Last Year at Marienbad

Sure is, uh, black and white…
Alain Resnais
Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff
The Setup: 
Guy tries to convince woman at hotel that they’ve met before, and they’ve laughed before, also loved before.

Okay! So it’s Last Year at Marienbad, the famous art film that won the golden lion at the Venice film festival back in 1961, and kicked off the art-movie craze in the states and everyone just thinks is so… something. I had seen it with someone on video a few years ago, and I was into it, but he wanted to turn it off after 30 minutes, so I had never seen it in its entirety. The friend who came along with me this time printed out a bunch of different reviews and we were both relieved to find that no one really had a definitive take on what was going on here—Whew! What a relief! It’s a long dream, it’s a repeating state of mind, it’s a visual tone poem… whatever, so we were free to watch without all that anxiety about feeling we might be missing the big and all-important point.

My friend alerted me to the fact that in the big shot of people walking around in the formal French garden, the one often seen on the posters for this movie, the people have shadows, apparently painted on, while the shrubs don’t. Hmmm. So we were both on the lookout for various ways of keeping the viewer off-kilter.

The movie begins with shots moving through an ornate hotel as a repeating monologue keeps coming in and out about the rooms, the carpets so thick they muffle the sounds, etc. Then we see people watching a play, and a guy describes this strategy game that everyone who is not him seems to lose. Eventually we get around to this guy who is convinced that he met this woman the year before, but she has no recollection of him. She is married to the guy who always wins the strategy game. It goes on like this, and continues like this, focusing primarily on the guy trying to convince the woman they’ve met before, and her saying no, while taking breaks here and there to discuss the meaning of this statue that stands outside.

So I look over and my friend is seriously nodding, and I decide to just let him go because you really can miss large portions of this and feel like you saw it, and it seemed like the absolutely perfect movie to sleep through anyway, as there’s no plot to have to keep up with and the whole thing is in low-spoken French and every now and then you open your eyes and see a statue or a garden or whatever. I’m sure that this was partly influenced by the absolutely delightful nap I had during the latter half of Eraserhead, and realizing how much better this movie would have been for a great nap: at least there were no jarring industrial noises every few minutes. I should have a home film fest of movies that are perfect for sleeping through. Anyway, my friend awoke and was subjected to the final 45 minutes here.

Throughout there are a bunch of dislocating effects, such as the scene suddenly shifting from day to night and back, clothing suddenly shifting from white to black and back, events we heard had happened a year ago happening now, the same person entering a room from different doorways, stuff like that. You notice it, you think “huh,” and you kid yourself that it means you’re getting something out of this movie.

A friend of mine later [the same one who turned it off 30 minutes in when we watched it before, but enjoyed it much more this time] told me his theory that all of the people were dead and are in a sort of purgatory, and I have to say that theory makes the most sense of anything, especially as later in the film we have discussion of the guy getting shot and the woman falling off a banister, and this helps put in context a lot of the white feathery dresses the woman wears and the flares to white that happen later on. So there ya are.

I thought I would just sit back and let it wash over me, but I have to admit that the final 30 minutes were pretty arduous. It was nice, I don’t think I got anything out of it [aside from now being able to say I’ve seen it], and that’s about the complete story.

Should you watch it: 

I guess you have to see it at least once.