The poster child of cinematic modernism, one of those early-’60s event films that seemed to break every rule classical Hollywood ever codified, Last Year at Marienbad left its initial audiences in equal measure ravished by Sacha Vierny’s sumptuous cinematography, capturing in rapturous detail every element of its chateau setting’s florid production design, and baffled by its deliberately disorienting puzzle-picture narrative, so willfully inscrutable that its three main characters don’t even have names. You have to trouble yourself to read the screenplay in order to glean that they’re called (like variables in some erotic algorithm) A, X, and M.
Unlike the testimonials to the politique des auteurs, all the rage with the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, Last Year at Marienbad draws its power from a difference engine, the disparate and ultimately divergent sensibilities of its director and screenwriter. New Wave affiliate Alain Resnais, fresh off the critical success of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a film that interrogates the mixing of memory and desire in the lives of two lovers wounded by wartime experiences, plays up Last Year at Marienbad’s elegant theatricality, pitched somewhere between statuary and opera, as exemplified by the stilted, nearly Kabuki rendition of Ibsen played during the film’s opening scenes. “New Novelist” Alain Robbe-Grillet enjoyed lavishing minute descriptions of almost geometric exactitude on details of architecture and décor, while hiding in plain sight intimations of sadomasochistic rape and murder like perverse Easter eggs in works with titles like The Voyeur, Jealousy, and In the Labyrinth. All of which, it must be said, would’ve made excellent alternate titles for Last Year at Marienbad.
As Robbe-Grillet describes in his introduction to the published screenplay, Last Year at Marienbad is “an attempt to construct a purely mental space and time—those of dreams, perhaps, or of memory, those of any effective life—without excessive insistence on the traditional relations of cause and effect, nor on an absolute time sequence in narrative.” Last Year at Marienbad was filmed, as it were, in the conditional mood, exploiting a narrative tense that hashes together future and past.
Such a philosophy of screenwriting brings to mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quip: “I agree a film should have a beginning, middle, and end. But not necessarily in that order.” Like variations on the game of Nim played throughout Last Year at Marienbad, the film invites the viewer to select and rearrange its constituent parts. Consequently, there’s no firm anchor by which audiences can establish any certainty, events take place in an indeterminate time frame, and it’s never clear whether they represent reality or fantasy, desire or fear, let alone whose.
In a palatial resort hotel, a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), approaches a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), claiming they met a year ago, “perhaps” in Marienbad, and fell in love. The woman, under the watchful eye of M (Sacha Pitoëff), who may or may not be her husband, begged a year’s reprieve before running away with X. And so X has descended on her like a lovelorn Orpheus, to convince her to fulfill her promise. At first incredulous, A slowly comes to accept X’s version. At the same time, X’s persuasion steadily darkens into its obverse, compulsion.
The repetition-with-variation imagery suggests a violation, a moment of sexualized violence, but Resnais films what the script describes as a relatively overt rape scene with perverse circumspection; the camera rapidly dollies down a hallway, then turns a corner sharply, and enters a room, where A greets it with outstretched arms. Resnais repeats the scenario several times, going so far as to overexpose the film stock so that the image takes on a spectral whiteness. Moments from some lost expressionist screen test, these shots gauge the influence of silent cinema on Last Year at Marienbad’s acting and ambience, as does the flagrant lifting of Seyrig’s costume and coiffure from Theda Bara and Louise Brooks, respectively. To illustrate precisely what he wanted, Resnais reportedly screened G.W. Pabst’s Brooks-starring Pandora’s Box for cast and crew.
About 11 minutes into the film, Alfred Hitchcock (or an elaborate full-sized cutout, at any rate) makes one of his trademark cameo appearances, perhaps the only one not in his own film. It’s easy to miss in the midst of all those mannequin-like patrons. Not just a debt of gratitude to one of Resnais’s favorite filmmakers, this nearly imperceptible jeu d’esprit illuminates his playful approach to mise-en-scène, and teases out the film’s generic pedigree.
Whatever else it may or may not be, Last Year at Marienbad is a mystery thriller, using the latter term perhaps a trifle loosely, bearing more than a few trappings of the horror genre. No coincidence, then, that one of the films most indebted to Last Year at Marienbad, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, borrows liberally at stylistic and thematic levels, engaging in similar-seeming Steadicam shots tracking ceaselessly along the Overlook’s pattern-carpeted hallways, and putting forward the uncanny suggestion that its terrible events have all happened before and likely will happen again, forever and ever and ever.