Film review: Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

My tastes in art are decidedly lowbrow. I am the kind of person who would benefit from reading certain authors (James Joyce, William Faulkner) and poets (T. S. Eliot) and seeing the films of certain directors (Luis Bunuel, Frederico Fellini) within the framework of courses taught by experts in those areas who can explain to me what the hell is going on. If ever I needed to be reminded of this, my recent viewing of this film by director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet certainly did so. I had heard of this film ages ago and was intrigued by the fact that some film connoisseurs rave about this film (it has a 95% rating of critics at Rotten Tomatoes) while others have placed on the list of the fifty worst films of all time. So when I finally got a chance to stream it, I did so.

Roger Ebert captured the conflicting reactions to the film.

How clearly I recall standing in the rain outside the Co-Ed Theater near the campus of the University of Illinois, waiting to see “Last Year at Marienbad.” On those lonely sidewalks, in that endless night, how long did we wait there? And was it the first time we waited in that line, to enter the old theater with its columns, its aisles, its rows of seats–or did we see the same film here last year?

Yes, it’s easy to smile at Alain Resnais’ 1961 film, which inspired so much satire and yet made such a lasting impression. Incredible to think that students actually did stand in the rain to be baffled by it, and then to argue for hours about its meaning–even though the director claimed it had none. I hadn’t seen “Marienbad” in years, and when I saw the new digitized video disc edition in a video store, I reached out automatically: I wanted to see it again, to see if it was silly or profound, and perhaps even to recapture an earlier self–a 19-year-old who hoped Truth could be found in Art.

The film takes place in an elegant chateau, one with ornate ceilings, vast drawing rooms, enormous mirrors and paintings, endless corridors and grounds in which shrubbery has been tortured into geometric shapes and patterns. In this chateau are many guests–elegant, expensively dressed, impassive. We are concerned with three of them: “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a beautiful woman. “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), with movie-idol good looks, who insists they met last year and arranged to meet again this year. And “M” (Sascha Pitoeff), who may be A’s husband or lover, but certainly exercises authority over her. He has a striking appearance, with his sunken triangular face, high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and subtle vampirish overbite.

Here is short clip that captures the mood of the film. The entire film is just like that.

Here is the trailer that tries to prepare the viewer for what they are about to see.

My own reaction to the film was largely that of befuddlement. It was clear that what I was seeing was some kind of surreal dreamscape with repetition, stilted movements, self-referential dialogue and switching of timelines and sequences with rapid cuts from one scene to the next where the characters are in different locations and wearing different clothes but continuing the same conversation. But there had to be more to the film than merely a dream because that is too facile and that deeper meaning is what eluded me. Maybe others who have seen the film made more sense of it than I did.

One thing that did grab my attention was a logic game that I later learned is called Nim that was played several times by the characters. The version of game shown in the film involves setting out objects (it does matter what, cards, matchsticks, whatever) in four rows of 1, 3, 5 and 7. Two players take turns removing objects. At each turn, they can remove as many as they want, but only from one row at a time. The player who is left with the last object loses.

The game must have been intended to make a point in the film but that too eluded me. I like logic puzzles and it started me thinking about the strategy needed to win and thus may have got me distracted.


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I was introduced to Nim in a bonus game in the Game Boy version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but never knew what it was called. (It used ninja stars as the objects, naturally.) So thanks for clearing that up!

    There is also a variation where taking items from the middle of the row splits it into separate rows. So you can then take as many as you like, but from just one sub-row.

  2. Katydid says

    The 1960s were a time of a lot of experimentation, weren’t they? From drugs to art to movies to books.

    What jumps out at me from watching the clips is the man says, “You told me to leave you alone” and the woman says outright, “Leave me alone”…yet the man persists in hounding her. Despite the general “free to be you and me” spirit of the 1960s, it was still very sexist.

    I think the tv series The Twilight Zone took some cues from this movie in tone and camera angles.

    (Also, not apropos to my point, that country house was gorgeous.)

  3. seachange says,is%20zero%20for%20every%20digit.

    This is the link for the Wikipedia article about the game Nim. It has a solutions. It is more meaningful and artsy than that film, to me. Hopefully (if you haven’t already looked it up) you will find it entertaining. I did.

    Dada was a form of two-dimensional (usually static) art. It was deliberately without meaning. Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously!

  4. Holms says

    But there had to be more to the film than merely a dream because that is too facile

    Why must there be? There is a long history of opaque art being excused as ‘too deep’ for the hoi polloi, with the intended audience being a select group that have convinced themselves there is meaning to be gleaned by the truly refined, and that they are (or aspire to be) in that group.

    The meaning I took from the trailer was that the mansion was very pretty.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Raging Bee,

    The trailer music was different for some reason. The film music was mostly organ and captured the sombre mood of the film better.

  6. flex says

    I haven’t seen this, I should put it on my list.

    I have to admit being a bit of a sucker for art films. There is a certain attraction to viewing something which made some sort of sense to someone else, but is largely inaccessible to another viewer. To spend the time and resources to create such a film suggests some sort of vision, but if the vision can only be discovered through extended director’s commentary it allows the view to place their own interpretation on the piece. It’s like staring at the sphinx for two or three hours and contemplating why the Egyptians would go to the trouble to carve it. It’s a phenomenal achievement, requiring a tremendous amount of labor, but we really don’t know why.

    That may be why I enjoy Jacques Tati’s films so much, although they are much more accessible than most art films.

    Something for Mano though; my wife and I just watched a more recent movie, “See How They Run”. It’s a 2022 film, a murder mystery set in 1953 around Agatha Christie’s play, “The Mousetrap”. I’ll say no more about it, other than it’s a subtle comedy with references to dozens of other mystery novels. The names of the dentists had me rolling on the floor laughing.

  7. Mano Singham says

    flex @#7,

    I was able to see Last Year at Marienbad through the free film streaming service Kanopy that my library subscribes to.

    Thanks for the tip about See How They Run. I’ll try to get hold of it.

    The Mousetrap once held the record for the longest running play in London and long ago my parents went to see it. I was just a little boy at that time.

  8. Tethys says

    Ingmar Bergman is one of those Directors whose work is always cited as great Art, but I just find it weird, dark, and off putting.

    For entertainment purposes I found the homage to Bergman in the Bill and Ted movie hilarious, precisely because it mocked the pretentious, art film genre that is evident in The Seventh Seal and Last Year in Marienbad.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    …courses taught by experts in those areas who can explain to me what the hell is going on.

    To which my response is “life’s too short”. There’s stuff I loved at first sight, stuff I came to love, and stuff I will never love (even loathe) despite people raving about it (and of course a lot of stuff in greyer areas).

  10. birgerjohansson says

    Another film that provokes divisive responses is Tarkovsky’s 3-hour film Stalker.
    I had read the novel on which it was loosely based, and it helped a bit.

  11. Tethys says

    Rob @ 11

    I believe that Eugene Levy on SCTV, and that Whisper of the Wolf skit was my first exposure to Bergman. I can see how the odd camera angles and his visual devices like ticking clocks have been highly influential, but I still don’t enjoy sitting through his movies.

    Here is ABBAs homage to Bergman in their video for Knowing Me, Knowing You.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *