Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most infamous works of avant-garde cinema. It polarized audiences in its day, when audiences still cared enough to be polarized about an art film. Pauline Kael lamented the "creeping marienbadism" of modern cinema, and given subsequent art film indulgences, you can't really blame her. Marienbad has been unavailable on DVD for years, but thanks to a stunning new transfer from Criterion, a new generation can make up their minds about what did or did not happen last year.
The plot, such as it is, may be little more than a high class melodrama: X (Albertazzi) meets A (Seyrig) at a party and insists he's met her before. The dialogue appears vague and impenetrable — the opening narration is nothing more than a catalogue of a decadent hotel's super-baroque details. But pure cinema takes you through it, literally, as the camera dollies along baroque corridors and follows a shot that may consist of nothing more than two nattily dressed Frenchmen spouting some kind of avant-garde boilerplate ("it was '28 ... or '29"). This subverts conventional narrative, of course, but it's also a celebration of cinema — Resnais and his crew demonstrate that you (if you are a genius surrounded by beautiful people and impeccable craftsmen) can take any old dialogue, dress and light it, and come up with something compelling. Like The Sound and the Fury, you may not know what's happening, but the confident style carries you along - and you will follow that aesthetic anywhere.
What is often lost in the controversy about Marienbad and what it means or doesn't mean is that this is simply one of the most beautiful examples of filmmaking ever struck to celluloid. Sacha Vierney's lush black-and-white photography; the handsome pair of Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi; even the man who can't be beat at matchsticks, Sacha Pitoeff, has an otherwordly creepiness that's beautiful; he's no less than the French Timothy Carey. If the film can be taken as a scathing indictment of haut-bourgeoisie values, then it certainly does not eschew beauty, but revels and dreams in it.