Last Year In Marienbad – Alain Resnais (1961)

Alan Resnais is perhaps one of quieter directors of the French New Wave movement.  His films are often delicate examinations of the emotional states and philosophical choices that take their time in delivering a story.  Though less known than both Godard and Truffaut, his work has a strong consistency that makes repeat viewings essential in gaining an insight into what exactly the film was about.  Last Year in Marienbad is no different and examining what is to many, a visual poem, in mere words is hardly the best method of discussion.

Last Year in Marienbad treats itself like a dream.  The story is set in a foreboding hotel full of long corridors and ghosts of the past.  In fact very little happens for a large portion of the film, which is content with slow but constantly moving shots of the hotel itself as if it were a cage of the mind.

While looking into the nature of truth itself, the plot is about a sophisticated man who is trying to convince a married woman also staying at the hotel that they have been romantically involved.  We follow their journey as it becomes slowly clear that one of them is lying.  Whether what we see has actually happened is debatable.  As soon as the camera starts its movement through the hotel, characters that we’ve previously seen in motion freeze in time to allow the viewer a look around where they are.

It is this startling Kubrick like effect that gives it the feel of an endless dream.  The hotel is deliberately imposing; all the while taking control of the emotional content and even at times being the sole character we are shown on screen.  Many shots look like Cubist paintings, perhaps even verging on Vorticistic.  The grounds of the hotel are a perfect example of this giving the impression that the characters are acting all of this drama out in a painting for our amusement.

Nothing is certain in the world of the hotel.  Every character eyes each other with a suspicious glare as they play cards and act out some metaphorical, bourgeoisie fantasy.  They are all merely pawns in Resnais’ game to find out the truth between the two main characters, something which even he seems uncertain about through they way in which he shoots them.  The film becomes more and more like a Chinese puzzle as each twist into a new corridor or room of the hotel leads to a revelation or more likely, a red herring.

The overall effect of this can be utterly gripping on the first watch.  The shadows that dance on the ceilings, as light flickers past the characters lying shadows even appear to hold mysteries not even the director or writer Alain Robbe-Grillet wish to reveal.  At first it may appear slow moving and odd but as the film continues in its constant motion towards the truth, it is only awe that can bubble to the surface as the final shot fades to black.

The disc holds a handful of extras though it must be pointed out that its position here this week is largely based on the quality of the film rather the extras.  That’s not to say there isn’t anything of merit though.  Apart from a gorgeous print of the film which adds further to its role as a living painting, there’s an extra Resnais short film included plus an introduction from Ginette Vincendeau and a documentary answering any questions that might have materialised during the films admittedly complex and labyrinth plot.

Very few films can act like a puzzle and get away with it without relying on some sort of gimmick.  Twelve Monkeys’ uses Time Travel, Alphaville uses jump cuts, Un Chien Andalou uses just about every gimmick it can think of.  Here we have a film that is genuinely complex without anything tarnishing the purity of its story.  Of course it is a beautiful film to watch but in the end its critique of the truth is staggering and something that should make the viewer question their reality a little more closely in the future.

Adam Scovell

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