Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad)

Last Year at Marienbad
(L’année dernière à Marienbad)
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Alain Robbe-Gillet
Stars: Delphine Seyrig (A / Woman), Giorgio Albertazzi (X / Stranger), Sacha Pitoëff (M / Escort / Husband), Françoise Bertin (Un personnage de l’hôtel)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: France / Italy
Last Year at Marienbad Criterion Collection DVD
Have we met?Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad), the second feature film directed by the great French New Wave pioneer Alain Resnais and the first written by famed novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, is more than anything designed to provoke a response. When it was first released in 1961, which barely happened given that French distributors rejected it until it caused a stir on the festival circuit and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, audiences and critics were sharply divided: Had they just witnessed the unveiling of a new modern masterpiece, a literal reinvention of the parameters of cinematic language, or had they just toiled through 94 minutes of silly artistic pretension, a film with no point and no meaning that duped its admirers into thinking they had seen something important when in fact it was just empty nonsense? The division was so stark, in fact, that the French newspaper La Monde actually conducted a poll after the film had been in release for nearly a year and then printed a full-page spread of the film’s “pros” and “cons.” And this, more than anything, is what I think Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were aiming for: They wanted to make a film that would incite and provoke and get people talking and arguing about what it all means, and they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The story is purposefully, almost blatantly, simple in construction, yet so fundamentally open to interpretation that it can sustain virtually any reading you want to apply to it. The entirety of the story’s events takes place inside an enormous baroque hotel that is populated by wealthy patrons in tuxedoes and evening gowns who are less human beings than they are attractive mannequins who move and talk. The two main characters are a woman (Delphine Seyrig) and a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who are referred to as A and X in the screenplay, but are never called by any names in the film itself. According to the man, the two of them met before, one year ago exactly, in fact, when they had a passionate love affair and decided to meet again a year later to determine if it was just a fling or something more meaningful. The woman, however, who is accompanied by a cadaverous man (Sacha Pitoëff) who may or may not be her husband, has absolutely no recollection of this and protests the man’s stories. He refuses to relent, pursuing her with the memories of their encounter, the details of which begin to slide around and morph as the film progresses.

Given its focus on memory and the slippery division between reality and fantasy, Last Year at Marienbad plays as a natural extension of the ideas and themes in Resnais’ first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), which told the story of a French actress’s affair with a Japanese architect in the shadow of postwar Japan and was scripted by the novelist Marguerite Duras (it is often considered the starting point of the French New Wave). In both films Resnais’ intellectual preoccupations with the fragmented nature of memory and the unreliability of human relationships are heightened and reflected in his powerful and sometimes maddening visuals. While Marienbad is often described as a film about three characters (the man, the woman, and the husband), there is arguably a fourth character in the hotel itself, which is actually comprised of several different German palaces (including Nymphenburg Palace and Schleissheim Palace in Munich and the Oranienburg Palace in Oranienburg). Resnais and his cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who would later become Peter Greenaway’s favorite collaborator) construct the film out of precise compositions and slow-moving tracking shots that move throughout the hotel, making its extended hallways and cavernous rooms seem pulsating and alive, a trick that Stanley Kubrick would later employ in The Shining (1980). It is not surprising, then, that Last Year at Marienbad has been described at times as a horror film, since it creates an increasingly profound sense of unease as the characters struggle to find some of kind of understanding that is destined for perpetual ambiguity.

Hence the film’s consistent stature in the annals of both great modernist masterworks and ridiculous disasters. Interpretations of the film vary widely--running the gamut from “the man is lying to the woman to seduce her” to “the man is from an alternate time dimension”)--and for some making sense of the various explanations is more intriguing than watching the film itself, which is so stately, measured, and focused that it is either mesmerizing or sleep-inducing. My experience was more of the former, as Resnais’ elegant tracking shots amid the baroque architectural excesses that frame the film’s lingering questions drew me into a world of mystery that seems to be ultimately understandable, yet constantly unravels at every turn. It is not by accident that a subplot in the film revolves around the game of Nim, which appears on the surface to be a game of simple strategy and chance, but is actually a highly complex game of mathematical precision, which is the best possible description I can imagine of the film itself. It is both all and nothing.

Last Year at Marienbad Criterion Collection 2-Disc DVD Set
Last Year at Marienbad is also available through the Criterion Collection in a Blu-Ray edition.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • Restored French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Original French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio interview with director Alain Resnais
  • “Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad” retrospective featurette
  • Video interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • Two short documentaries by Resnais
  • Original theatrical trailer and Rialto’s rerelease trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Mark Polizzotti, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the published screenplay, and comments by film scholar François Thomas
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 23, 2009

    Given is narrow CinemaScope aspect ratio and immense amount of detail in each frame, Last Year at Marienbad is a film in desperate need of a solid high-definition image to fully appreciate its visual intricacies, which is precisely what Criterion has delivered. The transfer, which was approved by Resnais, was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored to pristine quality. Viewed on DVD, the black-and-white image is sharp, clear, and well-detailed, and I can only imagine how impressive it must look in full 1080p on the Criterion Blu-Ray. The baroque architecture inside the hotel stands out beautifully, and the strong contrast and deep blacks give the images a subtle sense of cinematic depth. The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and is presented on this DVD in both a digitally restored version and in an unrestored version at the behest of Resnais, who has written a lengthy explanation in the insert booklet about how disappointed he is with the inherent loss that is involved when sound is manipulated in an attempt to “improve” it.
    While there is no audio commentary, this new two-disc set includes plenty of other supplements to illuminate this still-divisive and mysterious film. You might start with “Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad,” an excellent new 32-minute documentary about the film’s creation and reception that includes interviews with assistant directors Jean Léon and Volker Schlöndorff, script girl Sylvette Baudrot, and production designer Jacques Saulnier. In lieu of an audio commentary we have a 23-minute video interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, author of The Companion to French Cinema and several books on Jean-Pierre Melville, who discusses the history of the film and talks about some of its various interpretations, as well as a wide-ranging 33-minute audio interview with Alain Resnais conducted exclusively for this release by film scholar François Thomas.The disc also includes two of Resnais’ short documentaries, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), which is about the French national library, and Le chant du styrene (1958), a film about Pechiney polystyrene factories. Both films are fascinating testament to Resnais’ ability to elevate potentially mundane documentary subjects to the heights of experimental art. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer and Rialto’s recent rerelease trailer, and the insert booklet features an essay by critic Mark Polizzotti, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the published screenplay, and comments by film scholar François Thomas.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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