Gothic, surrealist, stately, slow . . . . haunting and bee-zarrr, Last Year in Marienbad is a classic French film that will mystify and intrigue, or drive you right up a wall. And those walls are sumptuous.
The film is set perhaps in what was once called Czechoslovakia. We don’t really know, because we’re never really sure if we’re in the present, in the past, in an invented past or present. Resnais does give verbal, musical and visual clues that shift the time, but as the film progresses, we trust those clues less and less. Is it all in the mind of X, the narrator? Is he actually talking to A, the woman he claims he met in the spa town Marienbad last year? Does her lover or her husband or her Svengali, M, pull all the strings?
Three characters, no names. X (Giorgio Albertazzi), A (Delphine Seyrig) and M (Sacha Pitoëff). A love triangle of sorts. A mysterious puzzle that few, if any, viewers will be able to decipher. The script, written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the creators of the Nouveau Roman (New Novel), is purposely vague and open-ended, though slightly less so than the director’s final cut. He included a rape scene which Resnais refused to film. Robbe-Grillet’s script is perhaps heavier on domination and aggressive persuasion than Resnais’s end product. Ironically, there is a battle of wills in the movie that seems to have occurred between writer and director.
The camera work is brilliant. The film, shot in black and white, is mostly inside the massive chateau. When it moves outside to look at the perfectly odd garden, the geometric shapes, the vanishing point in the distance, at night or during the day, time shifts. In the scene shown above, like something out of Magritte, dislocation and dream-logic take place. Look at the shadows!
The film has horror elements mixed in. With subtlety. I thought of Poe constantly while watching. A Poe transplanted to Europe, thrown into the highest society, surrounded by “old money”, languid, vapid, haunted people, seemingly without purpose or goal, trapped in a luxurious hell on earth. The halls teem with people at times. They disappear. Rarely are they animated. Rarely do they smile or laugh. We hear a scream. Then silence. We often hear an organ in the background, as if Bela Lugosi will appear at any moment.
(Resnais pays homage to films like Gilda, and French and German Silent Era movies at times, echoing their mood, even their classic scenes. Seyrig vamps it up in her bedroom, dresses like Marlene Dietrich. We see faces loom at us as if emoting without the benefit of sound. As if sound is something to be invented later.)
The organ seems campy in the beginning. But it is sustained and measured in such a way that it begins to fill those elegant, lush halls and push the mood almost in a natural manner. Almost. Resnais keeps it going long enough to become a commentary on itself and his movie. It loses its campy feel because it overcomes itself.
A strange game takes on symbolic form within the movie. Nim. Objects are placed on a table in rows. Two players pick up the objects in turns, and the person left with an object on the table loses. Is this a metaphor for the battle between X and M for the love of A? Or Resnais and Robbe-Grillet for control of the film? Who knows . . . But it struck me as the perfect game to insert in this movie. Deceptively simple, mysterious and frustrating. Its orgins obscure. As obscure as the characters in the film and the mystery surrounding them.