Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, and Sacha Pitoeff
Director: Alain Resnais
93 minutes (U) 1961
Vintage World Cinema
Blu-ray region B
Review by J.C. Hartley
Reading Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), about a month ago, with its unreliably-narrated account of annual adulterous goings-on at a German spa, I found myself recalling Alain Resnais’ enigmatic Last Year In Marienbad (aka: Last Year At Marienbad), and now, with a nice sense of synchronicity, here is a restored version of that film popping up on DVD and Blu-ray. I haven’t seen this film for about 25 years, when I caught it on terrestrial TV sometime in the 1980s and, fittingly, given one of its many subtexts being the unreliability of memory, it isn’t how I remembered it. The epitome of enigmatic, this film might be said to have put the ‘vague’ in the nouvelle vague, and yes, I’m sure I’m not the first to make that terrible joke.
The plot, such as it is, consists of the meeting at a baroque hotel of an unnamed man, played by the Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi, with a woman, Delphine Seyrig, and his efforts to remind of her of an earlier assignation, possibly occurring the previous year at a spa such as Marienbad. In the screenplay, and presumably just for convenience, the man is referred to as ‘X’, the woman as ‘A’, and a second man who may be the woman’s husband, as played by the cadaverous Sacha Pitoeff, is referred to as ‘M’. The two main protagonists meet, as if by arrangement, in various settings within the house and grounds, and play out repetitive scenarios, the man recalling past events which the woman either cannot or will not remember.
Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in collaboration with the director, the film is acclaimed as a cinematic expression of techniques driving the nouveau roman, or new novel, in the French literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. This movement favoured the abandonment of formal literary tropes such as plot, characterisation, and linear progression in narrative, in favour of something more closely resembling lived experience. In fact, there is nothing in the philosophy of the nouveau roman that hadn’t been addressed in the literary modernism of the first three decades of the 20th century, hence the shared atmosphere suggested during my reading of Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Unreliable narration, fractured chronology, stream of consciousness, an attempt to replicate the actual way in which human beings experience and process the world around them, marks both modernist literature of the early 20th century and this later manifestation, and it seems inevitable that the dream-like medium of cinema should attempt to replicate that. As it was, Last Year In Marienbad was seen as ground-breaking and controversial, hailed as a masterpiece, or condemned as the height of intellectual pretentiousness. In any event it has proved massively influential.
Beginning with a prologue in which Albertazzi’s voice is heard intoning the repetitive experience of navigating the corridors of the hotel in which the action, or indeed inaction, of the film is to take place, the camera follows suit, gliding down carpeted halls and passages, and examining the intricate decoration on cornices and ceilings. Anyone who has seen Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), will get a jolt of recognition from traversing those corridors, similarly the attention the camera pays to the baroque embellishments in the palatial rooms anticipates the papal sequences in Fellini’s Roma (1972). For all its innovation Marienbad hardly exists in a vacuum and the film hints at its own influences. The year after the film’s release Francois Truffaut met with Alfred Hitchcock, reinforcing the admiration the directors of the nouvelle vague held for Hollywood’s genre output. Alain Robbe-Grillet, we are told, would have liked Kim Novak for the female lead in Marienbad.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) may seem an unlikely influence on Marienbad but both films deal with repressed memory, psychological obsession, time as a loop rather than an arrow, and in both the motivation of the male leads has a sinister undercurrent. Hitchcock and Robbe-Grillet shared an interest in the sexual politics of domination. Just as James Stewart’s Scottie bullies Kim Novak’s Judy, X attempts to impose his version of past events on A, who urges him to leave her alone even as she seems to respond to him. Chris Marker uses clips from Vertigo in his documentary Sans Soleil (1983), which also meditates on the unreliability of human memory. James Stewart’s tailing of Kim Novak’s car through the streets of San Francisco in Vertigo is not so different to Albertazzi’s stalking of Seyrig through the hotel corridors in Marienbad. Interestingly, Luc Lagier in Dans le labyrinthe de Marienbad (2009), as part of a distinct but equally convincing selection of interpretive readings of Marienbad, suggests another Hitchcock film as a prime influence, namely North By Northwest (1959).
It is assumed the setting for the film is a hotel, it could as easily be a country house, or an exclusive clinic, at one point the man M reminds A that she is here to rest. The guests seem to be permanently attired in evening dress, although in the presumed flashbacks to the man and woman’s original encounter slightly less formal wear is on display. Entertainment is provided, a play, and a concert, the guests play cards, dance in a darkened salon or drink in a dimly lit bar. At first it seems as if the ensemble may be there to represent some form of allegorical commentary on class or society, like the inmates of the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). The play the guests watch is ‘Rosmer’, which may be a version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (1886), in which personal relationships are played out against a background of political and social change.
The guests are often shown immobile, or engaged in fatuous small-talk, or else recalling past events, a male guest visiting a woman guest’s room, someone breaking the heel of their shoe, events which are later shown to be episodes in the relationship which X insists he had with A. There is no suggestion of an outside world, nor is it possible to place the events or characters in a particular era, evening dress being particularly timeless. In the grounds of the hotel the guests strike poses like figures by Magritte in a setting by Paul Delvaux, the formal garden setting a clear influence on Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982).
Eventually, the film reaches a sort of crisis, X recounts the events leading up to his previous intimacy with A, and although this is not shown there is a strong suggestion he has raped her. In a scene in the bar, A appears to have a flash of recognition, as if a buried traumatic memory has suddenly surfaced. Nothing of course can be taken for granted and the couple are eventually shown leaving together, although the unspoken distance between them appears unresolved.
No plot summary or teasing out of themes can quite capture the experience of watching this film. In fact, as is suggested in one of the little films comprising the extras package, Marienbad should just be experienced without worrying-away at meaning. Formal, theatrical, allusive, elusive, repetitive, it reinforces the dream-like quality so often ascribed to cinema, a quality usually sacrificed on the altar of plot-development. Intentionally frustrating as attempts at interpretation might be, the film represents total cinema without a wasted shot or line of dialogue, where the sets and costumes are as integral as the script, and with a score, by Seyrig’s brother Francis, that can be as ominous as that of a thriller or as romantically playful as something penned by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
As befits this re-issue there is an impressive line-up of extras. ‘The Wanderers Of Imagination’ examines the collaboration between the director and writer and how they came to create the film, and includes analysis from actress Anna Mouglalis, and Robbe-Grillet’s widow Catherine. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau then looks at the history of the film and its reception. There are two documentary films made by Resnais, Le Chant du Styrene (aka: The Song Of The Styrene, 1959), a publicity short about plastic production with a poetic narration penned by Raymond Queneau, and Toute la memoire du monde (aka: All The Memory Of The World, 1957), about the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
The former film finds beautiful images in industrial production lines, and the latter is full of the graceful corridor glides that haunt Marienbad. ‘In The Labyrinth Of Marienbad’, is Luc Lagier’s superb deconstruction of the film, which is seemingly about to offer a single explanation but then goes on to provide a plethora of equally valid interpretations. There is a documentary on Alain Robbe-Grillet in which he comes across as a humorous and engaging interviewee, with comprehensible theories on literature less gnomic than some of his pronouncements from earlier in his career. The extras also include a restored trailer.
A final personal note on the rating for this film, as masterpieces and milestones of cinema would normally merit a 10/10. I’m not questioning the film’s status with my parsimonious 9/10, I just find it a little chilly and introspective compared with some other French movies of the period.