Last Year at Marienbad is the art house’s all-time “blind men describe an elephant” artifact, entirely by design. French New Wave auteur Alain Resnais collaborated with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet to fashion an elliptical, unknowable object d’art, and it continues to inspire equal and opposite reactions today. As the narration over the film’s trailer said, the movie is a stubbornly different movie for each viewer, a prospect that even through the years has galled.
Allow me to present a small sampling of the film’s wildly differing takes, knowing that they’re all obviously talking about different films. Jonathan Rosenbaum: “A primal masterpiece, it left everything up for grabs, including critical interpretation…Eventually led to a backlash of attacks once it became clear that the film was blissfully and triumphantly critic-proof.” Pauline Kael: “Cultural diehards…are still sending out five-page single-spaced letters on their interpretation of Marienbad. (No two are alike, no one interesting.)” Michael Gebert: “Intentionally indecipherable, stylish as can be—and tiresome once you’ve figured it out. Think of it as a phase the cinema had to go through.”
The recurring attitude throughout most interpretations of Marienbad—both positive and negative—is that of sheer interpretation fatigue. While some could likely take that as a sign of exasperation, it’s also a testament to the movie’s uncanny, hypnotic power over those willing to submit to its complex mélange of non-clues. Because when it comes down to it, the basic structure and plot of Marienbad are truly not that difficult to pin down. A woman simply known as A (Delphine Seyrig) somnambulistically rebuffs, reconsiders, and recoils from the romantic intimations of a man called X (Giorgio Albertazzi) as the two navigate the rococo hallways and gardens of a resort chateau. While M, A’s maybe husband, grifts equally zombified socialites in the salon, X tries to convince A she promised last year she would run away with him when they met again this year. He struggles to remember the specifics of their brief encounter, but the more he successfully jogs her lagging memory, the closer both come to facing an unspeakable, repulsive realization.
That much information is made available to every audience member, whether they’re receptive or not. But Resnais’s interpretation of Robbe-Grillet’s unreliable narrator stresses all available cinematic devices that would throw even the most jejune assumptions into question. By the movie’s end, you’re not even sure whether the main characters know each other, whether they exist in the same era as their surroundings, or even if they’re alive at all. Beyond Seyrig’s fashionable sarcophagus of haute couture Chanel and the movie’s self-referential games and rituals, Resnais’s film is a stark, elegant horror film about the dread we spend our whole lives trying to put off contemplating until next year.