It comes as no surprise that Last Year at Marienbad is written by an experimental novelist. Given its subject matter, it is intentionally cerebral while it explores the debate about the nature of reality. It is passionate in its conviction to make the point that our mental process for memory is less than objective. If the film feels like a maze from which it is nearly impossible to derive any type of comprehension, its probably because even director Alain Resnais claimed it had none. Yet still, this film has created arguments about its meaning for more than half a century.
- Director: Alain Resnais
- Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
- Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff
Somewhere in a chateau, a man we know only as “X” (Sascha Pitoeff), a wife or lover we know only as “A” (Delphine Seyrig), and another man, “M”, (Giorgio Albertazzi) appear to share more than just a common casual experience. They interact with each other, mostly reminiscing about their encounters at the same chateau a year before. None of these characters are given names. We mostly see them providing subjective versions of previous interactions, some of which carry implications of infidelity and possible rape.
What is it about French films that manage to hold our attention even when the plot is incomprehensible? Is it the beautiful french accents, the deliberate blocking of the actors, poetic dialogue, or the experimental realm into which this film patiently explores philosophical themes? Or is it that it consciously breaks narrative conventions, and we intuitively understand that something unique is taking place? From the standpoint of experiencing a film that take a high minded artistic approach to telling a story, Last Year at Marienbad is an interesting experience, though not one that is easy to enjoy. Nevertheless, it is a film that is more fun to discuss than to see. Immediately, we are thrown into a convoluted world where repetitive dialogue fills the air and the physical presence of the characters resemble ornaments themselves. Adding to an altogether disorienting experience is the constant sound of haunting organ music, at times heard while the camera pans obsessively through an ornate interior.
Time and space are mostly inaccessible in that we never really know when or where past events have occurred, or are still occurring. There is very interesting blocking throughout, as the actors are constantly placed within frames in deliberate ways that appear to be for artistic effect as much as they are positioned to serve the story. These shots have the feel of a dream, one where certain images are constant, but they remain mostly inexplicable. In many shots we see what appears like a freeze-frame, but it is only the characters within the frame who pose motionless. Even when not doing much, however, Sascha Pitoeff brings a magnetic presence to each scene in which he appears. His striking face is especially fun to watch when beating others at an odd new game.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
While storybooks with happy endings are for children, Ebert points out that “adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.” While I agree with this assessment, it does not entirely excuse that fact that the story does not even attempt to wrap up any aspect of the story, good or bad. The short explanation given to Ebert by Professor Gunther Marx is a rich anecdote worth reading, as is the efficient way in which he describes the matchstick game played throughout the film.
Ebert’s makes a clever comparison when he states that “the characters analyzing the stick game are like viewers analyzing the movie: You can say anything you want about it, and it makes no difference.” Like Ebert, there are those who say that life is like this movie, and that due to this common trait shared with life itself, the film deserves praise. In this respect, I think this assessment is incomplete, for it does not take much for any director to create a story filled with unanswered questions. It should be enjoyable on some level, and it should provide at least something we can grab onto, just as all people rely on various types of crutches in order to face life’s unknowns.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Last Year at Marienbad? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Withnail and I
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad this week, he now has 316 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.