As much as any film I can think of, "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) provides the greatest challenge for non-Francophones who need to rely on the subtitles. Viewers glancing down at the words at the bottom of the screen risk getting lost in a movie that demands constant attention because of the overwhelming amount of visual information packed into each frame. Every gesture, every slight variance in posture, and the intricate décor of each setting is crucial to an appreciation, though not necessarily an understanding, of this extraordinary film.
Set in a swanky resort hotel at an indeterminate European location, "Marienbad" does not tell a traditional narrative or rely on psychologically motivated characters. The characters don't even have names but are rather assigned letters in the screenplay. The basic structure, a love triangle of sorts, is elegant in its simplicity. The suave, handsome X (Giorgio Albertazzi) attempts to convince the beautiful and impeccably dressed A (Delphine Seyrig) that they had met the previous year. Perhaps in Frederiksbad or perhaps at Marienbad. She does not believe him, but he badgers her with memories so detailed they include whether she turned to her left or right or how she placed her arm on a balcony. He acts more like an academic than a would-be lover, trying to impress her with the sheer amount of research he has done on the topic. Throughout, the etiolated figure of M (Sacha Pitoëff), who may be her husband, constantly lurks along the fringes of the action.
"Marienbad" is the product of one of the most remarkable director/writer collaborations in cinema history. Alain Resnais had previously worked with the great writers Jean Cayrol ("Night and Fog," 1955) and Marguerite Duras ("Hiroshima, Mon Amour," 1959) and now paired off with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet was a pioneer of the nouveau roman, a French literary movement that broke with traditional conventions of story telling, relying on "objective" descriptions of environment and actions rather than delving into the character's psychological motivations (Cayrol and Duras were also part of the nouveau roman movement).
At the behest of a producer friend, the two men met and struck up an instant friendship, finding that they shared an artistic vision. An eager Robbe-Grillet volunteered to write four proposals for Resnais from which he would choose one to film. Resnais loved all four but picked "Last Year" ("at Marienbad" was added later). Robbe-Grillet then produced an extraordinarily detailed shooting script that specified movements and audio cues and handed it off to Resnais who filmed it in a mostly faithful manner. Robbe-Grillet would later play up some of the ways he was displeased with Resnais' adaptation, but it's hard to tell how much of this was just for the sake of publicity.
"Marienbad" begins with a disembodied voice that describes in detail "this baroque, gloomy hotel where one endless corridor follows another. " This opening narration is repeated three times as the camera tracks through this "edifice of a bygone era." The repetition of dialogue establishes the film's recursive structure but also provides relief for the viewer who can look away from the words and soak up the images floating by: the ornately designed ceilings, the leviathan chandeliers, and those "endless corridors" that unfold to a distant vanishing point.
Finally the camera settles on an audience staring raptly at what we soon learn is a stage. They are motionless save for the occasional eye blink. So is the actress on stage and when we first hear her voice, it is also free-floating, unconnected to her image. It isn't even necessarily her though the editing would strongly suggest so. The film toys with the relationship of sound and image throughout.
Though we haven't met our (sort of) characters yet (M is featured in an early close-up, but we don't yet know his significance), the film has been set up with remarkable efficiency. "Marienbad" is a movie of repetitions, some exact, some with slight variations, and it's the variations that tell the story though they are so subtle and varied it's impossible to piece them together in a definitive manner.
As words and movements are repeated, the film shifts both in time and setting. A character begins to turn in one room and finishes the maneuver in another. In one famous shot the two walk along a corridor. The sequence actually began on one film location and ended at another. The shifts aren't clearly delineated, but the primary marker is A's changes of wardrobe, most notably from a stylish black dress to a white feathered peignoir. "Marienbad" is rightfully celebrated by many for the prominence of its fashion designs by Chanel as for its formalist innovation. Just as enduring is the geometrically-designed topiary with its otherworldly triangular bushes and painted-on shadows, one of many elements that will remind viewers of Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980).
