Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

I kid you not, dear readers-six, that I have been waiting to watch this film for two and a half years! It was recommended to me that long ago, and it sat on our Netflix queue’s ‘unknown availability’ list for two and a half years.  Also on our unknown availability list is Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu the Vampyre so we’ll have to wait and see how long that one takes (it’s already been on there probably a year at least). Hopefully that one will be worth the wait….

Back to the main event. So Last Year at Marienbad was recommended to me because it was supposed to be relevant to my studies of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Public Image (1968). Now, I’m not going to get into much detail about that but I would like to point out that waiting two and a half years to watch something (that was made in 1961) is a long time, and when the climactic moment arrives when the film shows up at my doorstep (albeit WAY late to include in my analysis of the novel…two and a half years ago….), it is reasonable to think that the film would be relevant. But it’s not. It’s not relevant in terms of direct narrative comparison, only tangentially based on certain theoretical principals…which may work for some people).  I’ve read and studied Muriel Spark’s The Public Image a lot.  I should know. Though I do not claim to be a Spark scholar or anything.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory and perception of reality. It has elements of the postmodern because of its repetition and the way the repetition discombobulates the viewer’s understanding of the broken narrative. The Public Image has elements of the postmodern because of its exploitation of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and because of Spark’s use of Baudrillard’s/Plato’s simulacrum. Now, I suppose, on a purely theoretical level, we could make the very long stretch that Last Year at Marienbad is capitalizing on the concept of the simulacrum in that memories are themselves simulacra of real events. This, I can buy. In that way, the two films are tangentially related. But in Last Year at Marienbad, the memories of the main characters are inexact and fluctuating; they are not exact copies.

One thing I’d like to point out is that as I was watching this film, I thought of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining (1980). The big hotel with all of the bourgeois guests, and the feeling that perhaps people are stuck in memories, or insanity, is something I felt was ever present in Last Year at Marienbad. At the very least, I assume Kubrick probably saw this film. There was also an ever-present theme of inadequate communication (because of the way the viewer was treated to only parts of conversations, picking up only random portions of what the other hotel guests were saying as if you were walking through the rooms too quickly to hear more than a sentence or two) and I couldn’t help but think of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series, especially with the White/Black Lodge sequences of bizarro communication. I will, however, admit that this idea of inadequate communication was part of my analysis of Spark’s novel, via Fellini’s La dolce vita, in terms of Marcello’s difficulties communicating with Paola in the end.  But I still stand true to my original assessment that this film would not be a text of primary comparison with the novel.

Aside from my general disappointment that this film was not, in fact, related directly to my prior studies, I found it to be one of the most cinematographically spectacular films I’ve seen in a long time. The framing of the shots was magnificent because of the interior and exterior architecture and design of the setting. For instance, one of the most visually appealing shots was out on the grounds, with shadows and shapes abounding, looking much like a painting (see this shot on The Criterion Collection‘s page for the film) with its balance, and yet almost surreal structure. Also, one scene, when the man and woman are walking through the hallway, is framed perfectly with not only the design in the carpet but also with the walls and the corridor/hallway itself.

This is not a film to be watched when tired. It is slow, repetitive, and unresolved in the end. Perhaps this is another tangential correlation to Spark’s The Public Image, as the novel also ends ambiguously. But Last Year at Marienbad begins ambiguously, ends ambiguously, and everything in between is ambiguous because of the uncertainty of memory. I suppose the serious message we might be getting from Alain Resnais in this film is that memories, even if they are only 1 year old, can be treacherous and dependent on our perception of reality at the time of the making of the memory and at the time of our retrieving of the memory. That the man can’t recall if he raped the woman is disturbing. That the woman can’t recall the man at all is disturbing. That the viewer is left unsure of any of it is disturbing. Resnais is definitely wanting his viewers to think, and this is good.

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