An Old Avant-Garde Film Gets a Better DVD Edition and Comes to Blu-ray
Last Year at Marienbad is an experimental 1961 French New Wave film that deliberately eschews conventional notions of narrative and character motivation. It doesn't tell a completely coherent story, but it does depict a situation that is easily grasped by almost any adult viewer: At a fancy resort hotel, a man passionately tries to persuade a woman to come away with him, even though she is there with another man. Many details are not filled in, and each viewer is supposed to supply them in his or her own way. In the original theatrical trailer, clips from the movie were shown and the audience was told, "For the first time, you will be the coauthor of a film. From these images, you will shape the story based on your sensibilities, your personality, your mood, your own past."
In 1999 Fox Lorber released Last Year at Marienbad on a barebones single-disc DVD which has been out of print for several years. On June 23, 2009, Criterion Collection came out with a two-disc DVD edition that offers better picture and sound quality, improved English subtitles, over an hour and a half of new video bonus materials, a half-hour audio supplement and a 44-page booklet of written materials. Also on June 23, 2009, Last Year at Marienbad was released for the first time on Blu-ray with the same extras as the new two-disc DVD set.
The Film Takes the Receptive Viewer Into His or Her Own Subconscious
Last Year at Marienbad is set at a grand old European hotel that has long corridors and large public rooms. Chandeliers hang from ornate ceilings, and walls are adorned with cut-glass mirrors, prints and old paintings. Guests are elegantly attired, and the atmosphere is funereal.
A brooding voice drones on hypnotically, and it belongs to a handsome man who is obsessed with a slender, patrician-looking woman with a sculpted hairdo. He talks to her of the intimacy they shared the previous year at some resort hotel, perhaps at Marienbad, although she says that never happened. But she seems ambivalent toward him, and he persists in imploring her to come away with him. A complicating factor is that she is at the hotel with a gaunt man who may be her husband.
The film is visually dazzling by any standard. The most famous shot is of a rigidly formal garden where people cast shadows, but statues and shrubs do not. There's also a repeated sequence where the woman, wearing ostrich feathers, reacts to the arrival in her bedroom of the handsome man. She sometimes cringes, sometimes spreads her arms wide in welcome.
The filmmakers weren't much interested in 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. The movie is loaded with logical inconsistencies and ambiguities. But the film makes the receptive viewer conscious of his or her own hazy memories, confused emotions and conflicted yearnings.
It's always good to hear a director reflect on one of his movies, and to that end Criterion provides a 33-minute 2008 audio interview with Alain Resnais, who was then about 86. He discusses working with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, a noted novelist who died in 2008. Resnais says he was influenced by Pandora's Box, Vertigo and the paintings of Piero della Francesca. He states that all the location shooting was done within a 10-mile radius of Munich.
There's a reasonably interesting 33-minute making-of, in which two assistant directors, the production designer and the script girl reminisce about making the film. We learn that the locations used were Nymphenburg, Schleissheim and Amalienburg. The trick to the famous shot where people have shadows, but statues and shrubs don't, is revealed: the shadows were painted on the ground.
Ginette Vincendeau, a professor at King's College London, gives a 23-minute scholarly talk on the movie. She makes the intriguing observation that some people interpret the film as being about rape.
There is also a pair of documentaries directed by Resnais, one about the French national library in Paris, the other about a useful chemical product called styrene. Resnais' direction is impressive in both, but the subjects are only mildly interesting.
Packaged with the DVDs is a 44-page illustrated booklet that contains an excellent essay on the feature film by Mark Polizzotti, Robbe-Grillet's introduction to the published screenplay and an essay by film scholar François Thomas on some of the differences of opinion between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.
Below I have listed all the details for the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing Last Year at Marienbad.
Release Date: June 23, 2009
Number of Discs: 2
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1, Black and White
French Monaural With Restored Soundtrack
French Monaural With Original Soundtrack
Alain Resnais Audio Interview (33 min.)
Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad (33 min.)
Ginette Vincendeau on Last Year at Marienbad (23 min.)
Resnais Documentary: "Toute la memoire du monde" (21 min.)
Resnais Documentary: "Le Chant de styrène" (10 1/2 min.)
Theatrical Trailers (2)
44-Page Booklet Containing 2 Essays and an Intro to the Screenplay