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.