Nothing makes sense in Alain Resnais' 1961 opus Last Year at Marienbad, or maybe everything makes sense. Variously described as modern, postmodern, symbolic and surrealist (the latter being the most appropriate term), Last Year at Marienbad has been dissected by critics searching for its meaning for nearly five decades, over the director's claims that it has none. Resnais might be telling the truth, or he might just be teasing all those who dare tackle the impenetrable non-narrative. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that a film "should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order," but it is this film, by a contemporary of the French New Wave but not a member, that puts his theory to the test.
The film takes place in an opulent chateau in an unspecified location, an expansive hotel with endless corridors, grand halls and geometrically pure hedges and architecture. It's the sort of place so perfect it can only come from the chaotic abandon of dreams. In certain shots, the halls are filled with wealthy guests, and elsewhere they are barren and cold. Often, the shots containing patrons are as lifeless as those without them.
Only three characters have any substantial dialogue, and even their names reflect the coldness of these people. A man identified only as X (Giorgio Albertazzi) narrates the film, his thoughts and memories never seeming to line up with the images on screen. He walks up to a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig). "Didn't we meet at Marienbad last year?" he asks. She politely says no. But X insists, and lists off his memories of their encounter.
But are those memories genuine? That's the chief question of the film, and the one you must put behind you as quickly as possible. X's tales slip in and out of diegesis; occasionally the events on the screen match what he's describing, but even then it's hard to tell if he's describing the present, the past or some fantastical interpretation of the two. Eventually, A begins to beg X to leave her alone, but without a hint of conviction.
When he's not trying to woo the woman, X plays games with the other guests, chiefly "M" (Sacha Pitoëff). They play a game where cards, matchsticks or any other objects are arranged into four rows, and each player removes objects in each row, until the loser is stuck with the last one. Pitoëff is a fearsome looker, with the high cheekbones and overbite that just beg to be cast in a vampire movie. M wins every game against every opponent; "I can lose," he slyly confides, "but I always win." Later, X returns to A and, in the course of his monologue, he mentions A's husband, only for the camera to cut to M. Whether M is indeed her husband or lover is unclear, but he certainly exerts some sort of authority over her.
The rest of the film is -- and this is as close to a plot as I can muster -- a struggle between the men for A. Their version of Pim becomes a symbol of their duel, as X cannot ever win, and when it looks like he might actually triumph, M settles for the nuclear option: in one sequence, A actually dies, only to remain alive for the rest of the film. Her wardrobe also vacillates at numerous intervals, from white to black to some mad, feathered thing. The relationships among the three do not change throughout the film, and when X and A part, the film fades to black and ends, the dream over.
Aiding Resnais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet's mad vision are the talents of cinematographer Sacha Vierny and composer Francis Seyrig. Marienbad contains ubiquitous shots of mirrors and uses shadows and lighting as the only means of differentiating between the "present" and "past." Vierny and his subordinates must have had a hell of time capturing the numerous tracking shots through halls of mirrors without filming themselves, and the look of the film is absolutely flawless (though even Criterion's new issue does not use a perfect print of the film). The most famous shot is likely the one of the courtyard, and for good reason: when the pair rush out of the chateau, they find themselves overlooking the garden, filled with precise geometric hedges. But what makes the shot so lasting is the fact that the people in frame cast long shadows while the plants cast none at all. What effort it must have taken for so brief a moment, and what an effect it has.
Seyrig's music, on the other hand, is ugly. It serves to add to X's increasingly unsettling pleas and stories, and it sounds more like the score for an old Hammer horror picture than an appropriate accompaniment for wealthy people relaxing in a hotel. But that music effectively sets the mood for the film, and it is the only constant for us to identify with.
I suppose I should be asking myself, or even you the reader, what this film means. Consider the opening shots that depict nothing but the empty halls that obey no ordinary laws of spatial or temporal relationships (neither do the characters when they enter). When Resnais' camera at last passes over the chateau guests for the first time, they appear frozen in time. Finally, they move, and we see that we were watching a play. But when the director scans the audience, it's nearly impossible to differentiate between the viewer and the participant.
Does that mean, then, that Last Year at Marienbad is a commentary on art, on film? Perhaps, but I find that too simple an answer; too often we interpret films as being about film, and that shortchanges them. Even films that do work with the backdrop of film, or theatre, tend to use them to make some grander statement. A film like The Purple Rose of Cairo isn't so much a celebration of movies as what gives us joy in our miserable lives. That films would be the thing to inspire or defeat in these movies is the natural product of having been written by filmmakers.
After finishing the film, I went back to the DVD menu in the hopes of listening to the usual Criterion commentary track that covers every possible facet of the production and breaks down each shot -- I heartily recommend author Stephen Prince's absurdly in-depth tracks on various Kurosawa films. To my surprise, Marienbad, the film that warrants someone guiding us more than any other film I can think of at the moment, doesn't come with one. Perhaps that's just as well; all the talk of "psychoanalytic theory" and "phenomenology" I stumbled across to get some clear picture of what this film only served to lessen its impact on me, and damn near every interpretation is wildly different and contradictory, both with other analyses and itself.
So then, maybe Last Year at Marienbad has no meaning, as the director suggests. It is certainly the finest piece of surrealist cinema I've seen, though that's not exactly an impressive feat given my unfamiliarity outside of Buñuel, Meshes of an Afternoon and Dog Star Man. It's also impressive that so strange a film can move at so deliberate a pace, as most experimental fare keeps things brief to ensure that the assault of imagery has maximum effect; even Buñuel's longer works have some solid satire to latch onto to justify their lengths. Thus, Last Year at Marienbad is trying in the age of instant satisfaction via the Internet, though it was trying back in 1961 as well, I wager. Those who do not throw up their hands and leave after 10 minutes, though, will be treated to one of the great masterpieces the art form has ever produced. I'm set to get a Blu-Ray player next week, and this film shot to the top of the heap of films to buy for it.
Cinema is rightly regarded as having its own language, but I like to think it speaks in multiple tongues: the action films are Teutonic, the cold psychological dramas Scandinavian, the romance films, well, one of the romantic languages.. Last Year in Marienbad bypasses all of it: with its vivid imagery, its lack of narrative and its utter fearlessness, it is cinematic language at its most beautifully primal.