At a luxurious, baroque hotel, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) confronts a woman (Delphine Seyrig) and claims that they were acquainted last year at Frederiksbad. When she says that she’s never been to Frederiksbad, he acknowledges that it might have been Karlstadt or Marienbad or Baden-Salsa, or even the very room where they’re now talking, and it’s also possible that it happened more than a year ago. Still, he insists that it’s true and tells her everything he remembers about their time together, about the way she looked and their surroundings and the conversations they had and the plans they made. She, meanwhile, keeps denying that she recalls any part of it.
Near the beginning of Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, one of the hotel guests remarks, “Trying to make sense of it doesn’t make any sense,” and perhaps that’s the best approach to take to the film itself. At least as far as I could tell on a first viewing, there’s no great “aha” moment when all of the puzzle pieces fall into place and the mysteries evaporate. Some things become clearer as it goes on; others only become more muddled and confusing, so much so that even the man doesn’t always trust his memory. He talks about ending their “story,” suggesting that, intentionally or not, he may have shaped real events into a more interesting narrative, and when one ending proves dissatisfying, he seeks another. Fact and fiction blur in other ways too: the two main characters discuss statues representing a couple, and the man tells the woman that “they might as well be you and I”; dialogue heard in a play is later repeated by the man, speaking about himself and the woman.
There’s a great deal of repetition in this fragmented, looping film. Images and phrases recur again and again, often placed in new contexts or juxtaposed in surprising ways, taking on different meanings as a result. The repetition helps to give Last Year at Marienbad a hypnotic quality, further enhanced by the organ music that plays almost constantly in the background and by its air of unreality. Filmed in beautiful black and white, each shot appears carefully arranged. Not only are the ornate hotel and its grounds striking to the eye, but the elegant guests frequently serve as human props, frozen into poses or moving about in a stylized manner. All of this makes it nearly impossible to get a solid sense of what’s true and what isn’t, what happened before and what’s happening now and what never happened except in someone’s imagination. As a viewer, it’s hard not to try to make sense of a movie of this sort, but I’m glad that there’s no simple explanation; it will make rewatching it someday far more enjoyable — just as the man and woman’s made-up stories about the statues are much more fun than the dry factual information another character offers.
(On a related note, I happened to learn recently, the music video for Blur’s “To the End” is based on Last Year at Marienbad. I saw it a number of years ago and, as I was totally unaware of the film at the time, it struck me as stylish but bizarre; now that I’ve watched the original, I find it delightful.)
This post is part of the 2017 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.