Last Year in Marienbad: Criterion Collection
July 14, 2009
When Last Year in Marienbad came out in 1961, it divided critics and audiences alike with its refusal to adhere to traditional linear storytelling. Prior to this film, director Alain Resnais had dazzled audiences with his feature debut Hiroshima mon amour (1959). On Marienbad, he collaborated with author Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose four novels implied plot through objective description instead of doing it through detailed character analysis. As a result, Marienbad presents only the components of a story and then leaves it up to the audience to make sense of it all.
The opening shot of Last Year in Marienbad is of a gorgeously ornate ceiling in a hotel which quickly establishes that this film has some of the best photographed architecture outside of a Michelangelo Antonioni film. Voiceover narration describes the place as “baroque” and “gloomy,” where “one endless corridor follows another.” Resnais’ camera glides through various rooms and presents one awe-inspiring furnishing after another, like the intricately designed chandelier that hangs in a room populated by tall mirrors. The voiceover narration repeats continuously, fading in and out of the soundtrack. This opening sequence is a symbolic throwing down of the gauntlet by Resnais as he wants to challenge the traditional way a film should be structured.
A man (Albertazzi) meets a woman (Seyrig) in an elegant ballroom where they dance while engaging in conversation. She asks him, “does this hotel have so many secrets?” to which he replies, “a vast amount.” He tells her that they met before, but she has no memory of such an encounter ever taking place. The man spends most of the film trying to convince the woman of their previous encounter.
Each frame of Last Year in Marienbad is meticulously composed and if freeze-framed, could resemble individual works of art. The film features some rather audacious editing for its time as it cuts back and forth in time in unpredictable fashion. This film is akin to a cinematic jigsaw puzzle and it is up to the audience to make sense of it, to put these seemingly random scenes into some kind of order in their own minds. Marienbad is a cinematic hall of mirrors with all kinds of repetition of images as two people try to connect with each other. They appear to be doomed to roam the hallways and rooms of this vast hotel forever, imprisoned on film. We can revisit them any time we want for they will always be there.
The first disc features the original theatrical and re-release trailers.
The second disc starts off with an “Alain Resnais Audio Interview” with the veteran filmmaker talking over clips and stills from Last Year in Marienbad. He speaks about the origins of the project including meeting Robbe-Grillet for the first time and what drew him to the man’s novels. He goes into detail about various aspects of the film, like the stunning cinematography. Resnais also touches upon the film’s reception at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad” is a new 33-minute retrospective featurette that examines how this film came together from the perspective of a few key collaborators. They all talk about how they got involved and what it was like working with Resnais.
“Ginette Vincendeau on Last Year at Marienbad” features this film scholar discussing all kinds of interpretations of the film. She calls it a landmark in French cinema. She also describes it as an “enigmatic” film. Vincendeau cites Marienbad as an extreme example of the French New Wave. She does a good job of making sense of the film.
Finally, there is “Documentary Films by Resnais,” which includes two documentaries that he made in the 1950s. Toute la memoire du monde (1956) is about the French national library in Paris, and Le chant du styrene (1958) was shot in polystyrene factories and features abstract colour images.