As X endlessly rehashes their alleged prior meeting, A's polite dismissal turns more desperate as it seems that she is actively suppressing a memory. The film suggests that their prior meeting may have involved a rape though the staging frustrates any definitive reading (Resnais denies the rape element, but it seems too obvious to ignore). X's resolve also crumbles. The more detailed his memories, the more he begins to doubt them which, if you think about it, is precisely the way memory works. Perhaps she actually turned left, or maybe she was wearing a different outfit. Was she sitting on the bed or lying on it? And was it Frederiksbad or Marienbad? And if I can't remember that, can I trust my memory at all? Memory was also the dominant theme of "Night and Fog" and "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" as well as subsequent Resnais films such as "Muriel" (1963) and "Je t'aime, je t'aime" (1968).
Delphine Seyrig was in three of the greatest films ever made: "Marienbad" and "Muriel" as well as Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" (1975, scheduled to be released by Criterion in August) and she is one of my favorite actresses (see also her against-type turn as a Communist super hero in "Mr. Freedom.") In "Marienbad," her performance doesn't consist of what most people consider traditional acting but rather a series of carefully calibrated poses and gestures. . Seyrig repeats poses across time frames and locations, particularly one sinuous and vulnerable one which suggests a silent film heroine pleading for mercy. Statues figure prominently in the set design and the narrative (such as it is) and the people can properly be considered statues as well. As A, Seyrig is one of the most memorable shapes ever shown on screen, and not just because Ms. Seyrig was so shapely.
Games also loom large in "Marienbad." M, the maybe husband of A, is seen most often in the parlor playing a game that annoys the bejeezus out of everyone else at the resort. It involves an alignment of sticks or cards into four odd-numbered rows and is a game which M states, "I can lose, but which I always win." He always does, but it may be the only game he wins, as X continually chips away at A's resolve and maybe (everything here is a maybe) wins her from him. The game, for anyone who is curious, is actually called Nim and, as configured in the film, the second player can always win if he plays perfectly. It's not a stretch to view X as the second player in the game for A though it may be a stretch to say that he plays perfectly.
I'm normally resistant to interpreting polysemous films like "Marienbad," but the gaming motif is such a tease that it's difficult to resist. Rather than call it an interpretation, I'd rather discuss my favorite perspective on the film, a game I like to play to enhance my enjoyment of it. Like many people, I think "Marienbad" works as a ghost story of sorts though one with a science-fiction twist. The stillness of so many actors evokes the feel of a mausoleum or a wax museum and there are many hints dropped in the voice-over that they, like the hotel, are products of a "bygone era." X, M and A are trapped in a time loop, reliving a past traumatic experience over and over again, but each time once more removed from the actual experience. In this sense they are more holograms than ghosts. If you slice away part of a hologram, the entire image is still present but it loses some resolution, becoming more diffuse with each cut. With each repetition, what is left of X, M and A likewise becomes more diffuse and so do their memories of what happened back in the ever-receding real world.
I want to emphasize that I don't intend this as an effort to uncover the movie's real meaning because that would miss the point entirely. This is a movie about movie-making first and foremost. In many shots, the characters are frozen and only lurch into movement after the camera has settled on them. Like all movie characters, they literally do not exist when the camera is not filming them. Go ahead, look, you won't see them if they're not in the frame.
"Marienbad" is primarily a movie about the objects that are filmed, including the people-objects that serve as our protagonists, or rather about their surfaces because cinema is and can only be about surfaces. That's not Delphine Seyrig after all (that would be tough since she died in 1990) but only an image of her captured on film and now transferred into a digital format (the hologram metaphor makes more sense now). All films are products a "bygone era" the instant they are recorded.
With its array of startling images from cinematographer Sacha Vierny, its unprecedented exploration of architectural space and its teasingly complex narrative structure, "Last Year at Marienbad" is a film that divided audiences when it was released and continues to do so today. For some, it is the ultimate manifestation of pseudo-intellectual pretension. To others, the ones who know what the hell they're talking about, it's one of the greatest films ever made, and an experience unrivaled in cinema.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
With black-and-white photography that varies in contrast from scene to scene, with one famous shot intended to look almost completely whited out, it's hard to evaluate any restored transfer. Indeed, as one of the extras on the DVD recounts, the film was a bitch for theaters to piece together because of what appeared to be some "incorrect" timing that some exhibitors saw fit to "correct" on their own.
