LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD was made by director Alain Resnais after HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and released (belatedly) in 1961 only after the film company refused to release it and then changed their minds after it won the Lion d'or in Venice. Peer pressure and all that -- and a big "I told you so" from Resnais. The story of the film is . . . . well, the story goes . . . . oh no, you're not going to catch me up there. The "story" can be debated (and has been) forever. Let us just say that the action takes place in a . . . . well, I can't really tell that either. You see, it's apparently a hotel. Where, we don't really know. Possibly in Marienbad. Or Fredricksbad. Or Baden-freakin'-Salsa for that matter. And it could be some sort of palace or palatial estate. Or not. No, it's a hotel. A vast, sprawling hotel of endless corridors and door after door after door. You see, we are shown an awful lot of it but we never really "see" it in it's entirety; the camera gives us slices of it. A patch of ceiling here, a portion of rococo frieze there. And that sculpture garden. Even film buffs who have never seen the film probably have seen the stills of that garden. Figures casting shadows standing immobile as if they were Magritte people. Stone statues and bushes sculpted in tall pyramids and spheres; almost like the 1939 New York World's fair had morphed its trylon and perisphere into leafy green. The wide avenues of white made up of gravel. Then, of course, there's that game. A game which, at the time of the film, apparently became quite a rage after people watched the movie. A game which can be played with cards or matchsticks or what have you. A game which is driving me batty; I've got to figure out the secret to that game. Unless I know it already. Which is possible.
Speaking of possibilities, we come to some of the many theories as to what is actually happening in this film. MARIENBAD opens with a play (actually an Ibsen play) being performed in the hotel and watched by many hotel guests who appear either somnambulant or oddly mechanical. There have been theories that everyone in the hotel is dead and this is some sort of limbo. Makes sense from watching the film. Others have speculated that the hotel is populated by automata or mechanical human robots. Makes sense too. Or perhaps there's some sort of time loop in which the characters are caught? Or, perhaps one of my favourite theories states that the character "X" becomes aware that he is trapped inside a movie called LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and spends the entire film attempting to alter the behaviour of the other characters and even in some cases alters the cutting of the film. Freeeeeeeaky. Basically, there are three main characters: in the script they are referred to as "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi), "A" (the exquisite Delphine Seyrig) and "M" (Sacha Pitoeff). "A" is married to "M". "X", meanwhile, is trying constantly to convince "A" that they both had an affair last year in Marienbad. Or Fredricksbad. Or Baden-Salsa. Or Hoboken, for all I know. "A" resolutely denies any such affair happened but "X" is relentless. This brings us to another feature of the film: endless repetition. Director Resnais uses repetition all throughout the film almost in a musical way; lines are repeated and repeated again in differing (but somehow similar) situations. Delphine Seyrig's performance is purposely mask-like; she remains sublimely still throughout most of the film. In fact, everyone performs as if their faces were masks. The emotional uncertainty and impassivity of the characters is palpable. This lends a dreamlike quality to the film -- can this all be a dream??? Another possibility. Sometimes the actors' movements seem like they can almost be underwater. Is "A" really dead and "X" is Death himself -- the Grim Reaper -- who somehow granted "A" one year extra of existence last year in Marienbad; but he cannot collect her soul until he gets her to remember??? Yet another of the endless theories as to the meaning of the film.
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD never explicitly explains things; a hallmark of Resnais' work as a director. We are left to come up with our own theories. At various times since the film premiered, Resnais himself has propagated various theories which he then has publicly denied in favour of others . . . which he again denied. Resnais is apparently something of a prankster. The director also relies heavily on the writers of his films; in this case Alain Robbe-Grillet. The script for this film was published in book form after the movie came out. I've never read it but by all accounts it didn't clear up much. And, of course, it was never meant to. The strange, almost nightmarish world of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is meant to be experienced on its own terms and the viewer is left with his or her own thoughts and theories about the whole thing. Love it or hate it (and the film has been widely polarizing over the years), one has to admit that the film makes one think. And isn't THAT a nice and novel experience when watching a movie nowadays. I will probably check back in with LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few more times in the future and see what strikes me about it next time. Who knows, maybe a whole new set of theories will seem more likely each time I watch it. And that, for my money, would denote a rather rich filmic experience. And if you think THIS was a roundabout way to look at a movie, just be grateful I didn't set my self the even MORE impossible task of talking about MURIEL!!!