Alienation: “a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment,” as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it. The same source also defines the term “dream” as: a state of mind marked by abstraction or release from reality. Both terms’ meanings carry an apt description that fits so perfectly well when talking about Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, for only one viewing can boggle the mind that one won’t even know where to begin when talking about the sort of wonder it creates. But I’ve already watched Last Year at Marienbad numerous times and I’m still left with that befuddling emotion although I know deep down that it truly is one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed to have graced the screen. The term “unique” may already be overused a tad but it’s only fitting when describing this sort of experience.
The whole idea behind Last Year at Marienbad is one that plays upon ambiguity. The film is set in an unknown area, although what we see from the outlook is a beautiful chateau – where a man and a woman meet. Throughout the film, these two figures go unnamed, but the man remarks that the woman is a familiar face to himself for they may have met at Marienbad a year prior to the events that we are watching now. What’s most astounding about the way Last Year at Marienbad moves from there onward is just a purely baffling mood it manages to create especially when it is hard enough trying to tell what is real and what is fiction, but what it created on the spot is something truly beautiful. It’s a film that can play to oneself like only a half-remembered memory that hits upon the human soul in the manner a dream would.
An opening narration spoonfeeds the audience with information from one point of view but that lack of clarity as a result of the repetition carries an alluring quality within oneself. A memory plays in one’s mind like a song on repeat, hence the repetition offered all throughout. But maybe if something else could be said in order to perfectly describe what it is that Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps it could be that it is a perfect testament about the form which it is taking upon in itself because it goes beyond what it displays and perhaps that openness is something only the French New Wave could ever have brought to the screen in this manner. Thematically, Last Year at Marienbad is a film about the effect of a lingering memory (just like the majority of Alain Resnsais’s films) and how perception of such can so easily be manipulated when similar sights can come abound, but it is never exactly clear what you are supposed to make of events coming up. With all that having been said, however, it is far from a bore but it still carries something so deeply hypnotizing because of the mood it creates. Surrealist? Pretentious? Whatever word you throw at it, it’s a baffling product.
Since I brought up the term “alienation” when it comes to describing Last Year at Marienbad, such hypnosis as mentioned prior indeed has a feeling almost akin to alienation but perhaps it is only the most fitting when it comes to describing what Alain Resnais wants oneself to feel when they wander through these sorts of memories. When one walks in, they step into a labyrinth and by the time the film ends, you’re unsure whether you made it to the very center or are just at another dead end. Yet alarmingly the plot is actually a rather simple one: a man played by Giorgio Albertazzi (referred to as X in the screenplay) meets a woman played by Delphine Seyrig (A), who may have had a past affair although A is together with M, a man who may or may not be her husband. But the sorts of perceptions that can come along only make a more subjective work within itself because it’s unclear even with such a simple outline what the outcome is and it’s what a viewer demands most.
It could also be that the ambiguity of Last Year at Marienbad where a greater horror is only rising slowly. There’s no certainty as to whose point of view is being explored nor is there any clarity between what is truth and what is fiction: everything about Last Year at Marienbad is formed upon perception. Yet like the replay of a memory, it is only fitting that maybe upon a note that we can recognize as traumatic one only wants to suppress it. What ever could it have been that kept X and A apart for so long? Alain Resnais never feeds oneself with that, but he repeats a series of phrases and incidents that stick out. One can say they get annoyed at its repetition because the manner to which it plays feels like that of said memory we want to suppress because it hits back like a trauma, but I think if one ever gets annoyed it adds more within Last Year at Marienbad to find fascinating in itself.
This soon brings me back to the second term to which I defined in the opening paragraph: dream. Said term is arguably most fitting when describing Last Year at Marienbad not only in atmosphere but also in delivery. Alain Resnais has created something that goes beyond the borders that cinema can provide in only a little more than a single hour and a half. Such a product is only so abstract with its meaning and its motifs but never is it anything less than fascinating because the beauty it provides all around is some sort of a hypnosis. But within its setting, it only highlights how easy it is to find yourself feeling lost trying to find a perfect recollection. Does it matter anymore whether we get everything that we desire out of something so hypnotizing altogether? Does clarity even matter anymore? If I were to talk about how Alain Resnais deconstructs art within art in Last Year at Marienbad, then my answer is no.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via StudioCanal.
Directed by Alain Resnais
Screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Produced by Pierre Courau, Raymond Froment
Starring Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff
Release Year: 1961
Running Time: 94 minutes