The Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

lastmarienbad1As I’ve grown older and, dare I say, more mature, I like to think that I’ve gained a greater appreciation for those moments when I don’t understand, can’t comprehend, and am generally ignorant. Now I am less apt to want to beat myself up and more likely to marvel and try and learn something anew. Thus, Marienbad is not so much maddening as it is fascinating. True, it is a gaudy enigma in form and meaning, but it’s elaborate ornamentation and facades easily elicit awe like a grandiose cathedral or Renaissance painting from one of the masters. It’s a piece of modern art from French director Alain Resnais and it functions rather like a mind palace of memories–a labyrinth of hollowness.

There are figures existing in a defined mise-en-scene without voices or at the most backed by puzzling voice-overs. Almost behaving like specters at times against this backdrop of baroque ornateness. Still, the loose narrative, following a solitary man and aloof woman he’s convinced he met only the year before, is firmly planted in the worlds of architecture, sculpture, and painting in so many ways overlapping and coinciding with this cinematic creation of the moving image. In fact, there is the juxtaposition of images, two figures in the bar, low light only to be contrasted with the gaiety of a girl bathed in sunlight within a bedroom. Later it is followed by a rapid repetition of shots of that same woman.

There’s immense power here, because there is no tie to any narrative strand, allowing complete freedom to go any direction it may so choose. There’s the ambiguity between fantasy, reality, truth, and fiction, all the while backed by the wailing organ music that becomes almost exhausting with its persistence. The camera is constantly tracking, the “story” shifting between time and place with ease.

It’s art at its most unadulterated and audacious, although it does admittedly lack a general geniality or heart. Its predecessor Hiroshima Mon Amour feels imminently more personal and intimate, compared to this truly somber affair. It’s not quite so stiff and stuffy, but Marienbad is still masterclass in other ways.

lastmarienbad2In fact, although this film was shot on estates in and around Munich, I have been on palace grounds similar to the film. There’s something magnificent about the sprawling wide open spaces and immaculate landscaping. But still, that can so easily give way to this sense of isolation, since it becomes so obvious that you are next to nothing in this vast expanse. Marienbad conveys that beauty so exquisitely, while also paradoxically denoting a certain detachment therein.

With some films, it becomes hard to decipher fantasy and reality but there usually is at least some initial dividing line before distinctions get fuzzy. That often holds true for the works of Bergman or Fellini. However, here such a dichotomy seems of little consequence. Instead, images become fascinating, architecture is to be examined, and there is hardly a need to know everything. As an audience that frees us up to be mesmerized and truly entranced by what we are being met with.

lastmarienbad3Do we understand this bit of interaction at this stately chateau? Probably not. In fact, I’m not sure if we are meant to know the particulars about last year in Marienbad. That doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy it for what it is. Because Alain Resnais is perennially a fascinating director and he continued to be for many years. Whether you think this is a masterpiece or a piece of rubbish at least give it the courtesy and respect it is due. Then you can pass judgment on it, whatever it may be.

I for one am still mesmerized by that mathematical strategy games, but that’s only the half of it. When it is all and said and done, I have no cogent, well-informed answer. The most striking thing that stayed with me is how Last Marienbad is rather like strolling through a gallery of art. Each framed image acting as its own distinct entity, crossing mediums and really engaging with the viewer. While I am all for Film as a purely visceral form of entertainment, there’s seems to be a necessity for such visionary pieces as Resnais’ work here with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet. What they did is extraordinarily remarkable. That’s the best I can do. You need to see it for yourself.

4.5/5 Stars

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