Wayne’s review published on Letterboxd:
Memories, possibly one of the most powerful aspects that the human brain can use to its advantage. Memories are essentially what we live for: they’re the experiences that shape us and they’re the experiences that are cherished forever. We never want to lose good memories, but at the same time, we fight the bad memories. This begs the question: what’s the point of the memories that shape us if we’re just gonna fight some of them away? Although it may seem that memories are a form of existence and life, memories can be perceived on the other side of the spectrum as they could be used for manipulation. To simply put it, memories could be one of the most evocative yet misleading forms of permanence within human life.
The presence of memories is such a powerful form of convincing that it can manipulate the subconscious mind into thinking otherwise. At the same time, memories are what can break us as what we think happened, had happened. We could either believe in something that had happened, but at the same time: do we even know that it happened? What are the depths and nuances that our memories carry? Our memories sometimes we can rely on if it may bring us down? Well, enter Last Year At Marienbad: a film by one of the most influential pioneers of the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) in Alain Resnais. The film essentially revolves around the depths and nuances of memories as it presents an immersive amount of ambiguity. This ultimately brings up the driving question of Alain Resnais’s 1961 picture Last Year At Marienbad: what’s the point of our memories if impermanence lies within?
As a film set in the epitome of the Nouvelle Vague, Last Year At Marienbad would certainly remain as an unconventional film to no one’s surprise. The films of the Nouvelle Vague often deal with genuine and personal storytelling as it uses unconventionality within the medium. The result: a new way of constructing and executing stories within a medium. From my experience watching several films by the auteurs of the Nouvelle Vague, I usually deal with two kinds of films: the experimental mediums, and the profound personified mediums. The experimental ones certainly speak for themselves: they’re films that feature creativity off the charts, whether it be the use of new filmmaking techniques or unorthodox storytelling structure. On the other hand, the profound side of the Nouvelle Vague often deals with a level of connection immensely powerful that it results in a genuine experience offering a sense of reflection. So this leaves us to Alain Resnais’s Last Year At Marienbad, what category does this fall under? Well, the best of both worlds thanks to the dexterity of the late great Alain Resnais.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest auteurs of the Nouvelle Vague, the films of Alain Resnais should certainly fall under the category of “greatest films of the Nouvelle Vague”. Well, do they? Objectively, that’s undisputed. As for subjectivity, that certainly is unanswerable. But what I do guarantee with Alain Resnais films, is the experience you’ll get. Resnais’s films offer such a different experience as it sends the subconscious mind to a sense of reflection and creativity at the same time. To simply put it, one of the ambiguous filmmakers the world has ever seen.
As for his film Last Year At Marienbad, this may just be the most perplexing and unconventional film that I’ve seen from the Nouvelle Vague, and that says a lot. As I said earlier, Last Year At Marienbad often deals with bewildering themes of memory. And as complicated as it can get with its themes, it gets even more obscure as it was made in the epitome of the Nouvelle Vague which is known to be the most unorthodox movement in cinema (as it often deals with a different structure). The result: a bewildering film with an ambiguous tone. In hindsight, the surrealist film of the French New Wave.
With a brief perspective on the Nouvelle Vague and themes of memories aside, here’s the synopsis of the film: In this unconventional French drama, a group of unnamed aristocrats interacts at a palatial château, resulting in an enigmatic tale told partially in flashback. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) is convinced that he has met the beautiful A (Delphine Seyrig) before in the Czech resort town of Marienbad and implies they had a romantic relationship. M (Sacha Pitoeff), who may be A's husband or boyfriend, confronts her mysterious suitor, leading to conflict and questions about the truth behind his story.
With that in mind, this could certainly be said to be one of the most confusing films of all time, and rightfully so. First and foremost, the film doesn’t follow a standard storytelling structure. There’s no essential form of coherence, and it’s certainly a film not meant to be understood but rather felt. Second, the ambiance with the technicality remains rather different. Often dealing with surrealism and Nouvelle Vague standards, Last Year At Marienbad certainly takes an approach that’s never been seen at that time. Lastly, the peculiar riddle in the film that’s meant to be felt as well as decipher to a degree. Essentially speaking, Last Year At Marienbad is a film with an ambiguous tone that leaves room for interpretation as it doesn’t give any sort of information. The film also features one of the most surreal and dreamy atmospheres I’ve ever seen in a film, and for good reason. Not only is this film stylish for the impetus of its looks, but for a bigger reason as it gives more possible interpretations within the medium.
Given that we’re on the topic of interpretations, Last Year At Marienbad features an endless amount of interpretations. But in my opinion, there are only three that prove a strong case. One, X’s memory is true as the relationship did indeed happen last year at Marienbad. Two, A’s memory is true and X’s is not as A doesn’t recall any sort of romance happening last year at the same hotel. Three, this can all just be a dream or a projection of one of their minds as they deal with existential grief from the impermanence of their memory. Objectively speaking, there isn’t a definitive answer but there are certain clues that lead to multiple interpretations. As for my belief, I’ll be saying that at the end of the review. Nevertheless, any interpretation you reside with can certainly have a case to be the true vision.
In the first 20 minutes of the film, not much happens from a logical perspective. We stare at ceilings and aristocrats for a good 20 minutes without any sort of information. In an open-minded perspective, on the other hand, we still start the film with numerous tracking shots of the Marienbad hotel, but what remains rather different, is the recollection of an open-minded viewer and a normal viewer. From an open-minded perspective, the first 20 minutes of the film sets that alluring atmosphere of the film waiting to be dissolved and explored. It essentially provides the gist of what we’re about to expect.
