Last Year at Marienbad – One of the great art works of 20th Century.

You will notice by the title of this post that I am not one of those who think Last Year at Marienbad is the perfect modernist example of the morality tale the emperors new clothes. In defining myself by what I am not, I am letting you know, in part, what you are in for in this review.  From the first time I watched this film, I recognised it as a great work of art. In my mind it is one of the greatest films ever made – easily in my top ten of that category. If I thought about a list that ridiculous, it would probably be in the top five.

I have properly warned you – proceed at your own peril.

Where do I begin with the greatness of this film?  Do I assume you have seen it? I’m going to have to, because it is virtually impossible to discuss it as a work of art if you haven’t seen it. Think of this moment as one of those many New York dinner party moments. Let me set the scene for you:

It’s march 1962.  YOu and I are attending a dinner party held by a good friend whose made good. We’re all bourgeois aesthetes before ‘bourgeois aesthete’ were dirty words.  Culture thrives in New York. At the table sit yourself – very successful in your career – with your parter, myself (succesful writer) along side my successful writer partner. At the table are film critics, artists, other writers, musicians etc. We’re all smoking and we’re all drinking because neither are bad for you yet. New York is like Florence of the 15th Century – a genius on every corner. Warhol’s line the walls and we’re admiring the latest Eames chair.

We’ve all been out together to Carnegie Hall to see the opening night of Last Year at Marienbad. This is a regular group who like to go out to see a film and come back to our friends house, have dinner and pretentiously discuss the film, because recently we’ve ‘learnt’ that film can be interpreted. In the last few months we saw L’Aventura, La Dolce Vita and Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly.  But Last Year at Marienbad’s reputation has preceded it. The film cost $500,00 US to make and this month alone it will gross $250,000. Everyone has been talking about it, and it’s been hurting a little that certain friends who went to Paris at the right time, got to see it there first.

This is the scene when Last Year at Marienbad opened in new York City and it was a film instantly adored and hotly discussed. It’s my contention that most of the negative ‘naked-emperor’ comments come from another time, subscribing to the conceit that people have been drawn in by a hoax to make fools of those who love art. I loved the film from its opening moments. It stands out as an important night (I saw it first on DVD) in my film appreciation experience, shared with someone very important to me.

Like other great works of modernism, Last Year in Marienbad achieved its greatness through a rupture with the traditions of naive realism and conventional representation by using the properties of its medium to attain new depths of human expression and to extract a truth from surrounding false consciousness. Its been compared to Picasso and Joyce in the importance of its place in its own medium. It is not (these days anyway) a popular film as it ignores the expectant cinematic experience and does so willfully and happily. The film has baffled many viewers, even those who thoroughly enjoyed it. In the New York experience I detail above, it was the hottest social talking point for over three months before it slipped into the suburban cinemas. It was made by Alan Resnais (director) and  Alain Robbe-Grillet (writer).

As far as a story line can be identified in the film, it can be summarized as follows: In a spacious baroque castle, that is run as a modern luxury hotel for an upper-class clientele, one of the guests (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to persuade a woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they have had something like an affair the previous year, and that this year she ought to elope with him to a new life outside the geometric architecture and highly formal society of the establishment–away also from the man who seems to be watching over her (Sacha Pitoeff), and who may be her husband. In the course of various encounters and conversations the protagonist gradually succeeds in bending the woman to his will, and at the end of the movie the two seem to be ready to leave the splendid world of the hotel for an unknown destination.

“Last Year at Marienbad” starts with introductory shots of the labyrinthine castle the baroque design of which is as consciously geometric as it is overloaded with theatrical decorations and elaborate ornaments. We also catch first glimpses (by way of framed prints on the walls) of the park outside with its exceedingly regular lay-out–typical of the French garden architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries. While the camera moves slowly through the hallways, galleries, and salons of the hotel’s seemingly endless structure, we hear the voice of the protagonist:

I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors–silent deserted corridors overloaded with a dim, cold ornamentation of woodwork, stucco, moldings, marble, black mirrors, dark paintings, columns, heavy hangings, sculptured door frames, series of doorways, galleries, transverse corridors that open in turn on empty salons, rooms overloaded with an ornamentation from another century, silent halls … 

The voice is solemn and monotonous, and the series of architectural shots seems as interminable as the accumulated descriptions in the spoken text. It is out of this hypnotic monotony that the first hints at a love story arise:

Between these walls covered with woodwork, stucco, moldings, pictures, framed prints, among which I was walking–among which I was already waiting for you, very far away from this setting where I now stand, in front of you, still waiting for the man who will no longer come, who no longer threatens to come to separate us again, to tear you away from me. Are you coming?

