2011 marks the 50th anniversary of Alain Resnais’ acclaimed 1961 collaboration with Nouveau Roman figurehead Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year in Marienbad. Resnais was part of an unofficial off-shoot of the Nouvelle Vague, along with like-minded film-makers Agnes Varda (for whom he worked as an editor) and Chris Marker; his style sometimes referred to as “Left-bank New Wave”. He differed from New Wave contemporaries like Godard and Truffaut, in that his influences were perhaps more literary than cinematic. Marienbad was Resnais’ second feature; his first, Hiroshima Mon Amour started life as a short but Resnais, learning the process of filmmaking by doing, ended up extending it to feature length. Better known as a maker of short films and documentaries up to this point, Marienbad was a striking early departure.
As with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais again turned to themes of memory and time with Marienbad; however this time, aided by Robbe-Grillet’s script, he would create a whole new cinematic language and challenge the conventions of classical narration. The story takes place within a beautiful and elegant Chateau, where guests wander the gorgeous grounds, dressed in formal evening attire at all times. A Man (not named in the film) is entreating a Woman (also not named) to remember a previous liaison they had, possibly in this very Chateau, possibly somewhere else. He wanted her to leave her husband/lover, and come away with him, but she would not go. He tells her that she promised to meet him again, one year later, which is why he’s here, but the Woman has no recollection of any of this. Is what he says true? Did it happen, or was it imagined? Did something unspeakable occur which prevents her from remembering? This is the central conundrum at the heart of the film, which is only the starting point for a puzzling, labyrinthine story which keeps unfolding, back-tracking, turning in on itself and leading us into many dead-ends before starting all over again.
The style of the film is formal, theatrical. Resnais has his actors behave in a completely stylised, unnatural way; standing off staring into space, moving robotically, saying their lines blankly, without emotion or effect. The only character with any real agency is the Man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is trying to convince the Woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they did indeed meet. Of all the characters, he seems more than one-dimensional; he appears to be aware, conscious of his surroundings. The others behave as if in a dream; they lack psychology, motivation, identity.
Of course, for Resnais, this is the whole point. Marienbad as a film, is a refusal of classical storytelling, a refusal of plot, naturalism, narration, point-of-view; all the things, in short, his New Wave contemporaries were also busy dismantling, but in far more conventional ways perhaps. Just as the “New Novelists” were as concerned with how words looked on the page, as they were with playing with conventional notions of storytelling; so Resnais put forward images and scenarios which constantly reflected, refracted and referenced other scenes in Marienbad, turning the film into its own surreal hall of mirrors. Everything in this film feels like it is forever slipping away; as if the place, people and situations occur in some other realm, some nether-land; like ghosts forever doomed to walk the gilded corridors and stately rooms of this elegant hotel.
Needless to say, almost since its initial release, Last Year in Marienbad has given rise to varied and plentiful speculation as to its “meaning”. Almost all areas of film theory have been applied to the film, each giving its own particular reading to this Modernist masterpiece. It also struck me, especially in light of the widely varying reactions to Terrence Malick’s recently released The Tree of Life, that we don’t often see this kind of “cinema of ideas” on our movie screens anymore. Certainly Art Cinema is alive and well, but often it can feel overly serious, too self-aware or just plain weird for the sake of it. Mind you, those very same criticisms were levelled at Marienbad back in 1961.
However many times I watch the film, it always feels fresh and utterly contemporary. I’m always struck by the wonderful cinematography (courtesy of Sacha Vierny) and Resnais’ beautifully fluid camera work. It really is a unique and original film. If you haven’t yet seen it, you’re in for a treat.
While the film has been reissued in a new digital print for its 50th anniversary, regrettably it doesn’t appear to be showing in Ireland as of yet. You can see a trailer here.