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LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff
Director: Alain Resnais
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Trailers, Alain Resnais interview, Making-of featurette, Ginette Vincendeau interview, two Resnais short films, booklet & essays
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: June 23, 2009

You never seemed to be waiting for me, but we kept meeting at every turn in the path.

Film ****

In the annals of cinema history, there have been few films as equal-parts cryptic and ethereal as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961).  Unlike anything before it or since, Last Year at Marienbad embraced a boldly avant-garde style of filmmaking, shattering the restrictive confines of conventional film narrative and editing.  Using a non-linear screenplay scripted by celebrated nouveau roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, this French film re-imagined the silver screen as a canvas upon which to paint, the result being a mixture of Seurat-like neo-impressionism with the cinematic equivalence of Cubism as story narrative.

Last Year at Marienbad might be described at first glance as a film about a love triangle.  After all, there is a man who has fallen in love with a woman.  Perhaps she is married, perhaps not.  They may have met before, one year ago, or perhaps not, and now they wish to run away together after a year’s separation.  Yet, the woman oscillates undecidedly between complete surrender and reluctant denial, all the while observed in the background and shadows by a tall, skeletal figure of a man who may just be her husband or current lover or perhaps something else entirely.  The film does not elucidate on these points but leaves them open to interpretation.  Certainly, nothing of substance is ever revealed about the background of these three characters, and so it is up to the individual viewer to draw from personal beliefs or experiences in order to mentally fill in the narrative gaps in the film’s highly-splintered storyline.

There is an initial meeting between man and woman, repeated again and again, with small variations each time.  It is as though the protagonist were re-imagining his first encounter with this woman and unsatisfied with the apparent result, had re-envisioned it to his greater satisfaction.  Yet as more enigmatic details are revealed, the more desperate and unrelenting the man’s pleas and descriptive visions become; are his intentions honorable, to rescue this woman from a loveless and stifling existence, or are they driven by primal desire, the insatiably predatory urge to possess another man’s woman?  Neither does the man’s omniscient voice-over narration necessarily dictate the corresponding on-screen actions, and the growing disparity between verbal remembrances and visual re-enactments suggests an unreliable degree of verisimilitude versus illusion.  Truth, in Last Year at Marienbad, is simply in the eye of the beholder, à la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Incredible as it may seem today, Last Year at Marienbad was only Alain Resnais’ second feature film.  Previously, he had been known principally for his politically-charged documentaries, particularly the 1955 film Night and Fog about the Holocaust.  But his debut feature-length film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), about fated interracial lovers, quickly brought him to the forefront of the cinematic world.  Last Year at Marienbad would then cement Resnais’ reputation as one of the brightest stars of the French New Wave, even if he did not consider himself technically an auteur along the lines of a François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

Certainly in the case of Last Year at Marienbad, it was another Alain, one Alain Robbe-Grillet, who could rightfully claim the lion’s share of credit for the film’s screenplay.  Robbe-Grillet was an established author and principal exponent of the nouveau roman, as 1950’s style of French novelization that emphasized depersonalization of characterization with a focus on objective description to advance plot and narrative.  Robbe-Grillet successfully found the ciphers through which to translate his unique literary style into a new cinematic language, resulting in a film that boldly dared to depart from realism and formalism.  By cinematically adapting the nouveau roman prose ideal of form over narrative, Last Year at Marienbad would re-write the “old-fashioned” conventions of film narrative and would prove to be a lasting example of the French New Wave at the peak of its influence.

Robbe-Grillet was initially introduced to Resnais through producers Pierre Courau and Raymond Froment and soon thereafter presented Resnais with four separate treatments for a possible collaboration.  Resnais eventually chose the proposed draft entitled l’année dernière, which would become the basis for their eventual film together.  Without a doubt, Last Year at Marienbad feels equally an extremely literary film (thanks to its vast reliance on theatrical voice-overs) and a richly-visual one (thanks to Resnais’ lyrical camerawork and precisely geometric mise-en-scène).  Certainly, the backdrop and milieu of the film are as important to the film as any actual characters in the film.  In truth, the actors are more posed props to be arranged than animate characters, and they exhibit an exaggerated, detached acting style whose stylizations seem almost surreal.  The spa of the wealthy that these characters inhabit thus becomes less an hedonistic pleasure palace than a galleria of still-life, sepulchral figures - perhaps an homage to the fixed gestures and rigid poses of the paintings of Piero della Francesca that Resnais so admired.

Last Year at Marienbad is meant to occur in an unknown European spa retreat - perhaps Karlstadt or Marienbad or even Badensalsa (the film was actually shot around various Munich châteaux and gardens, most notably the Nymphenburg and Schleissheim castles).  Grand balustrades and statues abound amid the baroque architecture.  The hotel guests are like decorative artworks within this domain, not so different from the multitude of statues which adorn their pleasurable surroundings.  But like those statues, these people are emotionally frozen and indifferent to time or place; all that remains tangibly “real” are the film’s three main characters.