You can see from the opening lines that the story gives the feeling of a ‘real’ unfolding drama taking place in conventional time, however the narrative structure deconstructs boundaries of both inner and outer reality as well as between the past and the present and the future, between the human creature and the object such that Last year in Marienbad leaves the meaning of the real and the symbolic completely at the foot of the viewer. Everything is open to interpretation, and it can’t be avoided that the viewer will leave unsettled unless they are able to construct its meaning for themself, or will sit comfortably with the idea that they are left to construct the meaning themself. This completely interrupts the coherent structure of the typical film narrative.

Of course it is impossible to do this without actively engaging in an internal philosophical and psychoanalytical process, which is partly why Last Year at Marienbad is so unsettling. It treats the subjects of love, depth,time, social order, liberation and their complex relationship to each other with great depth. Film style also plays with this relationship we have with our own interpretation. Where the typical narrative structure we are expecting has been removed, in its place is a structure of geometrical shapes, games, word plays and striking anti-natural visuals (such as in the image above – the people cast shadows but the trees do not) so that we are bound by something that is at once keeping us out of the familiar and tying us to an unfamiliar familiar. This is apparent in the opening of the film when we see that the dialogue detailed above, is spoken to a woman we think is the woman of his desires, until we move back to see that this is a play being enacted for the pleasure of the guests. We are left knowing that what at first seems real is only a performance and what seems to be a performance could turn out to be the ‘real’.

In his excellent essay, Jeremy Shapiro points out that this film, this way the film has been made, was predicted by Hugo Munsterberg in his classic work The Photoplay (1916).  I’ll reproduce those lines here.

Munsterberg, in a remarkable series of formulations, identified those features of film technology that give film both its aesthetic and philosophical significance:

‘The photoplay [film] shows us a significant conflict of human actions in moving pictures which, freed from the physical forms of space, time, and causality, are adjusted to the free play of our mental experiences and which reach complete isolation from the practical world through the perfect unity of plot and pictorial appearance.’ 

‘The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones.’ 

Munsterberg points out that film does this ‘by adjusting the events to the forms of the inner world, namely attention, memory, imagination, and emotion’.  Part of the mechanism of this is that:

‘memory breaks into present events by bringing up pictures of the past: the photoplay is doing this by its frequent cut-backs, when pictures of events long past flit between those of the present. The imagination anticipates the future or overcomes reality by fancies and dreams; the photoplay is doing all this more richly than any chance imagination would succeed in doing.’ 

Indeed, Robbe-Grillet’s conception of film (and presumably Resnais’s conception of this particular film) is rendered in almost identical words. In the preface to the screenplay, Robbe-Grillet says that he was drawn to Resnais’s work because ‘I recognized in it the attempt to construct a purely mental space and time, those of the dream, perhaps, or of memory, those of all affective life — without being overly concerned with traditional causal links or with an absolute narrative chronology.’

The plot of Last Year at Marienbad does actually have a vague structure that reveals something that does happen. In the initial part of the film, the male lead (we call him X as he has no name) tries to remind and convince the female lead (A) that they met the previous year, had a deep love affair, and that she agreed to meet with him the following year to run away with him. She does not acknowledge this and believes that he is either mistaken or fabricating it. The film then becomes a process of X widening and deepening A’s memory, as well as reconstructing it, so that the past he initially presents becomes more and more real leading to the resolution in which she accepts that this past did happen and actually does choose to leave the man who watches her (may or may not be her husband) so she can live her life with X.

The beauty of the film lies in the manner of progressing this evolution so we have this swirling, musical shifting, recycling of scenes, memories, fantasies from the past and the present. In other words, X uses the present to float in and out of the past, thereby rendering the past more ‘real.’ What we have then, is a future, built out of a memory created entirely from a present. To say that a different way, what we know to be real uses its own realness to create a future that was never intended as a natural consequence of the real, because its past had to be created out of itself. To use a philosophical term, the ‘given’ is reconstructed as a dynamic movement that transcends itself toward the future. Psychoanalysis would have us understand that floating in and out of the past using reality, dream, fantasy, perception of childhood and adulthood leads to a transformation of the self that then enables the self to transcend itself and create a future that will prevent it from merely repeating its own past.

