Last Year at Marienbad is one of Alain Resnais' most well regarded works. The other films he is known for are Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais and this film are considered important parts of the French New Wave movement. However, he and his work are considered part of the “Left Bank” school of the New Wave.
There is an obvious difference between this film and the New Wave films of Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut. This film is not obsessed with low-level criminals, America, and American films the way Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player are. The shot selection in this film is more formal, the editing is more slowly paced, and the setting is much more ornate. This film has a dreamlike quality and is even more surreal than most other New Wave films. It also deals with time and meditates on life and love.
The film is a puzzle. A man (Giorgio Albertazzi) meets a woman (Delphine Seyrig) at an opulent hotel. His name is never given (he is credited only as X) and neither is hers (she is credited as A). He tells her she must have been waiting for him, but she does not seem to recognize him. He insists that they met a year earlier at a garden. She still does not recall and he proceeds to tell her the whole story of their affair the year before at the same hotel. They met repeatedly; they did not ever plan it, they simply ran into each other. The more they saw of each other the more in love with her he was. She was more wary, but also seemed to reciprocate his feelings.
Then one night he entered her hotel room. And many things could have happened. He may have raped her. He may have saved her from being raped by another man (Sasha Pitoeff), who is also never named. The other man may be her husband, her chaperone, or her lover (he is credited only as M). The other man may have shot her or him after catching them together.
On the last night of their vacations X and A were supposed to leave together. However, A changed her mind. Maybe she did not want to leave M yet, maybe she feared X, maybe she feared what M would do. Nevertheless, she told X to wait another year and then she would go away with him.
After X finishes his story, A is still unsure. And so is the audience. There are clues that support different interpretations. Did X make this story up? Is he simply a stalker who fell in love with a stranger and made up a fantasy about the year before? It is possible that A was killed the year before and he is talking to a ghost, a memory. It may even be possible that this same scene plays out year after year, with each year A promising to leave with X the next year.
This is hard a film to get into at first. The majority of the film contains voice-over narration of previous events or even the characters’ thoughts. Scenes jump between years. The direction is abstract. Background characters stand around like statues instead of moving naturally. There appears to be a shooting gallery in the hotel’s grand halls. The hotel itself changes over the course of the movie. As much emphasis seems to be put on the hotel’s décor as the characters.
While this may seem pretentious, it illustrates the themes of the story. The background people acting like statues illustrates that when someone is in love the only thing that matters is their lover. The changing scenery shows how fuzzy memory can be and how our nostalgia can betray us. The emphasis on the surroundings shows how important a single place can be in our lives. The abundance of narration shows us that our perceptions of events and reality can be drastically different.
Resnais uses some other interesting techniques to tell his story. Deep focus is used so the characters and the posh backgrounds are always in focus. No character is given more importance in a shot; it is a story of three people, and of the place. The music is driving, but played mainly on an organ. It is violent and haunting at the same time. Long tracking shots emphasize the dreamlike state of the movie.
This movie may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate. Resnais is not interested in telling you an easy-to-digest story, he is more interested in evoking a mood, and challenging the viewer to think. It makes you reflect on love, memory, loss, and life.
Criterion Collection just began releasing Blu-rays this year. Criterion Collection is renowned for their treatment of art and foreign films, offering up pristine transfers in good packaging with essays on the films, and other scholarly extras. They take great pains to restore their films as well as possible.
Last Year at Marienbad comes in a beautiful, book-like package. The insert includes three essays and an introduction from the film’s screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet.
The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in black and white. The restoration is near perfect. The black and white is gorgeous. The different shades of gray pop enough that you can imagine the colors. Only a few seconds of the film had scratches on it. It was not minor but it passed quickly.
There are two options for sound , the original monaural and a restored track. The original track is full of crackle and hiss. On the restored track the hiss and crackle is still there, but is indiscernible from viewing distance. The movements of the characters still sound a bit crunchy.
Extras include an interview with Resnais about the film, a documentary on the making of the film that includes interviews with a few of the crew members, an interview with film academic Ginette Vincendau on the meaning and importance of the film, and two of Resnais’ short documentaries.
The Resnais interview is not very exciting. It is presented with just his voice over slow pans of pictures related to the film. The majority of it is Resnais gushing about how talented and helpful his collaborators were. In truth it is sleep-inducing.
The making-of extra and the Vincendau interview are a bit more exciting. They are presented in the traditional interview style showing the subjects on camera and cutting away to clips. The crew tells what it was like working with Resnais. Vincendau talks about the how Last Year at Marienbad was received critically at the time, its influences and the films it influenced, and how it has been interpreted differently by different critics over the years.
A commentary track from a film scholar or a filmmaker influenced by this movie would have been nice, but I suspect that the Vincendau interview and the making-of documentary cover much of the same ground.
The two Resnais documentaries included here are Toute le memoire du monde (1956), a film about the French national library, and Le chant du styrene (1958), a film about the manufacturing of various products. These documentaries have not been restored with the same care as the feature; scratches and dirt are frequently on the film. Watching them you can see Resnais' style: there is an emphasis on architecture more than people, the narration is more poetic than informative, and the objects are often made into abstract images. These documentaries are more interesting for Resnais' stylish presentation of them than any educational value to be obtained. The stylistic touches has the opposite effect, making the information given seem incomplete.
Also included are two trailers for the film – the original theatrical and rerelease trailer.
The overall package is quite impressive.
The Last Year at Marienbad Blu-ray will be released on June 23 for the suggested retail price of $39.95.
This is a must-have for fans of Resnais or the French New Wave. If you have a Blu-ray player, I would strongly recommend getting the Blu-ray disc instead of the DVD. Viewers more comfortable with straight narratives may find this film off-putting at first, but I would encourage them to try it. It is easier to digest than some other surrealist films and has some interesting things to say about love and life.