In this 20 minute sequence, we get one of the most peculiar approaches known to cinema: a surrealist approach featuring a very dream-like atmosphere thanks to phenomenal lighting and framing. This brings us to one of the interpretations of the film, projections or a dream from one of the minds of the characters. For one, the setting of the entire occasion seems to be like a dream with how the lighting and framing are done. It essentially portrays a mythical occasion that seems rather idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, this isn’t what I believe to be the true explanation of the film as it would be peculiar to base the entire thing on a dream or projection, given that this is a film that deals with memories more so than dreams.
This now leads us to the second interpretation of the film: X’s memory being true (the romance being real). In the next portion of the film, this is where the central characters collide as their story unfolds. Told in a timeline that runs with the real-time and flashbacks running in parallel, we meet X and A. X is a man with seemingly no way of expressing emotions. We see that he meets a beautiful woman in A, and he convinces her that they have had a romance last year at the same place in Marienbad. The difference is that, he never seems to express any form of love regarding that romance, what he does rather is just provide evidence to that romance existing a year ago. This may symbolize that his memory is an impermanent form that seems to be escaping his head as he doesn’t express anything but dull information. He mentions the clothes that A wears a year ago, but he never talks about love. Nevertheless, more room for interpretation.
A, on the other hand, remains to be one of the most alluring and mysterious characters of the film. Personally, A’s character certainly reflects on the theme of memories as it can certainly be alluring and mysterious at the same time. Our memories may project alluring imagery that lures us to it, but at the same, it may be something rather alienating and manipulative. In A’s case, she seems to deny X’s story most of the time, but in certain circumstances, she seems to agree with it but through X’s manipulation. This begs the question: which of whom memories are true?
I believe in one interpretation and one interpretation only. In this case, I don’t exactly find the possibility of X’s memory being true as he doesn’t show any sort of emotion within his actions. And in certain scenes, it's seen that he remains aggressive to A as she does now believe him. But where this case dies out, is within the game he losses against M. M who is A’s current partner, plays a game with X. In this game it essentially symbolizes that the winner would be A’s true love, and as a result, X purposely defeats himself. This begs to question: why would he do that if he’s been trying so hard to convince A the whole time? Well, the only conclusion I can think of is how the impermanence of his memory affects him. His memory manipulates his subconscious mind into thinking that he had a relationship despite not having one, and as a result, his character remains in misery as the inconsistency that his memories seem to give him false hope and confidence. With both the perception of X’s memory being right and the projection of dreams showcased out of
the picture, this could only mean that A’s memory is the correct one.
As A gets gradually manipulated to X’s false memory, she eventually snaps out of it and calls X’s memories to be a mad delusion. In the end, she remains to be the right one as X’s memory seems to be rather skeptical. Nevertheless, the ambiguous nature of this film opens for more interpretations, and at the end of the day, this is just how I decipher the film. To conclude, one of my favorite uses of symbolism in this film was the use of the hotel and mirrors. In the hotel, rooms are filled with people who then leave eventually, so too are we on this earth as we meet our faith in the latter part of our lives, as we eventually become a memory only. This essentially symbolizes how the impermanence of our lives and memories remains to be inevitable, and that’s the tragedy of life. With mirrors, I see it to symbolize how the life of X can completely mirror ours as we may perceive memories just like he does (a form of alienation). In the end, the message of the film is how we can lose our sanity within the power of memories as it can remain alienating.
In the technical department, my God this film is something else. The production set of this film is honestly one of the most pristine I’ve ever seen. As I was watching this film, I kept saying to myself: how does one create a setting so divine? The overall setting of the hotel in Marienbad was so phenomenal that it could represent the epitome of luxury. Other than that, the camera work in this film was also nothing short of masterful. The lenses behind the creative minds of Alain Resnais and Sacha Vierny certainly do justice to the entire picture justice as the camera work was done evocatively.
The use of the slowly crafted tracking shots was able to provide a sense of a sophisticated approach as we also get to contemplate everything happening while the camera doesn’t move insanely fast. While it may seem that it just serves style and signature, the cinematography also had a purpose within the nuances of the story and it certainly achieved it more than the intended vision. On the other hand, the use of music and editing techniques was also really meticulous as it was able to provide an utterly suffocating feel to it. The editing featured standard Nouvelle Vague techniques with all the freeze frames and unorthodox cutting while the music features a disturbing theme that symbolizes how disturbing and distorted memories can be. Overall, Last Year At Marienbad’s technicality is a masterpiece. You just simply can’t argue with that.
At the end of the day, some people may call this film vague, dull, lackluster, and all that sorts, but to me, that’s where the magic resides. The ambiguity that this film possesses is one of the most immensely powerful as it offers a lot of room for possible perceptions. And given that this film is difficult to articulate with what’s happening, the fulfillment within the process results in a satisfaction never seen before as this film is a different breed, whether it's the structure or technicality. The process of deciphering one’s perception of this film results in sophisticated bewilderment due to how challenging this masterpiece can get. In the end, (depending on what kind of viewer you are) you’re surely gonna be in for a trailblazing ride especially when deciphering perceptions. It’s an overall hypnotic dream-like film that influenced numerous surrealist films just like David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive. Surely one of the greatest films ever made, and arguably the Nouvelle Vague’s best surrealist film.