Last Year at Marienbad, 1961

Similar to Alain Resnais’ previous film Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad begins with a postulate of memory and perspective. A handsome stranger, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) encounters an alluring socialite, A (Delphine Seyrig) at a grand, baroque hotel and, captivated by her, attempts to convince the reluctant object of his desire that they have met before – that it was, in fact, precisely a year earlier at a luxury resort similar to Marienbad, perhaps, in Fredericksburg or Baden-Salsa. X explains that A was then unable (or unwilling) to separate from her enigmatic and forbidding lover (or husband), M (Sacha Pitoëff), and that she had agreed to meet X a year later at this pre-arranged destination – perhaps to test X’s romantic resolve, or to give herself time to wrest free from M’s icy control (a domination that he also exerts through seemingly un-winnable card or matchstick Nim games). X’s account seems persuasive, recalling specific (albeit, often contradictory) details of their brief dalliance at the ornate European hotel: a gravel path where she stumbles and breaks the heel of her shoe during a rendezvous in the impeccably manicured garden; a Greek statue of a man and a woman (whose formal pose was either a guiding or hindering one) on an overlooking terrace; A’s radiant expression as she clandestinely invites X into her room, seductively dressed in a mutable (white or black) feathered evening gown. And so the intriguing game of seduction unfolds in Marienbad, as the two ‘lovers’ recount a fractured tale of their perceived – and self-actualized – reality and unrealized love affair.

Written by nouveau roman (also known as ‘antinovel’ or ‘new novel’) author Alain Robbe-Grillet (whose own aspirations of filmmaking led to the formulation of an inflexibly detailed shooting script that Resnais, while remaining faithful to script, nevertheless managed to ascribe his own aesthetic imprint), Last Year at Marienbad is a sublimely tactile, exquisite, and hauntingly enigmatic composition on the interrelation of perception, consciousness, and reality. Resnais audaciously combines the experimental narrative structure of the French avant-garde literary movement that sought to blur the delineation between subjective and objective reality (and similarly, the linear progression of conventional storytelling) with the classical, dramatic staging of performance art (especially in the presentation of highly formalized, tableaux vivant-like ephemeral characters) to create a complex and idiosyncratic, yet captivating and thematically accessible story of unrequited love. Presenting an organic narrative through disjunctions of time, consciousness, and perspective, Resnais further reflects the fragmentation of temporal and spatial linearity through sinuous tracking shots through the chateau’s sensual, baroque interiors that curiously defy identification of location and relativity to other rooms – sleeping quarters, hallways, recreational lounges, pistol firing range, and even a theatrical stage seem intrinsically part of, yet strangely dissociated from, the disorienting estate. (Note the indelible image of people casting shadows on the gravel path juxtaposed against a parallel line of trees without cast shadows in the sculptured garden). In essence, the visual contradiction implies a contextual unreality or, more appropriately, a subjective reality to the film’s narrative: a manifestation of X’s point-of-view that interweaves memory, desire, logic, embellishment, and suggestion into a compelling (and self-serving) argument of intellectual seduction. By modulating and re-arranging the syntax of film language away from the familiar découpage classique narrative structure of traditional (usually Hollywood) cinema and towards a stylistic convergence of images, textures, sounds, and imagination, Last Year at Marienbad serves as a singular, audacious, and iconic exposition on the malleability of reality, time, existence, and memory.

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