DVD Review of Last Year In Marienbad

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/13/08


  Forget all prior claims you’ve read about Alain Resnais’s 90 minute long, 1961 black and white film, Last Year In Marienbad (L'Année Dernière Á Marienbad, and Last Year At Marienbad in North America)- from the bad to the good, from publicity nonsense which declaims the three main characters are named after letters, when they are unnamed, and see it raw; for then you’ll see why greatness is its own company. This is because the difference between this truly great film, a work of art considered an art film high point, and Carnival Of Souls, considered a B horror film, which was released a year later, are minimal. The similarities between the films are considerable, even though I doubt that the latter film’s director, Herk Harvey, had even seen Last Year In Marienbad while making his only feature film. This is because Last Year In Marienbad truly is one of those films, or works of art, that, the moment it is experienced, the viewer connects with it as something they feel has always been. It is like that tune you hear, that becomes a Top 40 hit, and you swear you’ve known it for years.

  In this way, the fact that Last Year In Marienbad has been dubbed one of the most influential films of all time should not surprise. Perhaps only Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Akira Kuroswawa’s Seven Samurai, and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night can claim to have been more influential overall, and in their genres. Yet, in reality, Last Year In Marienbad is not so much influential as being a touchstone film- a film that got to a source, common to the human experience, before many other films did. Aside from Carnival Of Souls, the number of other films were profoundly influenced, or rather dipped their toes in the same waters as various aspects of this film, range from George Lucas’s THX-1138 to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining, from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and George Romero’s Night Of the Living Dead. Even the brilliant 1967 British television series The Prisoner and the low budget 1990s Canadian sci fi film Cube seem to have been influenced by this film in its M.C. Escherian manifolds. This is further proof that quality transcends ephemeral labeling.

  The film’s screenplay follows the workings of a symphony, with ideas and dialogue being repeated in varying patterns and degrees, softly, loudly, enigmatically and obviously, from the actual words and intonations of speech, to the way shadows play along walls, to the repeated game of cards or sticks, a version of nim, wherein 4 rows of 7, 5, 3, and 1 card or stick sets up the masculine tension between the two nameless male leads. The one who wins is a swarthy Mediterranean type, called in many reviews M (Sascha Pitoeff), although he is never named, and he seems to be the lover or husband of the main female lead, a beautiful brunet called A (Delphine Seyrig) in most reviews, although also really nameless. The second man, the one who loses at the game, and is erringly referred to as X (Giorgio Albertazzi), seems to narrate a portion of the film, taking his monologue fully made from another voice, in relay race fashion: ‘I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors; silent deserted corridors.’ This narration. while at times overweening in its poetastry, echoes the numerous tracking shots of the hotel’s corridors, and was quoted in many shots in The Silence and The Shining, as well as the latterday Russian Ark. Yet it is never superfluous, because it changes intonation with its changing iteraters. Also, there are times when what is being stated by one of the multiple narrators is directly at odds with the visuals. There will be a description of an interior, and we see the courtyard, as example. The second man’s main purpose there seems to be pursuing the woman at a wealthy but somnolent social gathering held at a sprawling manse, or old hotel. The second man approaches the woman and asks claims that they were lovers, last year at Marienbad, a town in the Czech Republic. The woman seems nonplussed, and denies it, claims he is in error, and then seems to recall, only to deny, and begin the process of seduction and denial again. Through several turns at this dance, the questioning grows more intense, and so does a series of truly brilliant flashbacks or dreams. What makes them brilliant is that they are momentary flashed that make the viewer experience the almost recollection of the woman. Or is it not recollection, but wish fulfillment, in wanting to believe this delusional stranger?

  The man claims she said she would leave her husband and run off with him. Cue the entrance of the first man, the won who always won at his game. Is this the woman’s husband? In some ways, these three protagonists seem to be the only truly alive people in the grand hotel. The other characters seem mannekin-like. As this gyre of affection plays out, some times it seems less complicated, and it seems that the second man is clearly pulling things out of his ass, for the woman seems to catch him in a number of lies or stretchings of the truth. Then, in other scene, he seems the one to have hit a raw nerve, for the flashback flickerings seem to support his claims, and the woman’s body language is that of recognition and guilt. But over what is never clear. Then, some elements seem to repeat, and time distinctions blur, as if the viewer and the characters are caught in some sort of Möbius strip. Another layer of the chronological conundrum comes not only from the temporal warp, but from the fact that the film’s costuming and mannerisms, as well as a few other hunts, seem to place the film as occurring in the interwar years of the late 1920s or early 1930s, not in the then contemporaneous early 1960s.

