Last Year in Marienbad (1961) is quintessential art cinema, and arguably no other film has produced such a critical or theoretical reaction, but nearly 45 years later it still infuriates as much as it fascinates. This Alain Resnais directed French-Italian production is one where form dominates over content to such an extent that it often gets dismissed as pretentious and indulgent intellectualism. It is nonetheless a memorable film, whether people have loved or hated it, and usually it does produce one of those extreme emotional reactions.
A beautiful woman known as A (Delphine Seyrig) is staying in a vast grandiose hotel with M (Sacha Pitoeff), who is possibly her husband. She is approached by a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), who claims they had a relationship here the previous year and had arranged to meet now in order to go away together. She denies any knowledge of this and the puzzle of the narrative will be how X tries to take the woman out of the labyrinth that encompasses the film. Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay and shooting script, inspired from his first novel La Jalouise (Jealousy, 1957). Also, Robbe-Grillet’s novel from 1959 was called Dans le labyrinthe (In the Labyrinth).
Calling the main players in this ménage a trois A, X and M (their names are never mentioned) was an initial way of dehumanizing them but it is also how Robbe-Grillet referred to them in his screenplay. Robbe-Grillet was directing the film L’immortelle (1963) at the same time as Marienbad was being shot, and the legend goes that Resnais deviated from the script in several places, perhaps only adding to the enigma as both disagreed as to what was really happening in the story.
Alain Resnais showed an interest in filmmaking from an early age, making amateur 8mm films in his youth before attending the Institut des Hautes Études Cinémato- graphiques in Paris. His professional career followed World War Two, making mainly art documentaries including famous painters like Van Gogh and Gauguin. However, two other documentaries would point to influences that would lead to Marienbad. Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) depicted the holocaust and was a massive departure from his previous documentary work. Filmed in Auschwitz, the film uses narration and colour footage directed by Resnais alongside black and white archive newsreels and stills to recount not only a requiem for the holocaust victims, but also to depict man’s evil and inhumanity.
Toute la mémoire du monde (The Memory of the World, 1956) is one of the extras on the DVD release and its inclusion here is appropriate, not only because its an excellent documentary about the national library of France, but also because the mise-en-scène of long, seemingly neverending, corridors, the quiet autonomous figures, and stilted camera angles. It sounds just like the world of Marienbad, even though this is not a fictional world. Most significantly though, Resnais is setting his stall out for what was to come – because this film is about a place of memory. Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima my Love, 1959) and Marienbad would be the other two connecting points in this triangle.
Marienbad has been long overdue on DVD but the extras are excellent for fans both old and new. This release is mainly aimed at the British market, particularly obvious due to the conspicuous absence of any other foreign language subtitles. That aside it’s a great exhibition of one of the most famous of arthouse films. Professor Ginette Vincendeau gives a (19 minutes) long introduction to the film and appeals to any undiscerning viewer to enjoy the film without getting perplexed with its convoluted plot and attempting to reach a conclusion.
We also get the original theatrical trailer and a 33 minute documentary, Dans le Labyrinythe de Marienbad (In the Labyrinth of Marienbad) by the French film critic Luc Lagier, that is more of a film essay but does come up with some fresh approaches in both viewing and deciphering the film. He correctly states, ‘This is one of the few truly mythic films in the history of cinema.’ In fact watching this and Vincendeau’s introduction are strongly recommended for those about to see the film for the first time. For the rest of us, we do at least get different interpretations to work on in our attempt to decipher what really happened Last Year in Marienbad.