Original release: June 25, 1961
Running time: 94 minutes
Country of origin: France
Original language: French
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Cast: Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Serig, Sacha Pitoëff
One of the myriad things I adore about film is that it is, in its creation, an altruistic medium in so much as a filmmaker completes a piece and gives it away. Once it’s in the public domain, it’s no longer theirs to comment on, to explain or to be precious over; it’s for its audience to enjoy, consume and interpret it in whatever way they see fit. This is one of the most wonderful things about enjoying art; bringing our own interpretations to the table.
As such I’ve always had a soft spot for films which remained ambiguous leaving it to the audience to conclude exactly how or why events transpired as they did. It’s a thrill to leave a cinema and discuss a film with friends only to find several different movies have been watched by people sitting in the same theatre. Thus I tend to avoid director’s cuts released when filmmakers have subsequently deemed it necessary to explain their thesis with a new edit. Ultimately, once the film is finished, it’s up to me or you as an audience member to decide what we think it is about.
This could not be truer than in the case of Alain Resnais’ mysterious and beguiling masterpiece Last Year At Marienbad. When the director met nouveau roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet they felt that their sensibilities regarding narrative and structure were a perfect match and as such, collaborated on the film project together. What was born was a film with no political or social context, no confirmed location, no pasts for the characters – if they can actually be called that – nor even any names.
As the camera scans the walls and ceilings of an empty baroque mansion, an incorporeal or perhaps ethereal voice describes the surroundings; repeating key phrases though they are slightly different each time. The mind naturally attempts to get a sense of the location but this is denied us and we are left with an absolutely intended sense of a never ending maze of corridors and mirrors. Is the repetition of the descriptions, each time with small deviations a clue to what is to come? That depends entirely on your reading.
Having been introduced to almost lifeless bourgeoisie inhabitants of the mansion watching a play, we see them all milling aimlessly around games rooms and corridors. We catch snatches of conversations but nothing coherent as we drift from one group to another with seemingly the same people sitting at different tables. We watch a game being played with one man (played by Sacha Pitoëff), referred to in the screenplay as “M” but left nameless in the film itself, claiming he’s always victorious.
These beings seem like automatons in a surreal world devoid of time; nobody leaves the mansion, nobody eats or sleeps, and no plot is instigated. Still, there’s one man who’s slightly different, “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), and the rest of the movie is made up of him attempting to convince a woman, “A” (Delphine Serig), that they met the previous year and that they fell in love.
To begin with, “A” denies this is possible but over the course of the film, which has no continuity or chronological narrative, seems to be convinced by “X” as he repeatedly insists. All the while her husband “M” watches on, unmoved. There’s no way of telling for how long he tries to convince “A” of their love, or even if we’re seeing a prolonged campaign or fragments of different attempts as we become lost and ensnared in the labyrinthine building and Sacha Vierny’s photography.
With seemingly no plot, characters that have no backstory, names, or even character really, it’s understandable to see why people regard Last Year At Marienbad as pretentious, opaque and nonsensical and for the opening ten minutes or so I may well have been in agreement. However, by the time the film’s end I was bewitched. It slowly crawls beneath your skin and despite being unable to piece together a coherent narrative, I was no less engrossed.
There are so many different interpretations of what the film is about, it’s a marvel to behold. As we see events unfolding on screen are we privy to the fractured psyche of “A”? Events as willed by “X”? Memories real or imagined? There are suggestions of sensational story-lines involving rape and murder. Did these happen? Were they the desires of “X” or “A”? Are the characters all in limbo? Are they in fact in a film with only “X” aware of it? Resnais and Robbe-Grillet seem to have disagreed on exactly what the film meant or was supposed to mean, but is not up to our own interpretation to decide that?
What made Last Year At Marienbad so special whilst watching it was trying to piece together what it all means whilst acknowledging Resnais’ skill in creating an emotional reaction in me without many of the tools a filmmaker normally uses. I’m still thinking about it and attempting to decipher the many meanings it has just for myself. I’ll be playing detective every time I watch it for the rest of my life.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.