  Finally, all of these visual and narrative repetitions lead to a scene where the woman is set to meet the first man, who does not show, and runs off with the second man. Yet, we do not know if this is happening in the present, in the past (where she supposedly might later change her mind and set forth the ‘current’ events of the film), or in the mind or minds of one or more of the three main characters, possibly reincarnating the claim of the second man that the woman promised to run off with him this year.

  Naturally, critics were divided. Some have praised it as a masterpiece, while reviewers as diverse as Pauline Kael and Michael Medved have loathed it; the latter even naming it one of the fifty worst films of all time. Even worse than the divided critical opinion of the film is all of the bloated, pretentious, and nonsensical critical and theoretical writing the film has engendered, Terms like ‘psychoanalytic theory,’ ‘phenomenology,’ ‘critical social theory,’ ‘Cartesian philosophy,’ ‘stream of consciousness,’ and ‘aesthetic philosophy,’ are bandied about in numerous reviews, articles, and treatises on the film, while it is clear that, given the critical framework these terms are dropped into, that the claimant has no real idea what the terms mean, nor what they are talking about, as they often twist elements and scenes from the film to fill whatever philosophic or political niche they inhabit, or, conversely, see far too much riding on the intent of the director, Resnais, and the screenwriter, Alain Robbe-Grillet, that they utterly ignore things onscreen which blatantly contradict their assertions.

  Perhaps the greatest misclaim about the film is that it is about memory. It is not. There are possible memories shown, and the characters each claim to have differing ideas on what memories they claim are real or not, but the film never directly addresses that idea, for even the flashbacks are only possible memories. They could be fabrications or wishes. Thus, memory is not the central issue, but the nature of perception, the material vs. the immaterial, and while related topics, they are clearly not the same thing. Imagine, as example, someone claiming that it did not matter whether or not The Bridge On The River Kwai was set during the Second World War or the Korean War because, after all, it takes place in the Orient, around the middle of the Twentieth Century. That’s about the magnitude of the difference between a claim that the film is on memory and that it is on reality and perception. The former claim is about how one can experience the latter claim, while the later claim is the thing itself.

  The second greatest misclaim about the film is that it somehow represents a progression, of sorts, of the characters. Yet, this is manifestly untrue, since the film ends with the second man and the woman merely exiting the hotel into the darkness, an ending that emotionally resonates through the film like in Antonioni’s La Notte, released just a few months earlier (another case of dipping into the same artistic well as another). It is possible that they have escaped their Dantean hell, but it could all be fantasy, since in some scenes it seems that the woman has been killed (by the first man, the perpetual game winner who, on the verge of loss, takes the ‘nuclear option’?). And it is- given the film’s nature, certainly not out of the realm of possibility, and far more likely, that this very sort of scene happened a year earlier, if the second man is to be believed, and that their exit is merely a rewinding of the tape, so to speak, to set up a similar situation a year from now, in which the same Möbian events again unfurl. Thus, even though the film employs elements of Modernism (yet we are exposed to lust), Postmodernism (though rigidly structured), Symbolism (yet equally Baroque), and Surrealism (although emotionally realistic- obsession is often an offshoot of lust), and a dozen or more other minor schools of thought, it is none of these things alone, and few critics were able to get off their conventional critical hobby horses and address the film as it is. Perhaps the only –ism not attributed to the film by the pretentious critics of the day, and those now, is the one which makes the most sense for a work of art that looks at the same thing from multiple perspectives, and then tries to parallax them all at once, and that is Cubism. That stated, even that critical approach can only be use with limited success in limited scenes, because all great art transcends the silly human desire to box things in to a neat package ripe for a Madison Avenue pitch or slogan. With that in mind, or not, there simply is no evolution of the characters nor the plot. It is a piece of Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence fit for inclusion in The Twilight Zone, or, even more aptly, the show that preceded that, One Step Beyond. There is no dramatic transformation, however, nor is there any transcendence. The claims that there are simply evidence of a meme getting kicked about and lazy viewers and reviewers regurging it ad nauseam, in much the same manner that the claim that the characters are called A, M, and X has no basis in the ‘facts’ of the film, probably only in publicity information about the film that was passed about at its release, much the same way false claims about the names of the characters in Blowup were regurged without any filmic evidence of the claims. In fact, in one scene, the woman even asks of the second man’s name, and nothing is forthcoming.

