Marienbad, including mine. See it for yourself, for this is one of the great works of art that also acts as a de facto Rorschach Test for the percipient. Those addicted to the drudgery and predictability of formulaic Hollywood hackery will be bored senseless by it. The remaining 1 percent or less of us will recognize Last Year at Marienbad as the great work of art it is. Sometimes, exclusivity has its benefits.
© Dan Schneider
L'ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À MARIENBAD / LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961). Dir.: Alain Resnais. Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff. Scr.: Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this Last Year at Marienbad review was initially posted in July 2008.
1 Academy Award Nomination (1962)
Best Original Screenplay Alain Robbe-Grillet