Last Year at Marienbad

The first time I saw Last Year at Marienbad was in college, in the 1970s. The teachers didn’t tell us what to expect, they just gathered several classes together in the auditorium and screened this “important film.” I found it deathly boring. We all did. One friend said it needed a pie fight–or even the Three Stooges.

The teachers were shocked at our response.

About a year ago, I decided to give it another chance. After missing a screening at the Pacific Film Archive, I put it in my Netflix queue. This week, it finally reached the top, and I watched it for a second time last night.

My opinion improved, but not by much. It’s still slow and pretentious, and gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm.

Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway.

Photographed with the technical care of a Hollywood spectacle, Marienbad seems to care more about its setting than its story or characters. That setting is a very posh, upscale, and formal resort somewhere in Europe. The décor is plush and antique, with baroque furniture and decorations. The men wear dinner jackets, and the women expensive dresses. I would love to see what Buñuel might have done with this setting.

But Marienbad was directed by Alain Resnais, and despite the left-leaning themes of much of his work, he doesn’t seem particularly interested here in the discreet charm of the bourgeois. Indeed, he doesn’t seem interested in people, treating his actors as little more than animated statues–and when you come right down to it, they’re not all that animated. They barely move at all, and in some shots, only the moving camera tells you that you’re not looking at a still photo. (That’s actually pretty impressive, technically. The actors had to stay perfectly still, without even blinking, while the camera tracked around them. Today it could be done with computers.)

Eventually you figure out that two of these living statues are our protagonists. A man (like everyone else in this film, he’s never named, but the published screenplay calls him X and he’s played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tells a woman (A, played by Delphine Seyrig) that they met before and had a passionate affair–perhaps it was last year, and maybe in Marienbad. She’s skeptical. There’s another man (M, played by Sacha Pitoëff) involved. Perhaps he’s her husband.

Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet are intentionally vague about what happened back then, what’s happening now, and what people are just imagining (or imagined back then). Although Seyrig has a few brief moments of actual acting, the leads rarely do more than stand in place and recite their lines in a slow monotone. That the film ends without your knowing what happened isn’t a problem; the problem is that you don’t care.

At least you get loads of atmosphere, and something to look at. The widescreen, black-and-white cinematography captures the luxurious setting in sumptuous detail. Endless hallways filled with bric-a-brac, huge gardens with statues and sculpted trees, and mirrors with ornate frames help relieve the boredom of the non-story–especially in the first half. I’m glad I saw this on the Criterion Blu-ray disc; on DVD, I might have hated it as much as the 16mm print I saw in college.

I still want to see The Three Stooges at Marienbad.

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