Last Year at Marienbad (Review)

Last Year at Marienbad(1961)
Dir. Alain Resnais
Starring: Delphine Seylrig and Georgio Albertazi
94 minutes

Preview

I think most of you would probably not enjoy watching this film. On the other hand, for those who appreciate films outside the mainstream, there are aspects of the film that make this film worth watching. Personally, I didn’t understand the film, I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it, and I didnít feel a strong desire to re-watch the film–at least initially. Yet, the film has stayed with me, and after examining the film more I came to appreciate it.

Let me tell you a little about the film.

The film takes place at a a converted marble palace. The film is about a man recounting past events to a woman, trying to convince her that they met in the past.

That doesn’t tell you much, and may not be very compelling. But let me just say that the story itself is not the primary focus of the film. The value of the film is the way it explores certain filmmaking techniques in relation to larger themes. I believe Resnais does so in a way that would interest people who like filim.

(The following review is not so much a review as what I hope will start some discussion on this film. I have more questions than answers, and, hopefully, those of you who have seen it can verify some of my initial impressions.)

Review

As a story the film has very little going for it. The narration describing past events is not very interesting because the episodes are mundane: what she wore, where she sat, what position she was in, her facial expression, etc. Even the retelling of specific actions or conversations are uneventful. Most of the time the woman listens quietly; when she does speak, she disagrees with him or expresses confusion. The man’s emotionally flat voice (sort of like Jaques Costeau) doesnít help. Indeed, the manís tone and the repeating of exact lines of dialogue create a hypnotic sensation. To make matters worse, as the scenes progressed, I didnít feel like I was gaining a better sense of whether the man was telling the truth or not, and I soon lost interest in knowing the answer. However, perhaps I did not fully grasp the significance of those scenes, not recognizing the hidden meaning and symbols. I didn’t realize the importance of paying attention to details in the scene, nor the focus of my attention until the last quarter of the film.

The scenes may offer clues as to whether the man really did meet the lady. The clues may also provide the viewer with a way to arrange the scenes in the film to make the film more clear and understandable. In that way the film reminds me of David Lynchís Mulholland Drive, and I have to believe this film influenced Lynch. But while Lynchís film(s) may ultimately have a solution, Last Year may not. Whether the man met the woman may be besides the point.

The main point of the film may be an exploration of the way we understand timeóspecifically in film and generally in real lifeóand this relationship with our understanding our grasp of reality. Resnais seems to have achieved this by creating a film that has dispensed with any firm grounding in time. All the things that help viewers understand the relationship between the scenes in the film are removed, specifically when each scene took place in relation to other scenes (i.e. the past, present or future). When we watch a film in chronological order, we know the early scenes happen before the scenes at the end. This helps us understand the way the scenes relate to each other. Even if a director doesn’t arrange the scenes in chronological order, he usually leaves markers and cues of time to understand the time relationship between the scenes. From this we can not only determine the actual chronological order of the events, but we also get a sense of the amount of time lapsed between events.

Directors employ various methods to help audiences do this. It’s a Wonderful Life has many examples of this. Capra uses costumes, make-up and hairstyles in other ways to help audiences get their bearings when a film jumps around in time. The younger George Bailey wears a bowtie and his hair is black and neatly combed. He also wears a football uniform at one point making him look younger. In other scenes, George has graying temples (even in black and white), and clothes that make him look older. He also uses the conversations between Clarence and a higher angel to explicitly indicate transitions in time. There are countless examples of these cues, and we usually arenít conscious of them.

But suppose a director eliminated these time-markers and cuesóto intentionally obscure the chronology of the scenes? That is what Resnais seems to be doing in Last Year at Marienbad. He does not use cues between scenes telling the viewer they are moving from the past, present or future. For example, the scenes that occur with voiceover narration should be in the past, but he edits the film so that viewers you donít know if the scenes refer to past events or present conversation.

Resnais seems to have not used costumes, make-up and hairstyling to help the audience gain their bearings. He may even intentionally have used them to confuse the audience, but I canít recall enough of the film to be sure. In some scenes the lady wears a black evening gown while in others she’s wearing a white one. (She may also have another dress, but I can’t remember!) The scenes just seem to lay next to each other without normal cues or transitions that help us understand the time relationship between the scenes. I suspect the editing of the film also contributes to this, but I cannot recall specific examples.

