Last Year at Marienbad is a movie I’ve wanted to see for years. It’s a movie that sharply divided opinion when it was released in 1961, and it’s a movie that continue to annoy people who dislike any semblance of artiness in their movies. And Last Year at Marienbad is certainly arty. I fact it’s the apotheosis of the European art film.
At some unspecified time a group of people are staying at a hotel. These people are curiously devoid of emotion and indeed seem hardly alive. One man, whose name we never learn, tries to convince a woman (also unnamed) that they had a love affair a year ago, at Marienbad. Or at least it may have been Marienbad. She has no memory of the affair. He tries to persuade her to leave with him. There is another man, who may be her husband. Or possibly not her husband. The guests spend their time playing games, including an odd game played with matchsticks, or cards, or any objects at all. One of the guests tells the others he could lose at this game, but he never has.
If it sounds enigmatic to begin with, it steadily becomes more enigmatic. Who are these people? Are they real? Did the unnamed man and woman really meet a year ago at Marienbad, or possibly somewhere else? This is a movie that doesn’t just reject conventional narrative, it rejects conventional characterisation as well. Alain Resnais, who directed the film, had created something of a sensation a couple of years earlier with his debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour, while scriptwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet went on to direct movies himself. Last Year at Marienbad could be described as hardcore New Wave.
While it is on the surface lacking in emotion, it is deeply disturbing and strangely affecting. The black-and-white cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and the settings (it was filmed I believe at a castle in Germany) are magnificent.
The Region 2 DVD includes an introduction to the film and a documentary, both of which are fascinating and illuminating and shed light on the many different interpretations of this film. One interesting suggestion in the documentary is that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining could almost be considered to be a remake of Last Year at Marienbad. The more I think about it the more I tend to agree. This is a movie that you may find exasperating, or intriguing, or utterly fabulous. I adored it.