Criterion // 1961 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // June 23rd, 2009
A: Who are you?
X: You know.
A: What's your name?
X: It doesn't matter.
The international film landscape of the 1950s and 60s is littered with masterpieces: The Seventh Seal, Breathless, L'Avventura, and The 400 Blows, to name just a few.
I posit, however, that such a list is incomplete without Alain Resnais' 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. Just as Resnais himself stood apart from his French New Wave brethren (unlike many of these filmmakers, Resnais did not work for Cahiers du Cinema before becoming a director), Last Year at Marienbad occupies a special place among the films of its time. The Criterion Collection certainly seems to think so, as it selected the film to join the ranks of those listed in the preceding paragraph.
At a sprawling, luxurious resort at Marienbad, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) meets a woman (Delphine Seyrig, Muriel), who he is convinced he met the previous year. During this earlier encounter, she supposedly promised to leave her husband and run away with the man in a year's time. The woman, however, refutes the man's statements and resists his advances.
Memory is a strange thing. For some, memory is a wistful, nostalgic refuge, a place to retreat into when the present becomes unbearable. For others, memory is a curse, a collection of insistent, spiteful reminders of past mistakes and misfortunes. For others still, it's probably a little of both.
For the unnamed man in Last Year at Marienbad, memory is the promise of a wonderful new life. But is this so because the man and the object of his affection actually met and made vows as he has remembered, or is it because the man chooses to remember that way? If what the man (known only as "X") tells the woman (called "A") is true, why is she so insistent that X's memories are false? Did A and X meet before? Are they actually meeting in the "present"?
With Last Year at Marienbad, director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet offer no clear answers, thus making their film as alluring as the strikingly beautiful Delphine Seyrig, and just as enigmatic. For with Marienbad, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet give their film over to X (for a while, at least), who uses his memories as a means of control, of imposing his desires in order to shape a set of circumstances that may or may not be of his own invention. X's narration propels the film, his words shaping (and sometimes contradicting) the scenes that unfold before the viewer. X's reliability as a narrator, however, is certainly suspect, especially toward the end of the movie, when A becomes more prominent and X's position of control appears to turn precarious.
It's not just the question of X and A's relationship that makes Last Year at Marienbad so mysterious; Resnais and Robbe-Grillet toy with the viewer throughout the film. There's the massive shooting gallery where several men turn and fire at targets. There's the strange parlor game at which A's husband M (Sacha Pitoëff) is a master. There's the camera's unexplained, lingering interest in an unnamed blond woman during several shots. There's the way the other guests at the chateau stand frozen in mid-conversation as A meanders through the crowd.
Heightening the mystery and appeal of Last Year at Marienbad are the film's extraordinary technical merits. Resnais' elegant, gliding camerawork, combined with the evocative and stylized cinematography of Sacha Vierny (a frequent collaborator of both Resnais and Peter Greenaway), helps develop the film's unsettling tone and classy but vaguely creepy atmosphere. The meticulous editing by Jasmine Chasney and Henri Colpy takes the viewer back and forth in time-frequently within the same scene.
Mention must also be made of Francis Seyrig's music for the film. Seyrig's ominous, organ-dominated compositions play a critical role in the film's overall eerie nature. Hearing this music as X and A move throughout the chateau emphasizes the nightmarish nature of their situation, and I can only wonder how different the film would have turned out with different music.
Criterion has done their usual first-class job with Last Year at Marienbad. This standard def transfer sparkles; I can only imagine how good the Blu-ray looks. The sound is also more than adequate.
For extras, while no commentary track is included, Criterion has delivered enough features of merit so as to eliminate any reason for quibbling. First, there is a 33-minute audio interview with Resnais that was recorded in 2008. It plays over various relevant images, as well as stills and clips of Last Year at Marienbad. This is a very insightful interview that covers a lot of ground, with a great deal of time spent discussing Resnais' working relationship with Robbe-Grillet. What interested me was the fact that Robbe-Grillet's screenplay was apparently extremely detailed, with notations for technical information like sound effects, and that the film's seemingly haphazard structure was actually very deliberately planned in advance. Next up is Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad. Running about 32 minutes, this feature contains interviews with several members of the Marienbad crew, including first assistant director Jean Léon, second assistant director Volker Schlöndorff and script girl Sylvette Baudrot. This is an excellent companion piece to the Resnais interview; one of the more interesting tidbits here is the revelation that Delphine Seyrig's distinctive hairstyle was only created because the actress had cut her hair unexpectedly prior to the start of the shoot, and the filmmakers had to come up with a quick fix. There is also a 23-minute interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who discusses, among other things, the various interpretations of the film that have arisen over the years.
In addition, two short documentaries by Resnais are included. The first, Toute la mémoire du monde, is a 20-minute tour/tribute to the French National Library in Paris in which an energetic score by Maurice Jarre accompanies Resnais' clever visuals. The second, Le chant du styrène, is a 13-minute tour of the Pechiney polystyrene factory. This 1958 color film is a surprisingly engaging blend of playful voiceover narration from Raymond Queneau and fluid camerawork by Resnais and Vierny.
Rounding out the set is a booklet with writings by critic Mark Polizzotti, Robbe-Grillet, and film scholar François Thomas.
The abstract nature of Last Year at Marienbad means that the film will always be loved by some for its ambiguous and haunting nature, and reviled by others for its artifice and emptiness. Nonetheless, this film is a must-see for the uninitiated, and Criterion's exquisite DVD package makes it a must-own for its admirers.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated