Last Year at Marienbad
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
L'année dernière à Marienbad (translated as Last Year in Marienbad in the UK and Last Year at Marienbad in North America) is a 1961 French film directed by Alain Resnais, starring Delphine Seyrig and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
It is famous for its enigmatic narrative structure, in which truth and fiction are difficult to distinguish, and the exact temporal and spatial relationship of the events is open to question. The dream-like nature of the film has fascinated and baffled audiences and critics, some hailing it as a masterpiece, others finding it incomprehensible.
To say the film has a plot is not quite accurate. It depicts the repetitive, almost mathematical interactions of three characters and even at the end of the film, the sequence of events remains unclear. Only the relationship of the three central characters, who remain nameless, is firm.
The film is set at an elite social gathering at a chateau. A man (known only as 'X') approaches a woman (known as 'A') and asks "Didn't we meet at Marienbad last year?" The woman is non-committal and demure. "Didn't you say you would leave your husband and we would run away together?" he asks. Again, she says "No," but they continue to talk as if they perhaps had indeed made plans. When a second man (known as 'M'), who may be A's husband, approaches, the conversation ends somewhat awkwardly and the characters move on.
As the film progresses, the relationship of the characters and the sequence of events is not made clear. Instead images and events such as the conversation above are repeated several times, but in different places in the chateau and its grounds. Several sequences involve the men at the chateau passing the time with various games (such as Nim and target shooting). There are numerous tracking shots of the chateau's corridors, with ambiguous voiceovers.
Production and style
Among the notable images in the film is a scene in which two characters (and the camera) rush out of the chateau and are faced with a tableau of figures arranged in a geometric garden; although the people cast long dramatic shadows, the trees in the garden do not. The dreamlike quality of this image is reminiscent of the works of Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Yves Tanguy, and Paul Delvaux. The effect was created by painting the shadows of the human figures onto the ground.
Marienbad is a town in the Czech Republic (it is not clear whether the film's setting is meant to be Marienbad or somewhere else). Resnais filmed the scenes within several different chateaus and their grounds, including the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. He edited them together to produce a disorientating space that does not make geographical sense. Some additional footage was shot at an indoor studio.
Awards and acclaim
The film was nominated for the 1963 Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (Alain Robbe-Grillet), and it won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. In 1963 Adonis Kyrou declared the film a total triumph in his influential Le Surréalisme au cinéma (p.206), recognizing the ambiguous environment and obscure motives within the film as representing many of the concerns of surrealism in narrative cinema.
In Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) Susan Sontag argued that "the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.
In a 2000 article in Senses of Cinema, Thomas Beltzer called the film "formally severe and utterly modernist. Its characters are nameless and locked in a zone of their own, a zone that may not even be of this world.
The film's style has influenced the look of several commercials (including those in the late 1980s for Calvin Klein 's Obsession) and the music video for "To the End" by the British rock band Blur, which is a direct pastiche of the film.
- Ado Kyrou, Le Surréalisme au cinéma (Paris: Le Terrain Vague, 1963)