Even more than most of the genuine oddities that have managed to find their way into the that motley crew known as the Canon (whatever that may be) over the past century, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad seems to stand alone in the cinephile landscape, through the years a projection of an impenetrable ivory tower as the furthest purveyor of high ‘60s modernism, even as other films rise and fall in esteem around it. It’s probably among the most viewed works of French cinema by someone not named Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, or Varda, and one of the unlikeliest flagship films for any director; not that Resnais hasn’t taken his particularly pleasurable and elusive brand of surrealism further elsewhere, but films like Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and his follow-up masterpiece Muriel (1963) at least possess a more discernible moment-to-moment progression.
All of the traditional appellations are of course true to an extent: each viewing only seems to deepen the fundamental strangeness of setting and scenario that drive Last Year at Marienbad as surely as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script or Sacha Vierny’s bold cinematography. It is, of course, ultimately something of a love triangle, a push-pull of seduction, obsession, and intimidation between three people simply known (extratextually) as X (Giorgio Albertazzi), A (Delphine Seyrig), and M (Sacha Pitoeff). But it also comes across as something far greater, and far more terrifying, than that might imply, encompassing seemingly infinite variations on similar interactions that, while ultimately building to something that could be reasonably called a resolution, leave the possibility open that the film spans multiple times and realities that Resnais fluidly moves between.
Last Year at Marienbad always runs the risk of sounding too abstruse, too much of a singular art object to genuinely embrace. But it is this exact tension that animates the film, whose surfaces — like Seyrig’s Chanel dresses, the luminous black-and-white CinemaScope, and the grand hotel itself, or rather the multiple hotels that are sutured to form one labyrinthine locale — never fail to catch the eye, even as the mind reels. There is equal pleasure and confusion to be found in the way that Resnais cuts on a figure’s motion to that same figure in a totally different space (and time?), in the eerie reappearance of a character within the same extended tracking shot, in the purposeful mis-dubbing of minor characters. The opening itself captures this odd combination: an initially conventional tracking shot capturing the decorated ceilings of the hotel, accompanied by Albertazzi’s sonorous, Italian-accented French narration, initially takes on sensual overtones before metamorphizing into the uncanny by virtue of its extended nature and the repetition of the same phrases in the narration. Haute couture pleasures become deadening objects in the film, another form of entrapment.
For such a gorgeous, cavernous space, Last Year at Marienbad’s hotel, all trompe l’oeil hallways that recede into the distance, take on that stifling quality, something which its other unnamed denizens offer in spades. Early in the film, it is often hazy who the main characters are for those unfamiliar with Albertazzi and Seyrig’s faces, as Resnais privileges these moments of conversation, often brief snatches filled with dead air and non-sequiturs, and above all the angular faces, each too perfect to seem like it came from the regular world. Each exchange initially carries a potential focal point, with all of these bodies used as another form of static ornamentation. This mannequin approach is taken to its natural limit at numerous points throughout the film, as the camera rushes past eerily still figures, often in the middle of putting cards or walking on a staircase. Last Year at Marienbad constantly combines different approaches to produce these violent and eerie disjunctions — most commonly extended long takes intermixed with rapid editing — but each element feels inseparable from the other, a unified aesthetic whose axes are so heightened already that their contrast in some ways justifies the use of both of them.
All of this, of course, could and has been accused of coming across as empty formalism. But Last Year at Marienbad’s exploration of memory and time as funneled through sexual brinksmanship is ultimately deeply rooted in definable units, which are intermixed to create the hazy atmosphere. The most obvious examples are the games of Nim, in which M asserts his dominance over X by continually beating him in the ostensibly simple game. As genuinely funny as it is to watch the slow but precise progression of the game, of this seeming mastermind being continually outsmarted, the use of different objects suggests something of the indefinable mutability of the hotel. So, too, does the relative clarity of the images in relation to the elements swirling around them: choices of costume, use of narration which is clearly contradicted by the action on screen, and most of all the total uncertainty of whether the scene on screen is meant to illustrate a past action, the present recounting/interaction, or something else altogether. A seduction becomes an assault becomes a moment of passionate projection; all of these may have happened and none of them, to one person or another, and the impossibility of sorting out which is which gets to the core of the troubling, ultimately very human struggles that this enacts.
Last Year at Marienbad continues to remain one of the most resistant Great Films in both viewing and in discussing, but arguably reaches as deeply as any in its pure visceral sensations: the mad dash of Seyrig out onto the balcony, possibly traversing time and space; the successive series of rushes into fantasized erotic acceptance; the terror of watching people suddenly talking as non-diagetic(?) music swells, before resuming as swiftly as ever. The great beauty of Resnais’ masterwork is that, in the unfathomable abundance of possible things to grasp on to, there is so much that is immediately transfixing in this, a film as modern and groundbreaking today as it was sixty years ago.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.