L'année Dernière à Marienbad

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(Last Year at Marienbad)

France-Italy, 1961

Director: Alain Resnais

Production: Terra Films, Société Nouvelle des Films Cormoran, Argos Films, Précitel, Como Films, Les Films Tamara, Cinetel, Silver Films (Paris), and Cineriz (Rome); black and white, 35mm, Dyaliscope; running time: 100 minutes; English version: 93 minutes. Released September 1961, Paris. Filmed September through November 1960 in Photosonar Studios, Paris, and on location in Munich at various chateaux including Nymphenburg and Schleissheim.

Producer: Pierre Courau and Raymond Froment; screenplay: Alain Robbe-Grillet; main titles: Jean Fouchet; English subtitles: Noele Gillmor; photography: Sacha Vierny; editors: Henri Colpi and Jasmine Chasney; sound: Guy Villette; art director: Jacques Saulnier; music: Francis Seyrig; musical director: André Girard; costume designers: Bernard Evein and Chanel; 2nd assistant director: Volker Schlöndorff.

Cast: Delphine Seyrig (A); Giorgio Albertazzi (X); Sacha Pitoëff (M); Françoise Bertin; Luce Garcia-Ville; Hélèna Kornel; Françoise Spira; Karin Toech-Mittler; Pierre Barbaud; Wilhelm Von Deek; Jean Lanier; Gérard Lorin; Davide Montemuri; Gilles Quéant; Gabriel Werner.

Awards: Lion of St. Mark, Venice Film Festival, 1961.



Robbe-Grillet, Alain, L'Année dernière à Marienbad, Paris 1961; as Last Year at Marienbad, London and New York, 1962.


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* * *

Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad shares, with a handful of other films (notably Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, Godard's Breathless, and Resnais's own Hiroshima mon amour), the distinction of being a landmark of the French New Wave, and as such, a major influence upon later film styles. Unlike those other films, it remains controversial: it is often dismissed or despised as pretentious nonsense by some while admired as a masterpiece by others. In any case, it remains, far more than the other films, distinctly avant-garde in its conception of narrative.

Co-authorship of the film must be assigned to screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose earlier novels (notably Jealousy, 1959) share themes and narrative techniques with Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet's later works—films he directed as well as novels—have an even stronger resemblance to this first screenplay. This is not to deny major credit to Resnais, whose fascination with themes of time and memory runs through virtually all his films, and who had already displayed in an earlier feature and in a series of short subjects a mastery of montage and gliding camera movements characteristic of Marienbad. Marienbad's initial fame was based on certain surface qualities: the baroque palace setting with its eerie formal gardens (Poe's Haunted Palace brought to life), the frozen postures of the guests, the "Marienbad" game the guests play (a brief fad after the film's release), and the puzzling plot of a man ("X") who attempts to convince a languid woman ("A") to leave her sinister husband or lover as—X claims—she had already agreed to do last year at Marienbad. A, however, claims not to know X. A radical feature of the film is the frequent number of flashbacks, and possible flashforwards, which may in fact be fantasy scenes; the subjective visions of X or A or both. The film is also radical in its use of narrative voice. At times descriptions by the voice do not correspond to the actions on the screen; or the narrator's sentence is finished by the dialogue of an actor in an amateur play; or minor characters repeat earlier speeches of the narrator verbatim.

Faced with the impossibility of working out a linear, coherent narrative from this material, some have rejected the entire work as deliberately incoherent, while others have reveled in its intoxicated images and rhythms: the splendid black-and-white cinemascope compositions; the sweeping, occasionally dizzying tracking shots; the abrupt yet controlled contrasts of light and shadow. The film need not, however, be taken as an abstract or "contentless" work. It simply demands to be considered in terms of its significant images and rhythms, and the matters discussed by the characters and the narrator, rather than in terms of a traditional narrative and psychological analysis of the characters.

The film is clearly epistomological in its interests. It is about how one constructs "reality" for oneself, as X evidently so convinces A that they did meet at Marienbad that his possible fantasy becomes her reality. In his valuable preface to his film script, Robbe-Grillet suggests that whatever a film shows is "present tense," unlike the novel's past and conditional tenses; hence what may be X's or A's fantasies become reality not only for them but for the viewer as well. The film can also be said to be about how people attach meanings to existence. Characters in the film discuss the possible symbolism of a mysterious, hauntingly expressive statue. This artwork surely corresponds to the film itself. The viewer must interpret the characters and their motives, must decide what among the scenes witnessed is fantasy or lies, and what, if anything, is fact. Indeed, in the first 15 minutes of the film, the viewer must figure out which of the large number of "guests" investigated by the roaming camera are to be the main characters: the camera teasingly eavesdrops and gives misleading hints.

The film is also about the relation of life to art and artifice. As we make an effort to remember the past, we "freeze" an image of it which is not reality, but a picture, an artwork, or perhaps a fantasy. This epistemological theme is developed by the film not only in its basic drama but in its constant attention to works of art and to the artificiality of the characters: statuary and people who pose like statues; a theatrical production even more stylized than the actual performances in the film; engravings and photographs; and the palace-hotel itself with its formal gardens. The baroque setting is perfect. Its curvilinear forms suggest frozen and symmetrical plant life, while the geometrical gardens are an exceedingly artificial arrangement of real plants. Ultimately the film suggests that perception itself is the creation of artifice.

Marienbad may be read on other, but necessarily incompatible, levels as well. Freudians may see it as a fantasia on an Oedipal triangle, with both veiled and explicit images of sexual violence. Or it may be taken as a drama of entrapment or self-entrapment, like Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: a spectacle of people who cannot escape the prison of their own egos or the dominance of others.

It is difficult to trace the precise influence of Marienbad on later films, except for some specific cases such as the films of Robbe-Grillet, beginning with L'Immortelle (1963). Also included are the structures and rhythms in the films of Nicholas Roeg from Performance (1970) to Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession (1981); and Edward Dmytryk's Mirage (1965), a spy/murder-mystery in which an amnesia victim's memories, actual and false, are periodically flashed forth in Marienbad style. Thanks largely to Marienbad and other films by Resnais, the instant flashback (as opposed to the traditional slow ones signaled by dreamy music and blurred frames) and the interweaving of past and present events in a continuous flow have become a basic part of the vocabulary of contemporary filmmaking.

—Joseph Milicia