My feature piece on Last Year at Marienbad, the film and the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray release, is running on the Turner Class Movies website.
As the old joke goes, in the dictionary, next to the phrase “art cinema,” is the poster for Last Year at Marienbad. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as “X” in the credits,” tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. He persists. She resists. Scenes shift through time and space and perhaps reality. Any “objective” perspective is rendered meaningless in the abstractions of the storytelling, the enigma of the characters, the blurring of past and present, memory and fantasy, even space itself.
The second feature film by Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad defies and confounds audience expectations of cinema narrative. The film is a true collaboration between “Nouvelle Vague” director Alain Resnais, who sought to challenge the conventions of cinematic storytelling, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, a leading author in the “nouvelle romain” movement, which favored elaborate observation and surface description of events without character analysis or psychological perspective. Robbe-Grillet’s script is filled with detailed description and even suggestions for camerawork, but features no indications of emotional or psychological states of the characters. Resnais helped guide and shape the story but did not participate in the actual scripting beyond notes and suggestions, and he was very faithful to the individual scenes and the overall structure while bringing his own distinctive authorial presence in his exacting direction, his acutely stylized scenes and mise-en-scene sculpted out of actors, décor and theatrical lighting.
The effect is a film that defies emotional connection. It holds story and characters at arm’s length, playing out as part mystery, part intellectual exercise, yet the very enigma is spellbinding. The scenes are stiffly formal, with actors positioned in space rather than directed, reciting rather than acting. They are stripped of backstory or psychological inner lives and have no ties to a world outside of this world. (Resnais originally wanted the politics of the day to infiltrate their lives but Robbe-Grillet convinced him otherwise and Resnais, in the end, realized he was right.) X tells A their story in the form of second person narration, always saying “you,” never “I.”
Read the complete piece on TCM here.