Not only do viewers not know the correct sequence of events in the film, but they do not know the amount of lapsed time between events! As one commentary suggested we do not know if the events occur within seconds, minutes, hours, months or years of each other. Without these time indicators, we don’t even know if the scenes occurred at all. Resnais exacerbates this by showing a play that uses the same lines of dialogue as the narrator.) Knowing when a scene occurred seems essential to its reality. It’s the time-markers and cues that help distinguish between our imagination and actual events. That seems to be the message in the film. The scenes just seem to float and shuffle around, folding in upon itself. At the end of the film the amount of time that has elapsed is difficult to determine.

Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is like Rashomon in that both films explore memory and truth to the extent that this exploration becomes the point of the film. In that way the film experiments with filmmaking and the ways in which film techniques help us understand time and reality. At the same time the film seems refined and experimentation does seem to be gratuitous. But as I mentioned, I have trouble recalling specific details of the film, so I would have to re-watch to verify my impressions.

6 Responses to “Last Year at Marienbad (Review)”


  1. Mitchell

    So, based on your rating system, this film would get a 5, right? You didn’t really enjoy watching it, but you didn’t dislike it either.

  2. Reid

    I don’t know what I would rate this film, as I don’t like rating a film I don’t fully understand, particularly when I feel that I may be responsible for this more than the director.

    Also, I rate films based on a combination of whether I enjoy the film and whether I think it is good. I could ultimately give a film an 8, let’s say, because I really enjoyed the film, even though I didn’t think it was that well-made, or I thought the film was really well-made even though I didn’t enjoy it as much.

  3. pen

    Despite falling asleep and having to rewind certain parts, I really enjoyed Last Year at Marienbad. This film is extremely open to interpretation and reminds me of my college days when (the other poli sci majors and I) would sit around and theorize and try to interpret films — from the profound to the outrageous.

    Definite playing with time and reality in this movie and there are elements (as Reid mentioned) of Lynch here, too. Definitely good discussion material.

    **Spoilers**

    I mean, is X an actual man who speaks to the Woman or does he represent something else? Is he a figment of her imagination, of what she hoped would be? All interpretations equally plausible. At first I thought X was death trying to seduce the Woman who had “flirted” with him previously, but is now in denial. Then I discarded that theory, thinking perhaps he was her unfulfilled ambitions.

    Now, I am leaning more toward X and the Woman having an affair previously, but X dies in a tragic accident (falling off the wall) and she imagines on the anniversary of this affair what might have been.

    Of course, there is a lot more to discuss: Y (her husband or perhaps societal convention?); the marienette-type people all well-dressed (a comment on high society?); and the game that Y always wins. Tons to have fun speculating wildly about! Join in! Join in!

  4. Reid

    Spoilers

    The woman remembering an affair and the fact that X dies is an interesting theory. Unfortunately, I can’t recall enough of the film to make a case for or against this theory.

    One comment I heard about Y’s unwinnable game was that it hints at the fact that movie is not solvable. Btw, in the Entertainment Weekly book of great films, the description says that Resnais and the screenwriter strongly disagreed about the relationship. The screenwriter claimed that they never met, and Resnais said that he couldn’t have made the film unless they had! That tells you a lot about the film. I wouldn’t mind watching it again.

    Penny, what did you think about my comments about the way directors cue the audience about the time of a scene and the time relationship between scenes? I think Lynch learned some lessons from the film and applied it to Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive.

  5. pen

    I read one comment that said she thought that when the actors wore black it was “real” time and when they wore white it was “fantasy/imaginary” time. I, too, need to see the movie again to agree or disagree with that, although I do remember when the Woman was in a white robe and that seemed “fantasy” to me.

    The director was definitely as obscure about his “timing cues” as he was about everything else. I definitely need to see this film again (perhaps with lots of coffee). Unlike Delicatessen, another French film in which I kept falling asleep.

  6. Reid

    Don’t start with Delicatessen. I still can’t understand why you (Grace and Larri) didn’t like that film! I wouldn’t mind seeing Marienbad again. Maybe we can see it with Grace, Mitchell and Larri.

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