Of the three main characters, that of the cosmopolitan Italian lover, as epitomized by Giorgio Albertazzi, provides the main thrust of the story arc.  This character (referred to in the screenplay as X but on-screen nameless as are the others) offers frequent voice-over narrations, sometimes poetic, sometimes pragmatic, sometimes authoritative.  His is a voice of confidence, yet X never fully imparts to the audience his personal conviction in the veracity of his own words.  We soon distrust X’s sincerity.  Are his words the musings over a half-remembered truth or merely pure dream-fantasy, the whimsical flagellations of a mind in increasingly frustrated sexual desire?

The object of that desire, A, is portrayed by Delphine Seyrig, who won the role over such notable actresses of the day as Anouk Aimée.  In Seyrig’s character, there is a mixture of innocence and sensuality, as though the character were not entirely aware of the effect she has on the men about her.  In that regard, she shares a similarity to Louise Brooks’ immortal seductress in the great Pabst silent masterpiece Pandora’s Box, one of Resnais’ influences for Last Year at Marienbad.  Certainly, that silent film’s muted eroticism and sense of fated love and subconscious longing similarly resonates throughout Resnais’ own film as well.  Even Delphine Seyrig’s famous coiffure in the film is but a variation on the more famous Louise Brooks bob hairstyle.

Last Year at Marienbad’s third main character, M, the second man (or perhaps husband) is portrayed by Sacha Pitoëff.  He strikes a menacing pose throughout the film, less so for his actions but rather for his gaunt, starved appearance; his is an observant character made sinister through silent presence and silhouette.  It should be noted that M is also quite agile with small arms, as demonstrated in his target practice sessions during the film.  Such aggressive displays are an ominous portent, the threatening shadow of jealousy, retribution, and violence that hangs loosely over the film.  M’s further supremacy in the art of Nim, a game of chance that is repeatedly played throughout the film, suggests that no matter the variations in the path taken by X or A, the endgame and thereby the conclusion always remains as though preordained - the Pitoëff character will always win, and the Albertazzi character must always lose.  The analogy, then, is that the film itself is not only a mind game between characters and also between the filmmakers and the audiences, who are challenged to interpret the film for themselves.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about persistence and persuasion.  Whether the two lovers, who presumably met last year at Marienbad, will re-unite and escape hand in hand, or whether their efforts will be in vain, is left up to the audiences to decide.  Last Year at Marienbad is structured as a jigsaw puzzle, and how we the audience mentally re-assemble the elements and pieces determines how the story ends, if indeed it does.

Last Year at Marienbad is also a film about miscommunication and emotional isolation.  A sense of foreboding dominates the milieu, as though the characters are drifting further apart and becoming ever withdrawn, uncertain of the truth and uncertain of how to react.  Fantasy sequences mar the characters’ ability to judge between morality and duty, honor versus desire.  Should A run away with X or not?  Should M retaliate in violence or allow the would-be lovers to depart unhindered?  Which outcome is merely imagined and which fully realized?

While the consensus may be that Last Year at Marienbad is at the very least a love story, there are hints throughout the film that it conceals at its core a past violent crime of passion.  The story could then be interpreted as the attempts by the woman A to repress her memories of an unpleasant experience.  Robbe-Grillet had originally intended for a former rape sequence to be at the heart of the discrepancy between X’s almost stalker-like pursuit of A and her puzzling inability to remember or acquiesce.  In the final film, however, Resnais excised any direct reference to such a past event one way or another.  Yet, one scene of a secret tryst, in which the woman offers forth her open arms to X in anticipation of an amorous rapture, directly contrasts another scene in which X seemingly arrives to force himself upon the frightened woman.  That X’s narration grows ever at odds with A’s executions of them in his mind’s eye suggests defiance or resistance by A towards X’s swaying; perhaps X has not been entirely truthful in his recitations for the audience?  What again is truth and what is mere fantasy?

Not surprisingly, this remarkable element of uncertainty permeates the entire substance of this film.  The film’s very unpredictability, even on repeat viewings, in conjunction with its surreal ambiance and cinematography, creates in Last Year at Marienbad one of the most disorienting viewing experiences ever for a mainstream film.  There are flashbacks and flashforwards.  Paintings throughout the film mirror the mise-en-scène of the live-action and vice versa.  There are repetitions of images within images - paintings reflected by garden scenes, actors posed as though in a still-life portrait.  The chronological disorientation is further accentuated by a constant shift in geography - ever-expansive garden, impossibly long corridors, vast ballrooms whose edges melt into the distant shadows.  Great tension arises from the film’s disorienting interplay between what may be fantasy or truth and disconcerting disregard for normal continuity.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film whose lasting images will haunt the viewer’s waking thoughts long after the film has actually concluded.  The still-evident resonance of this highly influential film are as wide-spread in the cinematic world, too, as evident in the horror classic Carnival of Souls, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for instance.  Alain Resnais never again created as innovative and convention-shattering a film as Last Year at Marienbad, but on the strength of his first two feature films, he would go on to a long and productive directorial career that spanned five decades.  Alain Robbe-Grillet also learned a great deal from his collaboration with Resnais and would, in later years, become a director in his own right.  While neither man would again enjoy such critical success as that for Last Year at Marienbad, this landmark film remains their greatest lasting contribution to international cinema and retains its power to intrigue and enrapture now as when it was first released nearly a half-century ago.

