Extramarital affairs don’t get any more enigmatic and impenetrable than Resnais’ hypnotic Venice Golden Lion-winning anti-romance that boldly discards structure and narrative, leaving only unreliable memories and narrators.
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff
Plot: In a huge, old-fashioned luxury hotel a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him, but it seems she hardly remembers the affair they may have had (or not?) last year at Marienbad.
Awards: Won Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Original Screenplay (Oscars)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Unreliable Memory; Time; Extramarital Affair
Narrative Style: Complex/Elliptical
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
I remember seeing this on the big screen close to fifteen years ago and it became my favourite film from Alain Resnais. With the passing of time, I have instead become more attracted to Hiroshima mon amour (1959), his other great early work.
Revisiting Last Year at Marienbad only confirms this, but that doesn’t take away how bold his Venice Golden Lion-winning sophomore effort was—and still is today.
Brazenly discarding traditional ideas of structure and narrative, and leaving only unreliable memories and narrators, Last Year at Marienbad is a surreal and haunting experience with very few stable markers of plot and characterisation. As such, the film feels imagined, rather than being.
The rough premise revolves around a man’s encounter with a woman (they don’t even have names to begin with) in a grand chateau, with the former insisting that they have met a year before in the very same place.
“Why don’t you still want to remember anything?”
At some level, Resnais’ work operates as an anti-romance with what seems like an extramarital affair at its center. On the other hand, the film is so enigmatic and impenetrable that one wonders if something more sinister is going on (a murder, a sexual assault, a suicide, maybe?).
An artistic collaboration between Resnais and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the key figures of the Nouveau Roman (New Novel) movement of the 1960s where writers radically experimented with literary styles, Last Year at Marienbad brings to the fore the question of time—what is past, present and future when the temporality of the film is unmarked and fragmented.
The eerie organ music that permeates the mirrored hallways and cloistered rooms of the chateau is the only constant, as if lamenting the burden of time in giving human folly any meaning, and so is the camerawork, seemingly floating in space and time, a spectre lurking in the shadows.