This radical experiment in film form by director Alain Resnais and French novelist turned screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet was a surprising commercial success in 1961, even in the U.S., and it's been a rallying point for the possibilities of formal filmmaking ever since.
The French New Wave of the late 1950’s and 1960’s self-consciously invented itself as a challenge to the mainstream conventions of filmmaking. It questioned both the technical habits of the cinematography of the day and the philosophical underpinnings of art itself. It set itself in opposition to the “poetic realism” that dominated French filmmaking in the period immediately following World War II, which the New Wave advocates viewed as a great lie. Art, they argued, can never mirror reality and should not pretend to do so. The artist is inevitably juxtaposed between the reality that he hopes to represent and the audience.
Alain Resnais’ brilliant film is a film like no other. It won the Golden Lion award at the 1961 Venice Film Festival and sometimes finds itself on both top-10 and worst-10 film lists. It is an extraordinarily enigmatic film, without a linear narrative or normal spatial restrictions.
Resnais’ career has lasted more than six decades, often adopting unconventional narrative techniques to help him deal with themes of troubled memory and imagined pasts. Although his films were connected to the French New Wave, Resnais himself had already been working in short documentary films and had closer links to the ‘Left Bank Group’, who shared a love of modernism and all had an interest in left-wing politics.
Frequent criticism of Resnais's films among English-language commentators has centered on the emotionally cold nature of the films as they see it – that they are all about technique without grasp of character or subject, that his understanding of beauty is compromised by a lack of sensuousness,
American writer and filmmaker, literary icon, and political activist, Susan Sontag, writing in Film Quarterly, said of the filmmaker, "Resnais knows all about beauty. But, unlike Bresson and Godard and Truffaut, he lacks sensuousness. And this, in a film-maker, is a fatal deficiency". Resnais himself has commented on the nature of what interests him about filmmaking: "I prefer to speak of the imaginary, or of consciousness. What interests me in the mind is that faculty we have to imagine what is going to happen in our heads, or to remember what has happened". His experimentation with narrative forms and genre conventions has certainly been the central focus of his films.
Resnais collaborated on Last Year At Marienbad with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an advocate of the “nouveau roman,” a kind of fiction that considered character and plot subordinate to setting.
Resnais encouraged the actors to play their scenes broadly – in homage to silent movies—and he underscored their actions with an obtrusive Francis Seyrig score that sounds at times like a novice learning the pipe organ. It is disturbing music, mostly performed on an organ – Gothic, like a requiem.
The thematic underpinnings of the film are Grillet's, but the film's sense of mystery and tension arises just as much from Resnais' strange, unsettling imagery, which alternates between static, rigorously posed compositions and languid tracking shots that flow through the hallways of the mansion.
While Robbe-Grillet intended to explore the contours of fiction with overtly alienating characters and plot, Resnais set out to do the same with cinema, at the risk of actively irritating his audience. For example, the plot, such as it is, is most remarkable for its elusiveness. It involves three characters listed in the credits simply as A, X, and M. Indeed, the film consistently treats its characters like objects, pieces to be maneuvered on some kind of weird game board.
The two main themes, here, it seems are the nature of memory and the nature of art. In a sense, its just one theme, because both memory and art are creatively representational and subjective...
Resnais and Grillet have both admitted in the past that Marienbad isn’t really “about” anything except its indelible images and the fun of manipulating the artificial. We see the random access quality of memory whereby some of the remembered events cycle back repeatedly, occur out of sequence, or jump from one locale to another. 'Last Year at Marienbad' can now be seen as the precursor of such films as ‘The Truman Show’ or ‘The Matrix’, though the idea of separate realities was so novel in 1961 that it was easier to interpret this film as pure formalistic art and high modernism.
The overall tone is poker-faced parody of lush Hollywood melodrama, yet the film's dreamlike cadences, frozen tableaux, and distilled surrealist poetry are too eerie, too terrifying even, to be shaken off as high or low camp.
There is the passion and pain of a classic love triangle, the intrigue of a mystery, there are even hints of a rape and possibly a murder – but all these sensationalist thrills are buried deep beneath a calmly reflective surface of staid, chilly perfection. Here, the pleasures of genre remain tantalisingly out of reach, even if one or two of the characters yearn for something, anything, to break all the ice.
It is a sumptuous enigma that has beguiled and irritated cineastes in equal measure for nearly 50 years. However it is a wonderful puzzle that doesn’t demand to be solved, but should rather be admired for the splendid curves of its individual pieces.