film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Last Year At Marienbad (1961)

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When I was in high school, several of my classmates got through their various English classes using Cliffs’ Notes, those yellow-and-black pamphlets which give a summary of a given book, and suggest various “themes” and “meanings” addressed therein. I never did, however – I was a fast and avid reader, and even enjoyed lots of the things we’d been assigned in class, so I always looked down on the Cliffs’ Notes users.

Until now. Because I needed that kind of hand-holding with this film.

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So, the Cliffs’ Notes version of Last Year at Marienbad is: a man and a woman meet up at an exclusive European resort. He keeps insisting that they’d met one year previously and had an affair, but she’d asked him to wait a year and then they’d run off together. She, however, keeps insisting that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

It’s pretty difficult to glean that from the film itself, though. There is a point about halfway through the film where the man (Giorgio Albertazzi) finally says those words, and also says them directly to the woman (Delphine Seyrig); up until that point, he’d been speaking, and so had she, but maybe not of that and maybe not to each other. We hear him in voiceover talking about their meeting, but watched another woman doing something else. We see the man and woman staring intently at each other as another group of people discuss something entirely different. We see our couple talking, but they discuss something entirely different – repeating, verbatim, another conversation entirely different people had been having earlier. We also occasionally see a second man (Sacha Pitoëff) lurking about the couple; he might be the woman’s husband, or a lover, or a chaperone. But he actually spends most of his time in the game room challenging people to games of Nim.

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There’s a lot of loops and endless labyrinthine hallways throughout; both in conversations and monologues, with characters declaiming lengthy speeches which repeat themselves through twice, or in the visuals, with characters wandering aimlessly around an opulent mansion – there are few windows, but there are many doors and hallways, with a crowd of well-dressed people wandering about looking for either the game room or the ballroom or the chamber concert or the dining room, huddling around columns and discussing other guests. Even on the rare occasions when the man and woman meet outside, it’s in a hyper-manicured garden with statues and precisely-trimmed shrubs and endless paths leading back to the front of the hotel. And while you do sort of gather what the blue hell what has been happening by the end of the film, things are certainly not tied up in a neat bow.

I first tried watching this after work on a weeknight, which was a huge mistake; this is a film you need to approach with full brain power just to keep up, and my second attempt (afternoon on a Saturday, with no one else at home) fared much better. At least, I was able to keep up with the film and gathered something of a narrative out of it.

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I’m reluctant to figure out if my interpretation of the film was “right”, since I get the sense that that’s not even the point. The whole film seems to take place in some kind of stylized nowhere, where the normal rules of reality just don’t apply; time bends and loops back on itself, hallways double and twist and dump you somewhere you didn’t expect, conversations loop back around on themselves endlessly and people are stuck saying the same things again and again. The notion of this film being some kind of dream or afterlife isn’t all that new – one of the lines the man has suggests that this is what’s happening – but it’s at least an answer, and it’s one I came away with.

But now I wonder if I’m meant to come up with any interpretation at all. In an earlier review I mentioned attending the “immersive theater” show Sleep No More, which similarly has enough of a “Plot” for you to follow if that’s what you really want; ostensibly it’s based on the plot of MacBeth. But the appeal for audiences is the chance to explore the environment itself – poking around the various rooms, opening cupboards, flipping through papers. Following interesting-looking people who seemed to be deeply invested in a conversation you only joined halfway through. The one time I went, I spent most of the time exploring the various different rooms, sampling the contents of a “candy store”, and trying to remember how to play a Genesis song on a piano tucked into a corner behind a blanket fort, and only caught the “main action” in fleeting glimpses.

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And honestly, that’s what the other patrons at the hotel would know about the drama playing out with our main characters – whatever they might happen to accidentally overhear or see out of the corner of their eyes as they were themselves looking for the game room or heading to dinner, or following their own scripts from their own narratives. They wouldn’t have known the whole story either, and maybe that’s why we don’t.

At least that’s what I’ve decided today.

1 thought on “Last Year At Marienbad (1961)”

  1. I suppose it is very open for interpretation. Personally I was not as negative about it as many reviewers have been. It is weird, bizarre, obscure and very pretentious, but there is also something fascinating about it. Not that I am eager to watch it again, though.
    Look out for Delphine Seyrig. Whenever she shows up, you are in for a strange film.

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