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Pick of the Week: "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) DVD
Guide Rating -  

Length: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated

The 1960s saw quite a bit of experimentation in world cinema, and one of the most fascinating of those experiments was the French-language film "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). For me, this movie is both beautiful and maddening. When I watched "Marienbad" on DVD, I found it absolutely mesmerizing, and it rattled around in my brain for days.

"Last Year at Marienbad" was directed by Alain Resnais and co-written by him and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. I don't think Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interested in either plot or character as traditionally understood; instead they wanted to use film to explore psychological and philosophical issues by playing around with time, space, memory, and perspective. Whatever their intent, they made a movie that engages me both emotionally and intellectually.

The setting for "Last Year at Marienbad" is stunning: a grand old European hotel that has long corridors and large public rooms. Chandeliers hang from ornate ceilings and cut-glass mirrors, prints, and old paintings adorn walls. The hotel guests are all very elegant, and their clothing and hair styles suggest that the time is about 1960. The atmosphere is funereal.

Names aren't given for the characters, so I've come up with my own scheme for referring to them. The man who does the brooding voice-over is the film's protagonist, and I'll call him the Narrator (Giorgio Albertazzi). The Narrator is obsessed with an attractive female guest, and I'll call her the Woman (Delphine Seyrig). But the Woman didn't come to the hotel alone—she's there with a gaunt male I'll call the Other Man (Sacha Pito).

The movie has a simple storyline: The Narrator expresses disappointment that the Woman acts as though she doesn't recognize him, and he talks in detail about the intimacy they shared at a resort hotel a year earlier. He says they parted with the understanding that he would not see her for a year, and he declares he's now come for her. He begs her to leave with him, and she appears to be considering it, although she seems conflicted. Meanwhile, the presence of the Other Man at the hotel complicates life for both the Woman and the Narrator.

I think "Last Year at Marienbad" is visually dazzling by any standard. One memorable sequence is presented in the style of a silent movie: the Woman, wearing ostrich feathers, reacts to the arrival in her bedroom of the Narrator; sometimes she cringes at his approach, at other times she spreads her arms wide in welcome. The film's most famous shot is reminiscent of a painting by Giorgio de Chirico: in a rigidly formal garden, people cast shadows, but statues and shrubs do not.

Most of the soundtrack music in "Marienbad" is played on an organ, and it wouldn't be out of place in an old horror movie. Much of the dialogue is banal, and sometimes the melancholy Narrator drones on and on. Some people find these to be negatives, but they seem right to me because they set the lugubrious tone of the film.

I suppose it's natural at first viewing to think of "Last Year at Marienbad" as a puzzle to be solved. You might expect, for example, that with careful observation you could figure out whether or not the Narrator is lying about having spent time with the Woman previously. While thinking about the movie this way undoubtedly provides some insight, I'm pretty sure the filmmakers have deliberately loaded their movie with so many logical inconsistencies and ambiguities that there is no "solution" to the "puzzle" it presents. But it seems to me this isn't a bad thing. After all, it's a sign of maturity to recognize that it's not desirable to resolve every ambiguity and it's not beneficial to view every problematic situation as a puzzle to be solved.

A lot of people who are smarter than I am have declared "Last Year at Marienbad" to be incomprehensible and heaped ridicule on it. (Pauline Kael called it "the snow job in the ice palace.") On the other hand, a lot of other people who are also smarter than I am have proclaimed the film to be a masterpiece. (Roger Ebert reviews it as part of his series titled "The Great Movies.") As for me, I like "Marienbad" a lot, but I have difficulty saying why. On one level, watching the movie makes me contemplate the question: How do I really "know" anything? On another level, the film somehow makes me conscious of my own confused emotions, conflicted yearnings, and hazy memories.

The DVD containing "Last Year at Marienbad" has only one special feature of any consequence, and it gives filmographies for Seyrig, Albertazzi, Pito, and Resnais.

Selected Special Features on the DVD:

  • Filmographies

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