Masterpiece or bomb? The baffling experience of “Last Year At Marienbad.”

last year at marienbad poster

There is a very strange movie that I don’t like very much, but which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I do love great movies, but occasionally I write articles about movies I dislike (such as this one and this one), not to denigrate them, but to try to understand what makes them tick. I often find bad movies much more interesting to analyze and think about than good ones, although the experience of watching them is quite different than some of my old favorite standbys. French director Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year At Marienbad is like that. Somewhat infamous in the halls of cinema history, the conventional wisdom is that Last Year at Marienbad is a highly polarizing film: either you love it and think it’s a masterpiece, or you despise it and think it’s pretentious trash. I actually think that’s overstating it. I find the film dull, boring and utterly unwatchable–the last time I saw it, I turned it off about 45 minutes in, though I recall seeing it before and struggling through to the end, just barely. Yet, as “bad” as the film is–and “bad” may not be the right word for it–certainly it leaves you with a lot to think about.

A summary of Last Year at Marienbad is difficult to write because there’s not much of a plot. It takes place at an outrageously Baroque chateau in Europe, presumably at one of the great spas where the very rich have gone to “take the waters” for centuries. A man (Giorgio Albertazzi) wanders through the chateau, his thoughts about it forming a hypnotic and repetitive monologue on the soundtrack. Eventually he catches up with a woman (Delphine Seyrig), whom he insists he met before, “last year at Marienbad,” which is another luxury spa town. The woman says he’s wrong, but he continues to insist they met before and promised to meet again. Another man (Sasha Pitoeff), who is the woman’s boyfriend or husband, lurks menacingly in the shadows. The situation is never truly resolved by the film’s end.

Last Year at Marienbad was the product of a movement in cinema called “French New Wave,” although director Resnais never really identified with that term. I confess I know virtually nothing about French New Wave or what it’s trying to get across, though I did see Resnais’s previous film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and thought it was brilliant. Marienbad, not so much. The film is beautifully shot, composed perfectly and meticulously, and is a luxurious toy for the eyes. That said, as a piece of narrative it’s baffling and incomprehensible. The characters are not likable or even accessible. You can’t ever tell what’s “going on” in the film, to the point where you become sure that director Resnais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, himself a postmodern French novelist, deliberately wanted to make sure the film would baffle and confuse you.

At the same time, there is something kindred about Last Year at Marienbad that speaks to me. This year I have been attempting to get my science fiction novel, The Valley of Forever, published. In the spring I was having a dialogue with a literary agent–a woman whose taste is one of the best in the business, and whom I very much wanted to work with–who was interested in the book. Ultimately, after an unusually long (for her) time of perusal, she rejected the novel, telling me it was beautifully written but that there was no story she could “grab on to.” While it didn’t help me move toward publication, the agent’s reaction told me that I had done something right: I deliberately wrote The Valley of Forever to defy the conventions of traditional storytelling. Like Last Year at MarienbadThe Valley of Forever is mostly about time and memory, how we perceive them (not always accurately) and how they can trick us into questioning our reality. In thinking about my own book I wondered if Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s thought process in creating Last Year at Marienbad was similar to my own when writing The Valley of Forever.

This video essay on Last Year at Marienbad by movie vlogger Victor Omoayo summarizes many of the opinions and analyses about the film.

At its core, Last Year at Marienbad is about a simple conversation. A man says to a woman, “I know you, don’t you remember me?” The woman says, “No, I don’t.” The man says, “We were together last year at Marienbad.” The woman considers whether or not this could be true, perhaps not coming to a firm decision one way or another. Setting aside the commercial or artistic wisdom of trying to stretch this simple idea out over a 94-minute movie, it’s an interesting idea: do we always remember events, and people, as accurately as we think we do? The answer is clearly no, but seldom are we confronted with the implications of this uncertainty. As much as I dislike the film, I like that Last Year at Marienbad wants to play with that idea.

There’s no doubt that Last Year at Marienbad has had an impact on film and popular culture. Various directors say they were influenced by it, and some aspects of Kubrick’s The Shining seem to evoke its style. The film was listed in Randy Dreyfuss and Michael Medved’s famous book The 50 Worst Films of All Time, which is a bit of an exaggeration. It even inspired writer Mark Leach to pen what he claims is the world’s longest novel, Marienbad, My Love, whose premise contains an homage to Resnais’s film. I don’t know what Last Year at Marienbad means or if I will ever bring myself to sit through it again, but I do know it probably deserves a place in cinema history.

The poster image for Last Year at Marienbad is presumably copyright (C) 1961 by Cocinor, the film’s distributor. I believe my inclusion of it here (in a review) falls within fair use guidelines.
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4 Comments

  1. Hmmm not sure I would watch that. This reminds me of “Gerry” in a way. Cinematically beautiful but so completely bewildering and boring. I kept expecting the bogey-man to jump and and surprise me, but no such luck. Just crunch crunch crunch on the gravel and sand. ;/

  2. I read “The Fifty Worst Films” but I have never seen the film. I remember that “Mad Magazine” spoofed it at the time as “Last Year at Marian’s Pad”.

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