I’ve spent years avoiding Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961)—passively avoiding it, but avoiding it all the same. It simply didn’t sound like something I was likely to care for, but when the folks at World Cinema decided to run it, I could avoid this art-house warhorse no longer. My initial response is that, whatever else it is, Last Year at Marienbad is unique and undeniably influential. There are traces of it (often strictly visually) in everything from Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) to Ken Russell’s Isadora (1966) to the weird fantasies of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. It’s been parodied—the scenes depicting Whispering Glades Cemetery in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) are both a parody and a reading of Marienbad—and mocked and copied and generally insinuated into the fabric of modern film. But what is it on its own?
The debate about what Marienbad means has been going on for nearly 50 years. According to Resnais, it either means nothing at all, or it means whatever the viewer sees in it. Profound? Perhaps. Illuminating? Not very. But I’m neither sure its mysteries can be solved, nor that a solution would be desirable. Its appeal, I think, lies in its absolute mysteriousness. (One might profitably investigate Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm for a clue to the film’s possible meaning, since the play—or a version of it—is being performed in the film.) The film is not hard to follow—a man and a woman keep having the same encounter over and over in a vast, baroque hotel. He insists they met “last year at Marienbad” and that this year she agreed to run away with him. She says this never happened. A third man—who may be her husband—watches, but not with any great interest, being more absorbed in a game (that came to be called the Marienbad game) at which he always wins (somewhat like Death with chess in The Seventh Seal). At first, the repetitive nature of the film is fascinating. Then it’s infuriating. Then it becomes mesmerizing—feeling like a kind of horror-picture nightmare from which you can’t wake up. Beautiful to look at and slightly absurd in its art-house pretensions, it’s somehow less a film than an experience, but then, isn’t that cinema?