Video *** ½

Last Year at Marienbad exhibits crisp details and exceptional deep black levels with very few age-related defects.  One very bright scene reveals some vertical scratches, but overall, for an old black & white film, the video quality is quite good.  The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and the transfer (from a 35mm fine-grain master positive) was supervised by Alain Resnais himself.

It should be noted that Resnais modeled the visual style of this film after the richness and depth of field clarity of Michelangelo Antonioni films of the time.  The usage of real sets, with long corridors to enhance camera motion and the shadow-play of moldings and decor within each scene, also brings a visual flair to Last Year at Marienbad that is quite unforgettable. 

Audio ***

There are two listening options - the original monaural track or a restored monaural track.  The restored track has a deeper tone and more vibrant feel, particularly in the misterioso-like pipe organ music.  However, director Alain Resnais insisted that the original soundtrack be made available, too, and felt that listeners should have the option of experiencing Last Year at Marienbad as it was first heard in theaters, ticks and audio scratches all (the booklet that accompanies this release includes a note from Resnais to this effect).

BONUS TRIVIA:  The film’s music was composed by Delphine Seyrig’s brother, Francis!

Features ****

This Criterion release of Last Year at Marienbad is comprised of two discs and a commemorative booklet.  Disc One holds the film as well as a pair of theatrical trailers, one vintage, the other a re-release version.  Both trailers canter to the film’s cryptic nature and non-linear narrative.

Disc Two offers the bulk of the supplemental features.  First up is an Alain Resnais audio interview (33 min.).  Accompanied by numerous production stills, publicity shots, and film clips, this interview follows the director on a trip down memory lane as he recalls his collaboration with Robbe-Grillet and his progressive admiration for Robbe-Grillet’s writing.  He further reminiscences upon the production, editing, and distribution of Last Year at Marienbad and mentions various influences on the film, including the Mandrake the Magician comics and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Resnais also reveals secrets of his directing and editing techniques.

In the documentary Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad (32 min.), Resnais’ former collaborators, including the notable German director Volker Schlöndorff (then an assistant at the time on Marienbad) and production designer Jacques Saulnier, recall working with Alain Resnais.  Of interest here is a script girl’s graph of the film’s chronology, painstakingly charted out.  Secrets are revealed about the more technical aspects of the cinematography and how some of the more amazing or seemingly impossible shots were carried out.

In the documentary Ginette Vincendeau on Last Year at Marienbad (23 min.), film scholar Vincendeau discusses Resnais’ collaboration with Robbe-Grillet, the film’s themes and various interpretations, and qualities which make Last Year at Marienbad such a landmark film.

Disc Two closes out with two early documentary films by Alain Resnais himself.  Made in the mid-1950's, these documentaries reveal a talented filmmaker on the cusp of international celebrity, just before the release of Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  The first documentary, Tout la mémoire du monde (1956, 21 min.), focuses on La bibliothèque nationale in Paris, perusing through the various departments and multitude of literary treasures in the catalogue of this part-museum, part-archive French institution.  We see some of the meticulous process involved in cataloging new and old acquisitions.  This documentary has some scratches and age-related defects, but with its stunning black & white cinematography and a majestic score by Maurice Jarre, what could have been a simple short film about a library is transformed into something much grander.  Imparted with a sense of historic gravity, Tout la mémoire du monde becomes almost as a prison suspense-thriller set in the labyrinthine catacombs of archived tomes and papers.

The second documentary, Le chant du Styrène (1958, 13 min.), is a short color film about the Pechiney polystyrene “plastic” factories.  We see how polytech objects and utensils of plastic are created from molds and suction processes, and the result is shown in a wondrously kaleidoscopic parade of abstract art.  It’s pop art to the tune of Andy Warhol.

Lastly, there is a 44-page booklet that accompanies this dvd release.  Aside from the usual publicity stills and dvd and film credits, this handsome booklet also contains several worthwhile articles.  “Which Year at Where?” by Mark Polizzotti discusses the film’s symbolism, influence, and the differing visions for the film between its two collaborators, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.  “So Close So Far Away” by Alain Robbe-Grillet is an introduction to his screenplay; it is preceded by a foreword that mentions his other literary works, including his eventual novelization of the screenplay.  In this article, Robbe-Grillet discusses his collaboration with Resnais, offers his personal interpretation of the film’s story, and reveals some of his philosophy on storytelling in general.  The third and final article, “Afterword: The Mythology of Perfect Harmony” by François Thomas, offers revisions and clarity on the previous Robbe-Grillet article; as always, the final truth regarding Last Year at Marienbad remains shrouded in subjectivity and shadows.  Lastly, there is a note from Alain Resnais about the soundtracks as presented on this Criterion release.

Summary:

Last Year at Marienbad is the epitome of the art-house film - challenging, difficult to decipher, multi-layered, and open to vastly differing interpretations.  Yet it is certainly a wondrous film to experience with its lush visuals, dream-like ambiance, and haunting score.  Kudos to Criterion for giving this landmark film a proper re-release on disc!

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