Sophomore year of film school: I’ve just turned nineteen and am taking a production class called Sight & Sound: Film. At one point, watching the work of a fellow student, I become thrilled for the first time all semester. Her film opens with a camera dollying through a dorm room, filled with extras frozen like statues. “Oh my God!” I say to myself, “She’s doing Last Year At Marienbad! Someone else in my class has seen this film! Fantastic!” The thrill slowly subsides as I realize that the film is not an homage to, but a snide parody of Alain Resnais’ masterwork. Getting up in front of the class after the screening, the filmmaker explains that a friend had recommended the film to her, and she was shocked by how awful and boring it was. So shocked, in fact, that she felt the need to make this short film, which ultimately served no other purpose than to mock it.
Make no mistake, Last Year At Marienbad is a difficult film—one of the most difficult I’ve seen. It’s difficult to sit through, difficult to understand, and easy, as my classmate taught me, to satirize. But if one is willing to put a significant amount of work in, it is also incredibly rewarding.
The epitome of the ’60s avant-garde foreign-made “art” film, Marienbad features baroque locations, glacial pacing, a totally non-linear plot, and narration so serious it almost swings back around (from a present day perspective, at least) and mocks itself. The helmers were two of the most ambitious French artists of the time: director Alain Resnais, who was being hailed as a genius by Cahiers du Cinéma for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (his 1959 collaboration with Marguerite Duras), and Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the pioneers of the Nouveau Roman, the French literary equivalent of the New Wave.
Marienbad takes place in an old hotel, as a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (Delphine Seyrig) to come away with him. She doesn’t recall him at all, but he insists that they met a year earlier and made plans to wait a year before running off together. Adding to the tension is a third man (Sacha Pitoeff), presumably the woman’s husband, who is usually busy playing a mathematical parlor game with the hotel’s other guests. As the film goes on, it becomes very clear that there is no significant linear narrative or plot; instead, we are presented with a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, some presumably fantasy, some perhaps real, although we have no way of telling which are which. The film’s structure resembles nothing so much as a scattering of memories, linked together by association (be it through place, object, person or language) and general stream-of-consciousness thought. According to the press notes, the filmmakers’ intentions were to construct a film that creates a “mental time” similar to our normal course of memory. While the film’s structure is certainly avant-garde, one cannot help but agree with this statement; is Marienbad not an example of the way in which our minds reflect? Do we not jump from one moment to another in time with no sense of linear progression, propelled only by the slightest associations?
What Marienbad demonstrates is that memory is not hierarchical, it does not flow according to a narrative logic, nor to a logic of any other kind save for that of association. To borrow a term from Gilles Deleuze, memory is far more rhizomatic—de-centered, with lines and links and connections that extend in every which way. There may not be a logic to the chaos, but there is absolutely a beauty in it. In a more specific sense, the film is commendable for its ability to render the way in which memory perverts itself. Throughout Marienbad, as the man and the woman go back and forth on their memories of what occurred a year before, we are presented with many different versions of what the past might have been. During many of these “flashbacks” we have one of the two characters narrating. Oftentimes, however, we will actually see the character delivering their narration diegetically, within the flashback. (As it plays out, this commenting-upon the memory is a clever way of exploring how our minds can reshape the past, even as we seemingly restore it.) In other sequences, we are presented with one scene shown in many different ways: the actors posed slightly differently, the lighting different, et cetera (a scene with Seyrig lying on her bed is the best example).
Even if one doesn’t enagage with Marienbad on a theoretical level, one cannot fail to engage with its aesthetic—its visuals are as breathtaking as its concept is ambitious. Everything in Marienbad is enormous: the dollies are epic (as are the hotel hallways they track through), the costume design is over-the-top (perhaps not as much in 1961, but significantly so now), and the locations are too gorgeous for words. A statue-filled hedge garden serves for many of the film’s outdoor sequences, which (again) are so beautifully blocked as to almost reach around and mock themselves. The fourth “character” in the film is the hotel itself (each room more dominant and foreboding than the one previous) and the fifth is the camera, which stalks the characters down the hallways and through the ballrooms like a voyeur (it wanders through the hotel much as the characters wander through their memories). Marienbad has inspired numerous interpretations, but it necessitates exactly none of them, for it is the film’s formal qualities that beget its content. As Susan Sontag writes in Against Interpretation: “What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.”
At this writing, Last Year At Marienbad’s place in cinematic history seems an uncertain one, and understandably so. It’s not as accessible as Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It’s not as fun as the other “big” films of the French New Wave. It might not even be as well-liked as that other French masterpiece of memory, Sans Soleil, made by Alain Resnais’ former Assistant Director. Granted, the film is tedious at times, and can feel somewhat dated—but what is Marienbad about if not the ability of the dated to remain pertinent? “The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It hasn’t even passed.”
Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.