The perennial punching bag of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais’ very willful 1961 Last Year at Marienbad, a descent into psychotropic memory and defiantly deviant notions of storytelling and fiction, hasn’t had it easy. Resnais’ most debated film has spent over a half century as alternately much-beloved expressionist think-piece, bamboozling artifact of a more radical cinema long past, and benighted object of a time when movies were nothing but arrogant, oblivious ego-stroking carnival clowns in search of an audience of zero. One of the true “love it or hate it” artifacts of cinema, let no one say Resnais’ work calls for mere shrugging off. Either delusional or concerned with, but not victim to, delusion, it remains about as unknowable and provisional a film as the species has produced, and thus as fascinating. Totally undermining classical presumptions about narrative, Resnais’ film is riddled with conditional tenses and scrambled cadences, culminating in a truly heinous detonation of foundational or categorically true knowledge. Although suffused in the pallor of death, for a certain kind of audience, it’s a modernist jolt, one of the few truly idiomatic films.
Resnais instigated his decades-long quest to refract the memory of humankind upon itself with 1955’s Night and Fog, one of the seminal documentaries of the film medium. It is also one of the very few that dares to incongruously progress beyond the limits of the documentary form and into more disturbed questions of the tentative nature of knowledge and the meddling quasi-lapses in memory that time distills on us all. Not content to distort the documentary feature against its better impulses to rest in the staid regions of the reality and truth, Resnais used his monumental 1959 feature Hiroshima mon Amour – as provocative as the same year’s Breathless – to contort the very notion of personal fiction. While Night and Fog explored, and exposed, certain fallacies about historical memory, Hiroshima inverted more troublesome notions of intimate memory by cartwheeling around complicated figments of interpersonal bonding and national trauma and exposing the fractured extent to which any human can truly “know” anyone else even in their dearest company.
Considering this, the extent to which his follow-up film Last Year at Marienbad has proved endlessly debatable and indecipherable would likely prove not a death kiss for Resnais but a point of pride or a badge of honor. Not merely playing around in the nebulous biomes of memory, Resnais sought to disturb the ghosts of past filmmakers by rejecting everything we know, or as Rensais suggests, everything we assume to be true about how films structure knowledge. Watching Marienbad, you’d think the director had absconded with the rules of cinema cart blanche.
Footholds for relation to the film abound, most notably the linkages to filmmakers past and present, with the luxurious sensuality of the material cinema of Ophuls and Fellini abounding in Sacha Vierney’s sumptuous cinematography. Photographing the ornate spaces called for in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay of lusty human sensuality with immediate beauty right out of, say, LA Dolce Vita, the comparison points bubble to the top of the film. Yet Resnais treats the comparisons as resting grounds upon which to induce false comfort in audiences expecting a glorious descent into the unquiet interiors of the lazily wealthy. Rather than relying on the cinematography as a point of illumination, he actively rejects gazing onto wealth and instead flexes less tactile questions of how we as audience members divine meaning out of celluloid stitched together in an editing room.
It’s not simply a reclusive admission that films are but windows into an off-screen larger reality – the way of Renoir or De Sica – but a more dexterous, cracked-mirror expression of how even that mirror is itself a malleable portal within which audience knowledge, directorial guidance, and other disruptive subjective perspectives imprint and disorganize meaning. We are not simply privy to the knowledge that the frame is merely a partial truth but that it is not an impartial partiality. Not only is the frame a window with an unglimpsed external unknown outside of it, but it is a portal to percolating memory and forgotten connections with unseen internal intangibles baked into the frame itself. Not only are we missing information in the frame, but the information we receive is necessarily compromised by our very capacity to receive that information.
All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the A plot of the film, insofar as it can be pigeonholed as a plot at all. Two people – a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), and the woman he believes he had an affair with a year ago (Delphine Seyrig) confront each other once again under the deluded halls of a seemingly antediluvian French mansion and within the locked box of their own memories. The primary use of the plot however is as a manifest lexicon for cracking open the plot’s inconceivability and incompatibility to delusions of uncoding. Ultimately, the super-saturated visuals free us from the vestiges of classical cinema only to interrogate the extent to which the freedom is itself only a perception that skirts us right into a new kind of locked-room mystery: our own brain.
So there’s no viable refutation of the common claim that Resnais’ film is indecipherable. Critics of the film aren’t wrong, but simply looking in the wrong corner of the room, or more broadly trapped under the implication that “looking” is part of the point to begin with, a vestige itself of notions of Enlightenment-entrenched, answer-focused cinema that Resnais obviously doesn’t subscribe to. The spectral opening shots linger on the halls of the mansion like a phantom exploring space lost to time; the people we meet there occupy a state of almost incorporeal static timelessness, frozen and pacified in the fires of listless memory, with the film stock pre-flashed in a Dreyer-esque gesture to decompose the knowability of the figures until they seem like barely-visible enigmas entrapped in a free-floating subfuscous fog. The uncanny and wraithlike camera movements perusing the halls of the mansion without ever truly establishing it as a knowable, visible place eventually express a location less physical and more incorporeal, as if the people aimlessly shuffling through the mansion like ghosts are engulfed not only by their wealth but by the untidiness of remembrance itself. Rather than choking up over every meaning and treating every shot as a potential thesis, Resnais’ film defies the idea of singular meaning or thesis altogether; it is a perceptual, erotic, sensual experience first and foremost, one to be experienced and not to be inherently understood. Indeed, that it avoids understanding is the source of its mystique and its essential rebelliousness in a world that prefers answers to questions.
The critics of the film, as is often the case, were right for the wrong reasons. Not only is Last Year at Marienbad incomprehensible, but in the film, the incomprehensibility of the cinema functions as an iron-clad study in the incomprehensibility of our very human self; studying it doesn’t presume that one can ever complete it. Ironically, one of the film’s biggest critics, Pauline Kael, provides a lens into the film’s essential necessity to the cinematic world. Kael famously and rightly wrote that perfect cinema usually denies great cinema. Another way of turning the phrase might be to imply that a cinema with definitive, specific answers necessarily sabotages its own search for questions. If Marienbad doesn’t provide specific, classifiable knowledge, it is only because it supposes that the quest for new means of knowing is more important and underserved in the modern world than the answers these methods ultimately arrive at. The mistake is to view the film as a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved, rather than imbibing in the sensory assault of the images and sounds that obliterate and corrode our conception of space and human relationship to space. The nightmare that is Last Year at Marienbad, coaxed most memorably out of the death-marked machinations of Francis Seyrig’s chilling organ music and the uncomfortable stillness lying in the heart of the visuals, is as frightening as any film of its decade, precisely because it remains totally and firmly entranced by the terror of the greatest ghost story of all: our inability to know or find solace in our own selves. Cinema’s greatest vanishing act.