I have to add clear Oedipal structure to the film, as a fan of psychoanalysis and because for me it was so apparent. This film can be completely analysed through Hurssels analysis of internal time or Adorno ((‘Difficulties in Grasping Modern Music’), Adorno talks about tonality’s ‘power of resistance’, how it has become second nature to people in a way that has made them impervious to the liberating experiential and aesthetic possibilities inherent in modern music.  His analysis seems appropriately transferable to film.) but for me the Freudian aspects are the more interesting. (!)

I’ve laid out the analysis of the game the ‘husband’ or ‘M’ plays that establishes him as the superior male form Jorn K. Bramann, The Educating Rita Workbook which is another brilliant essay on this exciting film.

Much of the guests’ time is spent with typical leisure activities and games–marksmanship competitions, ballroom dancing, dominoes, poker, and a game without a name in which the apparent husband of the woman invariably excels. This nameless game is played repeatedly throughout the film.

It is played by placing cards or other suitable objects in the following order:


Two players then take turns in removing as many cards from a row as they wish–with the restriction that the cards have to be taken from one row only each time. (A little bit of practice will reveal that the player who takes the first card or cards is bound to lose the game. But that is not evident by just watching the movie once or twice–or to most of the guests who see the game played in the story.)

X and M, the two rivals for the woman, play the game several times. M always wins. “Can you ever lose?” X asks him at one point. “I can lose,” M replies, “but I always win.” M plays the game, as all the other games, very ceremoniously. The games are, in fact, deliberately executed ceremonies. They are an activity whose very essence is structure—or form for form’s sake. Moving inside regular structures, and acting according to clear and prescribed rules, is the deeply felt need of the hotel society portrayed in the film.

I can Lose – but I always win.

What is so especially freudian about Last Year in Marienbad, is that the encounter that he keeps trying to have her remember that she has completely forgotten is sexual. It is through the recognition of past love and desire that lifts the veil of repression, illusion and self-deception. This is a classic Oedipal story. One woman, two men. The single male (the diffident subject/narrator X) uses the seductive power of memory to attempt to wrest the desired female/maternal love object A (the remembered source of past gratification) from the control of her apparently more powerful ‘husband’ M, who fights back with the characteristically male/paternal mechanism of hyperrationalistic mind control (the instrumentally rational matchstick game, which he ‘can lose but never does’) and the phallic symbolism of shooting a revolver.

X doesn’t just want to win over A, he also wants to remove her from the world she is a part of. She looks like an object in her clothes (made by an uncredited Coco Chanel) and there is ambiguity all around them. M is also fully integrated into the world of the hotel. He fits, X doesnt’. For X, the beautiful surrounds of the hotel with its monotony and hypnotised inhabitants are a prison, not the freedom through wealth they are supposed to represent. “There were always walls–everywhere, around me–smooth, even, glazed, without the slightest relief, there were always walls…” “Always walls, always corridors, always doors–and on the other side, still more walls.”

Basically X distinguishes A from the rest of the crowd because he sees certain signs of life in her: “I told you that you looked alive,” he once tells her. And even when she is engaged in seemingly lively conversations with others, X fears that her liveliness may be less than genuine: “You were taking part in the conversation with an animation that seemed false to me.” A’s liveliness, in other words, may sometimes or often have been of the sort that one sees on a stage; her seemingly engaged conversation may have been a social performance. X intends to rescue her from such empty liveliness.

Bramann adds this wonderful closing statement in his anlysis:

In his famous Dream Argument Descartes reminds us that waking up from a dream can itself be part of a dream. No matter how awake we feel, we may still be asleep and in the grip of a dream. There is no possible way of getting “outside” of our minds to determine in what state we actually are; inescapably we remain imprisoned in our minds. It is similar with X’s and A’s escape from the hotel. Although X and A rebel against the confinements of the world of the castle, and although they intend to leave their present life by going “somewhere else,” their futile rebellion is nothing more than yet another variation of life at the hotel. The end of the theatrical and ceremonial life is itself a ritual and part of the show.

So – I have to end this review. I can’t go into Hurssel and I can’t go into Adorno. Look up the essays of the links I have added – they are wonderful interpretations of the film and I have refered to them constantly in this (not so) brief.

Suffice to say in the closing statements, I don’t just love this film. I am grateful for this film. This is one of the greatest works of art ever made. To dismiss it as bourgeois or inflamed by its own cleverness is to miss all of the many many philosophical and psychoanalytical points it offers us. Watch it if you have never seen it. Let it make you uncomfortable, then press through reach out for it with your mental fingers, because it will reward you for your efforts.