The film starts with a series of tracking shots, the camera maneuvering through the vast interior of a Baroque chateau, lingering over the beautiful, austere marble work, the polished, imposing mirrors, the elaborate and monstrous chandeliers that dangle from the ceiling. The music is ominous. The camera and the audience, much like the characters, will never leave this hotel. Sometimes, the illusion of outdoors is toyed with: the hotel’s garden is vast, complete with ornate fountains, labyrinthine hedge mazes and pathways surrounded by pyramidal trees and classical statues – but we will never leave: a fact that is acknowledged in a subtly disturbing conclusion that smacks of patent anti climax.
The narration, by a man known only as X, is fragmented, repetitive, as though we are only hearing its echoes bouncing off the walls, with some of it inevitably lost to the stone and marble (much like the guests’ conversation that fills the chateau). We see that there are a number of guests at this hotel (including the mysterious, sensuous A), but we never learn why they are there: indeed, it becomes quite clear that not even they are sure.
Last Year In Marienbad is a difficult film. Its ambiguity and frustrating lack of any kind of plot has mystified many and angered more. It isn’t a film that can be analysed in any definite sense, because the film is open to various interpretations. That is a good thing. One thing that can be said in all certainty is that wherever this hotel is, it does not exist on Earth. Perhaps some parallel universe, or the afterlife (the assumption that the characters are dead is a completely valid interpretation of the film, and the only one that allows for the film to be understood in a literal sense).
Otherwise, the film is a metaphor from the opening titles to the final fade to black. Of what? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Much like Resnais’ previous film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, here emotional paralysis, guilt, memory and death are all integral themes. The chateau is more like a mausoleum than a getaway – its icily geometric perfection is at once awe inspiring and frightening, otherworldly (many critics have pondered over a master image in the hotel garden after A rushes out onto the balcony, followed by the camera, to be confronted by a tableau in which the couples cast long elongated shadows on the ground; and yet the trees do not). It is a cold, impersonal place – emotion is something that cannot be sustained there. The characters constantly talk in monotones, speaking about nothing (the weather seems to be a popular topic), settling into comfortable routines where banal trivialities are the highlights of the day. A man who may or may not be A’s jealous husband is an expert at ‘Nim’ – a game of logic hasn’t been so disquieting since Max Von Sydow donned a suit of armour and played chess with the Grim Reaper! It is an exasperatingly insipid existence, disrupted only by X’s pursuit of A – a beautiful woman with whom X insists he had an affair with last year, and who he begs to run away with him. A rebukes him, refusing to remember, and constantly dismisses him.
Memory is a painful thing, so the characters manipulate it – A has forced herself to forget her lover, and X, consumed by guilt over a possible molestation, invents memories to sustain his self denial. Sacha Vierny, the cinematographer, makes effective use of very short flashbacks, intercut with their conversations, to demonstrate a sudden flash of memory. The film simmers over with sexual tension, but there is no passion to be seen here: the movie is ice cold. Beauty and poise are faculties that these characters retain, but emotion is something they have lost. In Resnais’ first film, the couple are dead in the metaphorical sense, clinging to life by the fingernails by trying to sustain their love for one another, but doomed to fail. The same can be seen here – the man is desperate for an idealised romance with A, but A cannot accept.
Temporal and spatial relationships in the film are hard to distinguish, as is truth from fiction, disorientating and confusing us; rooms and open spaces seem to metamorphose and change subtly at their own will. The camera often jump-cuts from one room to another, while the conversation runs fluidly as normal between X and A. They are lost in a world of meandering, decaying memories, of fabrications and frightening, painful truths, now ambiguous and obscured by metaphorical cobwebs. We see them only as they do: distorted.
When we see a film and do not understand it, we often become defensive and fall back on words like pretentious or self-indulgent to make up for our ignorance. If we cannot fully understand what is going on, perhaps we aren’t meant to, in that sense. The visuals make up for it in any case – the film is like a glorious piece of artwork in motion from beginning to end, gorgeous but disturbing. It is a fascinating film – one that warrants more than a single viewing. Simply for its technical achievements in cinematography, its costume design (kudos to Coco Chanel) and the oppressive, sorrowful and disquieting, trance like atmosphere, it is iconic. It is, in short, a masterpiece meticulously restored and rereleased by the BFI in the UK so it can be enjoyed once more on the big screen, where it belongs. A delight!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (September ’11)