The film opens with a point of view camera sequence revealing a sumptuous Baroque hotel interior, filmed in high contrast black and white. Eerie, warbling organ music plays, and the monotone voice of the narrator speaking:
I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century, this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors…
What unfolds is a play within a play, a spookily atmospheric hall of mirrors, an aesthetic feast, and an intellection mind game. An unnamed male protagonist attempts to convince a woman of their love affair a year ago in Marienbad, a relationship that either: never happened, that she can’t remember, or she refuses to accept. There’s a love/power triangle with another man, who could be another lover, her husband, or the symbolic representation of Death.
The story is deliberately ambiguous with multiple interpretations possible. The interior of the ornate hotel works as a metaphor for the brain/mind. The interactions of its guests fulfilling a kind of living consciousness/unconsciousness. The lavish hotel interiors and the ornate symmetry of the garden provide a surreal, poetic dreamscape, a place where imagination and reality merge. It’s a space where absolute certainty is not possible.
The film has a striking, high contrast, black and white aesthetic. A style later employed by art photographers like Ralph Gibson. The cinematography, especially the composition is remarkable: gothic-like darkness, twilight stillness, the surrealism echoing Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux’s weird and erotically charged nightscapes, the strange theatricality of Balthus, and Edvard Munch’s dance of death.
If the hotel is a metaphor for the mind, a closed circulatory world, it also functions as purgatory, or the afterlife. This follows in the tradition of the Greek myth of Orpheus who travels to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead. Similarly, the protagonist in Last Year in Marienbad (1961) attempts to persuade his lover to come back to him (and return to life) by reminding her of their love affair. The other man in this love tussle, Death, wants to keep her in the hotel, in limbo. Like the chess playing figure of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957), no one expects to beat him in a game, because he always wins. Here, Death has his own unique game, a game of cards.
The dreamscape of Last Year in Marienbad is detached from the world. The environment is glossy and luxurious, but impersonal. The formality, extreme symmetry, and overblown extravagance creates a sense of alienated anxiety. The magnificence of the hotel accentuates the surface with its superficial mirrors and reflections. The characters echo this by showing little depth and remaining unchanged as the story progresses. The atmosphere is one of artifice. The characters appear emotionally aloof. The tone is intellectual; Duchampian indifference; detached observers; the codified emotional language of hidden and repressed feelings.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay, is associated with the French ‘new novel’. He complained about ‘the humanist myth of depth’1 focusing, instead, on factual descriptions of places, buildings, objects, and characters, often within ‘phantom’ environments. Half-dead beings imprisoned by rumination and melancholic reflection. While this sounds intriguing, it leads to a difficult and laborious experience for the reader. In this film the audience is saved by the stunning visuals.
Last Year in Marienbad has been called the first Cubist film, a montage film in the vein of Eisenstein. I’m not convinced about either of these, but it is experimental and challenging, a true art film, possibly the first in the mode of the contemporary 'Indie' art film. The actors literally freeze in real time, while the narration continues, time stops, but the narrator’s thoughts, like a play or novel, continue unimpeded. This emphasises the story as a contrived, packaged experience, an intellectual puzzle. It isn’t realistic in the naturalistic sense or pretending to be. It also emphasises the experience of time with the story, as it were, existing ‘outside’ of time.
The story’s openness to interpretation originates from the writer and director having different ideas about the protagonist. The writer, Alain Robbe-Grille, saw the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who'd never met the woman in Marienbad. This makes the central character a deluded stalker and potentially a rapist, and the story a psychological horror. The Director, Alain Resnais (who was given the script to interpret how he wished) plays it as if they had met, resulting in a romantic affirmation of separated lovers becoming reunited. Alain Robbe-Grillet ensured that his version of the story persisted by publishing the text separately. Nevertheless, the result is a film that exudes enigmatic ambiguity, maintaining our interest with stunning cinematography and a unique vision that went on to influence The Shining and Mulholland Drive.
1 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, London, 1988) P 15.