It seemed fitting after my previous incoherent, rambling post to talk about Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ (original title ‘L’année dernière à Marienbad’). After I had finished watching this film I was irritated, even after doing research online and after my second viewing I was irritated, this film does not make sense, it does not add up! After time, however, I grew to accept this film for what I believe it to be, and it has become one of my favorites. Before talking any further I will say go and watch this film, not because of spoilers or anything like that, because watching this film fresh with an open mind will only drag you into its web of confusion just as it should. So go watch it.
So, the plot… The film is about Man ‘X’ and Woman ‘A’ and whether or not they had met last year at Marienbad (the name of the castle/chateau in which the film is set). Also present is Man ‘M’ who may or may not be the Woman’s husband/partner, ‘M’ spends his time asserting his dominance over ‘X’. That is the ‘storyline’. There is no other important characters, no important sub-plots. Anything else is down to interpretation and subjective analysis. The plot unfolds through a series of incoherent flashbacks primarily through the perspective of ‘M’ who seems entirely conflicted about what really happened last year at Marienbad, even more so than ‘X’ who claims the two have never even met. The relationship between these characters are explored through these flashbacks. However, the incoherent nature of these flashbacks forces the audience to question if any of this can be called reliable.
The film is a mess, an incoherent, impossible to assemble mess, and its great! When a group discuss this film and what they believe to be the accurate version of events nobody can agree on much at all. This is because the film is made to confuse (not in ‘please buy another cinema ticket’ way), its a jumbled and twisted masterpiece with, in my opinion, no solution. In the film one of the repeated scenes involve ‘M’ playing a mathematical matchstick game (I’ve been told is called ‘Nim’). No matter what method ‘X’ attempts he simply cannot beat ‘M’ at this game, one scene in particular has a crowd around the two men playing the game, a number of them shout out advice to ‘X’ regarding how he should go about beating ‘M’, but still, he is unsuccessful. To me, this scene is an allegory for the way an audience will approach the film. One can try to find the solution to this film again and again, they can assess and analyse scene by scene, but they will never find the solution, they will never ‘win’. Some people claim that the key to winning Nim is by understanding the one method of success, which leads them to believe there is one way of understanding and solving this film which they can find if they try hard enough. This interpretation seems like a vast stretch to me.
The cinematography and sound design of the film only serve to increase the feeling of confusion for the audience. There are long panning shots of Marienbad and chilling still shots of the garden both of which draw the viewer into a state of wonderful drowsiness. Conversations and locations are repeated and mixed to such an extent that the viewer cannot accurately recollect what happened where. The long, drawn out organ solo’s have a hypnotic, unnerving, almost creepy quality which serve to hypnotize the viewer whilst also keeping them constantly on edge. some of the most brilliant sound design comes from the use of silence, there are massively uncomfortable lengths of silence, often accompanied with equally lengthy still shots. These serve to remove the viewer from the setting and instill an incredible feeling of uneasiness.
Some critics think this film is overly pretentious and the epitome of a failed experiment in artsy cinematography, they say its incomprehensible and therefore pointless. I disagree entirely, this film is pretentious and incomprehensible, but that’s the point. This film tells the audience that there isn’t always a solution, you cannot always bash your head against a problem until its fixed. Sometimes, things are a mess and that’s the way they have to be. Last Year At Marienbad attempts to tell the audience that sometimes its alright for there to be no solution, each individual viewer simply has to come to this conclusion or this film will infuriate them as it originally did to me.
I could talk about this film for ages, and likely will again, for now I will stop! P.S. Even the image at the top is confusing, the trees have no shadow!
TLDR – This film is a wonderful, incomprehensible mess. I really like it.