Movie 94: Last Year at Marienbad
Manly Footwear: It’s so easy to make fun of this movie, and so tempting, even while watching it, that it’s even easier to forget how really successful it is. I almost wrote, “how great it is,” but that would require considerable redefinition of the word “great” in the context of the other movies on this list, and in fact in relation to any kind of critical judgment of art. The shots are painterly and impeccably staged, the camerawork subdued and elegant, and the acting exactly as artificial as it needs to be, all in service of making a narrative meant to toy with the viewer’s idea of what a narrative is, of what a movie is.
Marienbad is also fairly easy to summarize: a man, a woman, and (probably) her husband are guests at a huge, ornate hotel. The man tells the woman that they met last year, and arranged to meet again this year, she resists his argument, the husband appears. This basic scene is played over and over again, in different rooms, or in the same room that is now decorated in a radically differently way, or in the garden, or the bar—in between his attempts to convince her, the (maybe) husband keeps beating the man at a game involving picking up a series of matches from the table. At one point, the (could be) husband shoots the woman dead, but then there she is again in the next scene, trying to resist the man’s entreaties.
The dialogue is a perfectly mercurial match for the not-quite-a-story: “We met last year, at Marienbad, or perhaps it was Baden Baden, do you remember? You wore black, or white, or red, it was night, or the morning…” Circling around something concrete, something defined the way we expect our world and art to be defined, without ever actually arriving at definition, is a remarkable balancing act—the tension between almost-meaning and meaninglessness must be maintained, instead of simply trying to get the viewer to suspend their disbelief and accept the story one is trying to tell. A poorly made movie will make us aware we are watching it, and this ruins the experience, while Marienbad sets out to make the sure we are constantly aware that we are watching a movie, and that this awareness is the exactly the point, effectively turning our vision inward and outward at the same time. Whether the experience is “great” or not is irrelevant, except inasmuch as it reveals how inadequate that word is, how paltry our own habits of ranking and categorizing the world.
“L’Année dernière à Marienbad is a 1961 French-Italian Left Bank film directed by Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet” or, in other words, a weirdo french movie.
Last Year at Marienbad is the translation. It’s a film that causes extreme reactions – love, hate, confusion, stupification, agitation, that’s the idea.
It starts with a sweep through a rococo building, focusing on the ornate decoration and over the top gilding all the while repeating the same phrase over and over again.
We finally enter a room filled with people who are frozen in the middle of what appears to be a party. The camera pans through the figures, a light shines on one and the scene begins to move.
This pan and stop and start continues through the film and helps add to the ambiguity I believe the film makers wanted to infuse in the film. Narrated by a male voice and focusing on 3 characters, one woman and 2 men, in a series of very confusing vignettes, it’s really hard to discern what, if anything is happening.
Throughout the scenes, we catch odd snippets of conversation from “extra” characters who are then joined by one or more of the 3 mains – usually conversation is between the woman and one of the men and ending with the second man materializing out the of the shadows and ending the initial conversation and causing the woman to leave the scene.
2 themes run through the interactions of these characters: one man is intent on getting the woman to remember? admit? acknowledge? (very hard to tell) that they met last year in Marienbad; the same man challenges or is challenged by the other man (maybe the woman’s husband or lover?) to a mathematical game that the first man always wins.
The use of black and white in the scenes is really striking and helps enforce the fact that the audience doesn’t really have the whole picture of the relationships being laid out in the various interactions.
Wait, are they dead? is she just dead? was there a rape? was there a murder? do the man and the woman know each other? Is this a dream? or an invented life?
Perhaps going to Marienbad will help to figure it out.