If reviewing Last Year at Marienbad has any solace for the critic it is this; the reviewer doesn’t have to worry about spoilers. One can describe this film frame by frame and the reader of the review still wouldn’t know the story. This is because nobody, including Alain Resnais, can say what really happened in this masterpiece of ambiguity. Such is the effect of this film that intellectuals are still arguing about its meaning nearly five decades after the initial release in 1961.
The basic plot is as follows. In an eerily baroque hotel, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) encounters A (Delphine Seyrig). X insists that they met last year at another spa (maybe Marienbad but who can say?) and that A had promised to run off with him last year. A initially denies any memory of this, but her resistance is worn down in the course of the movie. A is possibly married to M (Sacha Pitoeff) but again nothing is sure.
As X tells A his memories of last year, we are yanked back and forth through time, the lighting changes at strange intervals, the whole cast is locked in a tableau, then some actors move while others are frozen. Our senses become confused as well as our ability to determine time and place. Even the shadows are wrong. All of this is just caused by the cinematography; it’s as if M.C. Escher had been given a camera and had run amok with it. Throw in some esoteric organ music and all is surreal and bewildering.
The disorientation is topped off by the surreal nature of X’s recollections. Did X and A have an affair and plan to run off together? Were they discovered by M, who shoots A in jealous rage? Did X stalk and rape A? Is X truly recounting what happened, or is it his fantasy, or even a pack of lies?
Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection
Is A in denial, suppressing the traumatic memory of rape or just leading X on? What the hell does M think of all of this and why is he constantly playing Nim? This game is deceptively simple yet mathematically complex. Why does M always win? Is it significant? Does the ending actually happen or is it just the fevered imagination of X?
None of these questions are answered. They are discussed in great detail in the extra features but while hints are offered, nothing is resolved. The film scholar Ginette Vincendeau discusses the film at length and seems to be leaning in one direction but is too unsure to make a firm declaration.
Resnais’ collaborators tell us a great deal of interest but are as confused about the film’s meaning as we are. In a fascinating yet non-illuminating interview, Resnais speaks of how this film is like a Rorschach test; what it means depends on who watches it.
This statement is cause for both alarm and relief, at least for this viewer. The relief comes from the fact that there is no answer. The alarm comes from my belief that I was watching a strange horror movie. Resnais thought it was a love story. This proves two things. First, I am way too morbid even in therapy and on medication and second, that the French are scarier than I thought.
There are some elements of horror in the movie. The first eight minutes are reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Outsider. Stanley Kubrick plucked huge parts of Last Year at Marienbad to make his version of The Shining. The stylized poses and stillness of the actors, though inspired by the renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca, are still rather eerie.
The film is also influenced by the silent movie, Pandora’s Box and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. A more unusual inspiration is the Mandrake the Magician series of comic books. From this rich mix of mystery, Resnais weaves a tapestry of chilling beauty. The imagery of the film is lush yet formal and disciplined (formal surrealism?) making the visual impact of the film quite unnerving.
Another mysterious aspect is Albertazzi’s narration and much of his speech. He always returns to two themes: the atmosphere of the hotel and his first encounter with A. It’s a constantly repeating liturgy, spoken over and over again with only minor variations throughout the film. The effect is that of an intelligent and cultured man in the grips of an obsession. Albertazzi does not so much act as he haunts, like a poor ghost eternally stuck in repetition.
So in sum Last Year at Marienbad is a mysterious artifact. Its realm is that of the early post modern era when the concrete certainties of the modern world were destroyed and replaced only with ambiguity. As such, it is a true masterpiece. For in a way this film shows us how we live now.
We are like fish swimming in oceans of uncertainty, coasting on currents of doubt. In our times certainty is either a pose or an indication of ignorance. To see this depicted by people for whom this condition is new is, perhaps, the most mysterious and chilling aspect of the film. But then, nobody can be sure …