The structure of this post is borrowed from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s classic essay “Edinburgh Encounters: A Consumers/Producers Guide in Progress to Four Recent Avant-Garde Films”
Expectations There are few major filmmakers who I feel less qualified to write about than Alain Resnais. I can respect his position as a massively important director who played a huge role in defining the European “art cinema” that polarized intellectuals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I haven’t found the same level of pleasure in watching his films as I have in those of his Left Bank contemporaries (and sometime collaborators) Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, and Agnes Varda. This is not just a matter of the few Resnais features I’ve seen failing for me on a pure entertainment level – they’ve also seemed stubbornly opaque on a thematic level, sticking rigorously and humorlessly to a distanced aesthetic that seems designed to force home a point that I am nonetheless completely missing. Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) both sailed over my head when I watched them in college, and the stern, austere tone of Resnais’ direction has thus far prevented me from exploring his latter feature filmography much further.
I’m not proud of not getting it, and the support that many critics and filmmakers that I respect have given to Resnais over the years makes me suspect that the fault is with me rather than the films themselves. Great works of art tend to be confounding, and while some have an immediate impact that compliments their challenges, others need time to reveal themselves. A number of films that I would now rank among my all-time favorites, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) (to stick with French examples), confused and/or bored me on my initial viewing, only announcing their many virtues on latter viewings and further reflection. Given the controversial cultural position that Last Year at Marienbad held in the early ‘60s, when it was simultaneously a surprise multiple Academy Award nominee and one of the targets of Pauline Kael’s influential anti-“art film” essay “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” there must be more to the film than the tedious, pretentious navel gazing that I remember.
I also saw Marienbad under less than ideal circumstances in college, on one of those sad early VHS’ where the film seemed to have barely been remastered (or even formatted to fit the screen) in any way. The gorgeous still shots I’ve found of Marienbad on the Internet bear little to no relationship to my memory of watching the movie on the dinky TV/VCR combo that I had in my college years. Equally surprising are the mentions I’ve seen of the film being, on some level, a parody of Hitchcock and classic film noir; what I regarded as ridiculous self-seriousness may have actually been deadpan humor. I also consider Resnais’ famous short essay film Night and Fog (1955) as the only properly serious film about the Holocaust, so I can’t bring myself to dismiss one of his most famous feature films simply because I vaguely remember it being boring and confusing.
Responses to the Film The two stylistic aspects of Last Year at Marienbad that immediately stand out (and that continue to be striking for the duration of the film) are Sacha Vierny’s rich deep focus cinematography, and Francis Seyrig’s chintzy organ score. A big part of what continues to make the film feel awkward and unpleasant to me is the unstable combination of these elements. It feels at times like a bunch of footage from an unfinished Orson Welles film (since deep focus black and white unavoidably conjures thoughts of Citizen Kane) put through an Ed Wood post-production process (the obnoxious, virtually wall-to-wall organ music seemingly coming from an extremely low-budget horror film). A large part of what Resnais seems to be after here is an investigation of the ways that different contexts can radically change the meanings of any given event, so it is possible that this bizarre collision of sound and image is intentional; and given how carefully Resnais has obviously controlled his images, it’s hard to imagine that he would lose control of the film’s soundtrack. But the music is continuously distracting, an ugly blemish on the frequently breathtaking imagery. It’s possible to get hypnotized by the aesthetics of a film like Mulholland Drive (2001) even if its meanings never become clear, simply because every aspect of its style feels dazzling and of a piece; but the equally baffling Last Year at Marienbad never fully takes off because its clash of styles doesn’t add up to a poetically coherent vision.
Still, Marienbad’s visuals are too impressive to ignore. The film’s stiffness, which I found so off-putting on first viewing, is undeniably present, but now seems to me like part of an aesthetic strategy to alter the usual purpose of actors in movies. Whereas a conventional narrative film would treat the people on screen as characters, Marienbad turns them into statues whose functions can be shuffled around depending on their position in the frame. The humans-as-statues metaphor is made explicit in a lengthy sequence in which the two main screen figures, an unnamed man (Giorgio Albertazzi) and a woman (Delphine Seyrig) create a series of competing narratives explaining what an ambiguous lakeside statue might be depicting. The male statue sees something and is pointing it out to the woman, says Albertazzi’s character, as the camera work seems to confirm his hypothesis; no, it’s the female statue who sees something and is calling it to the man’s attention, says Seyrig’s character, as the camera shifts position to suggest that she may be correct.
The statue sequence is essentially a mini version of the whole film. It seems equally likely that Marienbad is a film about two lovers reuniting a year after their initial tryst, as Albertazzi’s character continually insists, or that the two are meeting for the first time, as Seyrig’s character argues. The meaning of everything in the film is constantly in flux, which does undeniably make Marienbad an audacious and highly original experiment in narrative and cinematographic structure. But because everything is up for grabs, the film lives or dies on the strengths of its individual moments, and is inherently somewhat of a hit or miss enterprise. Some of the effects are pretty cool, such as a series of quick, white-hot flashes of a memory (or fantasy?) of Seyrig emerging from a speech that Albertazzi slowly delivers in a dark room. The problem is that not every one of the film’s destabilizing effects is equally successful, and shoving them together in a non-stop succession prevents the film from being much more than an occasionally interesting, but frequently dull, parade of experiments.
Afterthoughts While the experiments of Resnais (and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, a close collaborator who deserves roughly equal credit for the film) were certainly ahead of their time, they seem somewhat dated today. Meta commentary on the nature of genre and narrative is now largely a tiresome cliché. Intellectually, I can accept why Last Year at Marienbad would’ve been startlingly original in the early ‘60s, but it now feels a little bit old hat. Granted, Marienbad’s utter lack of winking at the audience separates it from modern mainstream meta like Family Guy, and the film could conceivably work for someone as an evocation of erotic longing even if they miss the many nods to Hollywood melodrama.
But to the modern day viewer (or, at least, me), Marienbad’s deconstruction and reassemblage of suspense, melodrama, and noir clichés feels dated and off-putting. The film is formally inventive but its deterministic tone feels weirdly rigid, as if Resnais was too reverent to the poetic pretensions of Robbe-Grillet’s script. Marienbad doesn’t feel as playful as it needs to be to succeed as a droll comedy, but it also doesn’t feel substantive or intense enough to qualify as an effective drama. On a pure formal level, the awful background music detracts from the impressive imagery.
Why does Marienbad fail for me, while Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), which is also concerned with continuously reframing an ambiguous relationship between a man and a woman, largely succeeds? Aside from my distaste for the organ music in Marienbad, which has no real corollary in Certified Copy, I think it has to do with Kiarostami’s comparatively low-key aesthetic and his willingness to let his lead actors (Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell) behave like real people, even if they pointedly seem like different real people at various point of the film. Where Kiarostami manages to credibly evoke the beginning and the end of a relationship in surprising ways that sneak up on the viewer due to Certified Copy’s largely naturalistic aesthetic, Resnais beats the viewer over the head with Marienbad’s formalism to the point that his lead couple seem mostly like indifferent cogs in a machine. Last Year at Marienbad deserves credit for innovation and daring, but it is a fundamentally flawed film that now seems like a relic of its era.