  Then there are claims that are patently absurd, such as this one, from a review of a book on the film:

  The story itself is an Oedipal struggle to the core: the single male (the diffident subject/narrator X) uses the seductive power of memory to attempt to wrest the desired female/maternal love object A (the remembered source of past gratification) from the control of her apparently more powerful ‘husband’ M, who fights back with the characteristically male/paternal mechanism of hyperrationalistic mind control (the instrumentally rational matchstick game, which he ‘can lose but never does’) and the phallic symbolism of shooting a revolver.

  Apparently the critic, one Jeremy J. Shapiro, did not bother to research the fact that Oedipus Complexes, and related terminology, only have resonance when describing a child-parent relationship, with the seducer (in this case the second man) being the child. In the film, the second man is the same relative age as the two other main characters, if not a tad older, and the power dynamic between the three characters is not even remotely Oedipal; but, hey, it does make him sound like he’s making a deep point rather than just tossing about pretentious fluff, doesn’t it?

  Speaking of pretentious fluff, here is an article on the film, called Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation, by Thomas Beltzer. The article claims Beltzer is an Assistant Professor of English at Lane College, Jackson, in Tennessee. That bit of information is utterly superfluous for the essay starts off with an epigraph, filled with pretension, by an obscure writer. This writer and his work is used as the basis for comparison with the film, except for the fact that, unlike the film, the referenced work of fiction is science fiction. Thus, we get this bit:

  Understanding that "A" and "M", and perhaps "X", in Marienbad are all holographs would enrich our enjoyment of an otherwise incomprehensible film. "A", the woman, and "M", her husband, are cycling endlessly in a film that never ends. "X" offers her a way to freedom. Though he also seems strangely caught in their world, he is able to alter the scenarios through the power of suggestion. Maybe he is also a holograph and none of them can leave the resort, but he has at least achieved some self-awareness of what they all are. Maybe like the nameless narrator of Morel, he has edited the film to his own liking and inserted himself as a character. Though Marienbad is substantially different from Morel, knowing about the relationship between the two enriches Marienbad's meditation on the relationship between art and nature. Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first. Beginning as a mere trickle with The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero, we now have a flood of these ontological vertigo films - Total Recall, Dark City, The Matrix, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, The Truman Show and the on-going holo-deck of the various neo-Star Treks just to name a few.

  My word, talk about masturbation. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Last Year In Marienbad is a science fiction film, nor a meta-film. Nor is its greatness wholly dependent upon a knowledge of the far more obscure work the writer cites. Last Year In Marienbad is its own best explanation, as all great works of art are. And, unlike the other films named, there is no breaking of fourth or fifth walls, there is no meta-realization by the characters within the film. What Beltzer is doing is trying to establish the import of a work of art by citing dubious claims of influence. Yet, as I have shown earlier, chronology does not equate with causality.

  Let me explain. I have earlier linked this film to a film that came out a year later, Herk Harvey’s low budget black and white horror film Carnival Of Souls. That film follows a woman in a trance-like state, who is haunted by apparitions and an organ score as she travels crosscountry after being the lone survivor of a car accident. Some keen cinematography; some effectively cheap special effects; a psychological dream-like component that repeats images and motifs, and ends in an old funhouse pavilion, on the Utah salt flats, which greatly resembles the old hotel in Last Year In Marienbad; plus a male ‘zombie’ character that refuses to let her alone, trying to seduce her to her acceptance of her death; and the parallels are scary, despite other large differences in the films’ aims and accomplishments. However, they both manifestly dipped their quills into the same unconscious fountains. Yet, this fact does not mean that the two films were children of an even earlier seminal work, merely that a similar set of ideas and techniques found similar expression in their bodies, despite a diverse provenance. It is the artistic equivalent of convergent evolution, and a thing far too many critics fail to see when trying to link arts and individual artworks in a simplistic Linnaean fashion, rather than a deeper cladistic one.

  Thus, all of the reviews based upon ideas of influence or intentions of the filmmaker and/or screenwriter, are mere piffle, because they avoid the thing onscreen, the only thing that matters to the average, or even well informed, viewer. The rest is trivia, gossip, and worth little, if anything at all. The meaning is the totality of the film, its sum not its parts, and despite the oddity of a chronological sequence, the relationship of the three main characters remains fixed, even to the end- or possibly, the re-beginning. The film’s soundtrack, by Francis Seyrig, is stunning, in all its permutations, but especially in the organ pieces, and the haunting meld of sounds after emotional outbursts, like in the shooting gallery. And this stunningness starts write from the sci fi-like opening credits music, which gives way to a more 1940s themed intro. The cinematography, by Sacha Vierny, combined with the editing of Jasmine Chasney, produces indelible and stunning effects. As example, there are a few passages that swiftly intercut the seeming past with the seeming present, usually with the woman at the center of both scenes. Although the images from both times only last a second or less, the fact that one is set in dark grays and blacks, and the other in beaming whites, mesmerizes the viewer, literally, because the flashes back and forth between the two, via direct cuts, subliminally impresses the imagery deeper into the psyche, and cements it there with the strobe-like effect that acts as a cauterizing agent. Another excellent shot follows the second man and the woman into the lush Taj Mahal-like garden of the hotel, where they see sculptures of stone and tree in a geometric garden. The people out there cast long shadows, but the sculptures do not. This is very like the shadow work in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, made nearly thirty years earlier. The film was also shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and this allows shots where the three main characters can be seen in the same shot, with each of them occupying a corner (almost as if in an old deliberate split-screen construction, but one which is organically part of the shot, not a forced imposition), with the others unaware of another’s presence, which adds to the depth of the drama, as well as recapitulating the labyrinthine structure of the hotel corridors onscreen, with human characters. Yet another bravura section would later be repeated in Woody Allen’s great film, Stardust Memories. In this film, there is a quickly repeated series of shots that fly down a dark corridor, and seemingly the camera flows into the outstretched arms of the woman in her white boudoir. Yet, each take is ever so slightly different from the one that precedes and follows it. In Stardust Memories, this technique is adapted to show the mental breakdown of one of that protagonist’s lovers.

  The DVD, put out by Studio Canal, is a Region 2 disk from Europe. It won’t play on American DVD recorders. The company has done great work in restoring the film, although there are some scratches, here and there. There is a film introduction by Ginette Vincendeau, and a documentary called Dans Le Labyrinth De Marienbad. It’s a good little feature, but often partakes in the more masturbatory interpretations of the film that I have debunked. There is also a theatrical trailer for the film, and a short black and white 1956 film by Resnais called Toute Le Mémoire Du Monde. Overall, a solid DVD package, released in 2005, but it could have reached the heights of the best DVDs from The Criterion Collection, Anchor Bay, and Kino had it only included a good audio film commentary track. Another minor annoyance is the absence of an English language dubbed track. The white subtitles, on the often blanched scenery, are difficult to read about 15-20% of the time, and this DVD gives an object lesson in why subtitles have no business marring and distracting a visual medium.

  The film was nominated for the 1963 Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay, and won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. Aside from all the other schools and –isms that lay claim to it, the one it is most often lumped with is the French New Wave cinema, yet, it has only a marginal affinity with the early seminal works of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Resnais’s film is very much a film that takes deep advantage of its art form’s past, and subverts those forms in wholly opposite ways from the aforementioned directors’, as well as artistically succeeding far beyond the art of those two, as well. In short, a difference of degree does become a difference of kind, despite the sloth of some critics to knee-jerkedly lump groups of artists, and their art, so haphazardly together. That such an utterly timeless fictive film as Last Year In Marienbad came from Resnais, who also made the hopelessly dated documentary film Night And Fog, shows the power of being willing to change technique to address a certain subject. And the dialogue, by Robbe-Grillet, although elliptical, has a power and depth that would open wells that later experimental films, like Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, would also mine.

  But, as I admonished at the start, heed not any claims for this film, even mine. See it for yourself, for this is one of the great works of art that also acts as a de facto Rorschach Test for the percipient. Those addicted to the drudgery and predictability of formulaic Hollwood hackery will be bored senseless by the film. The remaining 1% or less of us will recognize Last Year In Marienbad as the great work of art it is. Sometimes, exclusivity has its benefits.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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