Last Year At Marienbad (1961) is a romantic puzzle, framed like a dream...
Much like L'age d'Or (Buñuel, 1930) and Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006) - films which intellectuals spend years trying to unknot - Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad is better reveled in than understood, which isn't to say that it doesn't hold meaning. I have a personal theory on the film's intention, but this hasn't come about through periods of intense deliberation; I have allowed its imagery to wash over me like a cold surf, and for its dreamlike fragmentations to arrange in my subconscious like the pieces of a jigsaw. I experience the film in a daydream state, and any attempt to probe deeper into its world (even Resnais claims it's about nothing) is futile. Marienbad is an expression. Of what, I do not know.
Here's the setup. X (Giorgio Albertazzi), M (Sacha Pitoëff) and A (Delphine Seyrig) meet at the French chateau Marienbad, where the charming X recalls to a bewildered A the romance they had shared in the previous year; this may or may not have happened, and Alain Robbe-Grillet's seductive screenplay remains ambiguous to X's claim, exhibiting several overlapping realities to the audience. M (played by the haunting thin man Pitoëff, whose vampiric image would later lend itself to giallo) could be A's husband, and his shadow looms large throughout the film. It would seem, as Roger Ebert suggests, that X is the character whose interpretation we are experiencing, as it is upon the whim of his narration that the story changes course. The myriad levels of reality are likely entertained by all three 'characters', but it is through X that the audience identifies - he is hopeful; romantic; suave. Were the film traditionally told, he'd unquestionably be the leading man.
The star of the film, however, is Marienbad itself - an ornate chateau where mirrors reflect realities, or perhaps hide them in plain sight. Its glistening candelabras, hanging from arches which oversee angular gardens, flowering into the damp air, create an incredible and enveloping atmosphere, captured by DP Sacha Vierny who lenses each surface in gorgeous black and white, rendering the film with the feel of an old photograph (themselves an artform of memory). It would seem fitting then that the film also features entirely static sequences, in which the camera maneuvers a tableau of elegantly attired guests, each erected with the precision of a chess piece. It is in these sequences, and those which juxtapose characters' differing interpretations of events, in which the film feels most alive - where it seems to challenge our very grasp on reality. It's unlike any other film in the history of cinema, and so long as we don't endeavor to solve it, like it were some sort of Rubik's Cube, it shall remain as such.
Incredible, grain-free transfer courtesy of Studio Canal, whose current restorations have been criminally undervalued. Their extras are also brilliantly expansive. On the disc there's an interesting 19-minute introduction by Ginette Vincendeau which skims through the film's critical reception and most popular theories, a 48-minute feature on writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, and a 38-minute documentary entitled The Labyrinth Of Marienbad, which at one point makes an interesting comparison with Kubrick's The Shining (1980), noting their similar "labyrinthe corridors and tracking shots" and labeling them both as ghost stories. Along with the original theatrical trailer there are also two short films on the disc, Le chant du Styrène (1959), 13 minutes, and Toute la mémoire de monde (1956), 22 minutes. The former film is an aesthetically playful tour around a polystyrene factory, making particularly bold use of colour, and Resnais' sense of space and perspective really shines through here. The second film looks toward the Bibliothèque nationale de France for a faux documentary on libraries, and man's attempts to trap knowledge - in many ways it looks to memory and being in a similar fashion to all of Resnais' work, but overall feels incomplete. Still, both shorts are fascinating early works from a master of cinema.