Last Year at Marienbad (1961): Alain Resnais’ Mysteriously Beautiful, Enigmatic, Moody Tale

Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is an experimental film that, among other things, explores and tests the formal possibilities of film as a medium.

Beautifully shot in Cinemascope by Sacha Vierny, a quintessential figure of the French New Wave, the movie is a puzzle, a mysterious riddle about the relationship between a present and a past, which may not even have existed at all, or perhaps existed in some of the characters’ subjective memories.

The film defies easy categorization–by design.  It’s an impressive piece of sustained mood, a deliberately artificial creation that calls attention to itself.

One thing is for sure: You cannot compare it to any other film, not even those made by Resnais.

Time and memory are two of the most recurrent motifs in the work of Alain Resnais, a leader of the French New Wave.

Set in a palace in a park that has been converted into a luxury hotel, it centers on a woman and a man (The characters are unnamed), who may or may not have met the year before, and may or may not have contemplated or started an affair.  There’s another man (Sacha Pitoeff), who may or may not be the woman’s husband.

A small group of elegantly dressed individuals wander through a grand palace and its elaborately geometrical gardens. Giorgio Albertazzi plays an unnamed sophisticated gentleman, who tries to seduce a similarly nameless woman (Delphine Seyrig) by claiming that they met and were romantically involved a year ago in the same enormous, baroque European estate.  The man and the woman are not constructed as realistic individuals or psychological characters

Relying on a series of gorgeous, almost frozen-in-time tableaux. Hypnotically dreamlike,on one level, “Last Year at Marienbad” can be seen as a surrealist parody of Hollywood romantic melodramas. According to screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, the movie is a pure construction, without a frame of reference outside of its own existence.

As noted, the narrative structure, in which time and space are fluid, is deliberately enigmatic.  Viewers are never sure about what is happening to the characters, what they are remembering, and what they are imagining. 

The film’s surreal, dreamlike nature has continued to fascinate and baffled critics, scholars, and viewers.

Though highly regarded when first release, at the height of the French New Wave, in later years, some critics have found it precious, pretentious, incomprehensible, and even arid.

However, even those who dismiss the film on conventional grounds of logic and narrative have to acknowledge its formal beauty and precise editing.

Self-reflexive, multi-layered, the film is full of allusions to Hollywood cinema, including Hitchcock and a pastiche of a scene from Gilda.

Last Year at Marienbad won the top award, Golden Lion, at the 1961 Venice Film Fest, after being rejected by Cannes Fest.  The film was refused entry to Cannes because director Resnais, had signed intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Manifesto of the 121” against the Algerian War.

Strangely enough, the film scored a Best Story and Screenplay Oscar nod, in 1962.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Story and Screenplay (Original): Alain Robbe-Grillet

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners of the Original Story Oscar were Italian writers, Ennio de Concini, Alfredo Giannetti, and Pietro Germi (who directed) for “Divorce—Italian Style.”

Running time: 93 minutes.

Directed by Alain Resnais

Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Theaters (limited release): June 25, 1961.

DVD: February 23, 1999