1 Hr., 30 Mins.
lain Resnais always said that his second feature film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961), was never supposed to be about anything in particular. Said Resnais to François Chalaid in a 1961 television interview: “Each spectator can find his own solution, and it will in all likelihood be a good one. But what’s certain is that the solution won’t be the same for everyone. My solution is no more of interest than that of any other viewer.”
But in spite of Resnais’ insistence that he, along with the movie’s
screenwriter, the Nouveau Roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, would rather we try
not to look too deeply into what the exact intentions were, Last Year at Marienbad has continued to be picked and prodded at for at almost six decades. That’s understandable: It’s difficult to watch the film without trying to wring some sort of meaning out of it.
Consider: In Last Year at Marienbad, time and space nonchalantly merge. We witness what we think are the outcomes of various kismets, though none are really explained. The setting is an over-decorated schloss of a hotel that interiorly resembles the environs of Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). The intricate construction is ceaselessly commented upon via voiceover, as if Robbe-Grillet wanted us to look at this ornate expanse not as a cinematic setting but a celestial body. The ample background extras often unnaturally freeze in place like statues, used as frames to outline the melodramas experienced by the central characters.
And the primary storyline involves an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) trying to convince a woman at the hotel (Delphine Seyrig) that she is his old lover. Just a year ago, apparently, the two had agreed to meet again at this luxe chateau if they were interested in continuing their affair. Yet the woman says she cannot remember him, let alone this ultimatum. Another man, who is also unnamed and who might be the woman’s husband, always butts in at just the wrong times. He dominates the woman and always undermines the other man.
Some find Last Year at Marienbad’s enigmas infuriating — so much so that the movie might seem pointless. Wrote Geoff Andrew of Time Out: “Obscure, oneiric, it's either some sort of masterpiece or meaningless twaddle.” But most, myself included, continue to be seduced by the film’s refusal to be anything other than a much-ornamented, pointedly artificial prism. Is this because Resnais and Robbe-Grillet so subversively made a movie meant to be experienced, not understood? Because the design is so otherworldly, and, surprisingly, immersive? Because the mysterious, sort of chichi, not-in-love-but-maybe-in-love lovers at the center are so beautiful to behold, their ennui almost appealing?
The less I think about Last Year at Marienbad, the better it becomes: I desire to wear it as if it were an item of clothing, its effortlessly glamorous and becomingly mysterious textures ones I’d like to carry around with me.
Interpretation is still difficult to avoid, though. I look at the room-heavy, corridor-dense quasi-palace as a representation of our memory banks — overflowing and characterized by as many things we’d rather not revisit as things we’d like to experience again someday. Albertazzi is a stand-in for us; Seyrig is an embodiment of a romanticized days past into which we wish we could disappear. (Depending on your stance, Seyrig could very well represent an old lover you long for, matching at least a portion of the film’s conceit.)
But she could also be, in many ways, a personification of a general time in your life you’d like to believe was better than the way things are now. You might do everything in your power to recreate that ideal past. But there comes a crushing moment when you understand that whatever this idyll you’ve painted in your mind is something better left remembered than re-experienced.
But even then, it is not what Last Year at Marienbad might appear to be “about” that makes it so timelessly mystifying. What allows it to continue provoking so effectively, I think, is how masterfully its makers conjure a miasma of mystery that invites rather than shuts out. As I got lost in the hallways of the film’s mythic mansion, I couldn’t help but think of the arcane televised world of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-’91). Frost and Lynch, like Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, stitched together a warped dreamworld comprised of little sense and yet has sustainably electrified us all these years later. What is it that enables these filmmakers to simultaneously baffle and thrill? Keeping in touch with the much-discussed fondness for ambiguity, I’d rather that question remain unanswered. A+