Considering that this transfer is approved by director Alain Resnais, it's safe to assume it's pretty close to the original intention. Image resolution isn't quite as sharp as on some of Criterion's restorations but, again, it's hard to tell what the original photography by the great Sacha Vierny looked like. I'd say that it looks magnificent compared to the miserable Fox Lorber release but that would be a meaningless compliment.
The transfer is very strong overall, but Criterion has also released "Marienbad" on Blu-Ray and the difference in quality between the two is startling.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. In an interesting movie, one which I can't recall on a previous Criterion release, Resnais has insisted that the original audio be made available to home audiences in addition to the digitally restored soundtrack by Criterion. I listened to it with the original (I'm old school) and switched back and forth to the restored from time to time. No doubt the restoration sounds richer and cleaner, but Resnais' insistence once again raises the question of whether something like this should sound so rich and clean. In any case, you can't go wrong with either option.
To date, "Marienbad" has only been available in Region 1 on a miserable disc released by Fox Lorber many years ago. For those of us who have had to subsist on this thin gruel for the past decade, the Criterion restoration comes not just as a welcome relief but as a genuine miracle. It's not just the vastly improved image quality but also the considerable amount of extras offered for a film that positively requires them.
Disc One includes the restored transfer and the option to listen to the film with the restored audio track or the original theatrical audio. Two trailers are also included, the original and the Rialto re-release.
The delicious Disc Two is packed with goodies, but none are more valuable than the two short documentaries by Resnais. Both documentaries prove that an ostensibly dry project can produce a rich and rewarding film. "Tout la mémoire du monde" (1956, 21 min.) is a beautiful depiction of the French National Library in Paris that might seem quaint in the modern era of digital archives. It provides yet another example of Resnais' obsession with memory as you might have guess from the title.
Even more unlikely is "Le chant du styrene" (1958, 13 min.), shot in a polystyrene (plastics) factory. Consisting of bold primary colors and abstracted imagery, it's an update of the poetic British documentaries of the 30s for the pop art age and is yet another indisputable masterpiece.
"Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of ‘Marienbad'" (33 min) is a new documentary shot for Criterion that fortunately does not deliver on the threat of the title by trying to explain away the mysteries of "Marienbad." Several of Resnais' collaborators discuss the film's production, including assistant directors Volker Schlöndorff and Jean Léon, script girl Sylvette Baudrot (continuity must have been a really fun job on this shoot), and production designer Jacques Saulnier.
Ginette Vincendeau provides an illuminating analysis of the film (22 min) and also doesn't try to undermine by over-interpreting. She spends a good deal of time discussing the collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.
The final feature on Disc Two is an audio interview with Resnais (33 min) played over images from the film. The interview was conducted in 2008 for Criterion by film scholar François Thomas.
The substantial insert booklet features an essay by Mark Polizzotti, Robbe-Grillet's introduction to his published screenplay of "Marienbad," and an "Afterword" by François Thomas which discusses some of the differences between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet regarding the film.
"Last Year at Marienbad" is one of the primary movies that made me want to go to film school and become a film critic. It changed my perception of what movies could actually do and I didn't even see it until 1999. nearly 40 years after its release. It's just as bracing and essential today as ever. I am forever loyal to "2001: A Space Odyssey" but I won't argue with anyone who calls "Last Year at Marienbad" the greatest film ever made.
A few years ago I put a good Region 1 release of "Last Year at Marienbad" on my list of wishes for the New Year. It finally happened. Criterion has done a bang up job both on this SD release and the Blu-Ray version. As the end of June approaches, "Last Year at Marienbad" is an early candidate for Best DVD of the 2009.