Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

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