Friday 21 April 2017

Last Year at Marienbad (L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad) (1961)

Ifjor i Marienbad
In 2004 I was in Marienbad and it looked nothing like this…

“Last Year in Marienbad” is a movie I have heard rumors of for a while. It is often mentioned as one of the worst or most challenging or even pointless movies on the List. Certainly not as one of those I should look forward to watch. Going in to this I felt quite a bit of trepidation and my expectations were not high.

Having come through to the other side I can certainly see why this would not be to everybody’s taste. To call it polarizing is probably to give it too much credit, but actually I am not as negatively inclined as I thought I would be.

“Last Year in Marienbad” is an art movie, no doubt about that. It is in fact so arty that at surface value it makes absolutely no sense. A synopsis is virtually impossible and I cannot really go any further than saying that this is a about a man trying to convince a woman that they had an affair the year before, something the woman denies.

So what does the movie actually do for 90 minutes?

There is a lot of narration of the poetic, sort of stilted, kind, about memory and corridors and emotional imprisonment, although much of the narration is lost as it does not seem to make a lot of sense and often does not even match the pictures. All the scenes are inside or outside a baroque castle, sumptuous but cold with a lot of straight lines. The castle is populated by what appears to be guests (a hotel?), but they are immobile or on auto pilot and do not seem to be alive. The only actual characters are two men and a woman. The first man is the one who keeps imploring the woman to remember their affair, while the second, a scary skull like dude, looks like he could be her husband. He is always looming on the side.

The picture is constantly jumping, even when narration or dialogue is continuing. The chronology is random and there is no start nor finish. Well, there is sort of a finish, but I am not sure that is the last we see. Cloths change, especially hers between white and black dresses and we often watch people playing some sort of game with cards, dominos or sticks.

As I said nothing here makes any sense at surface value and trying to perceive some sort of story is a frustrating experience. Art films however is all about what is happening beneath the surface, what it is all supposed to mean and “Last Year in Marienbad” is only different in the sense that it has entirely given up on the surface narrative.

What does it mean then?

I can only guess. According to the extra material there is no official or even majority interpretation of the movie. Instead various people have offered their interpretations and who is to tell which is right?

The crazy thing is that this is what I like about art films. The weirder and opaque the better and this is certainly one of the most mystifying art films I have ever watched. Going through the process of watching it I am helped by stunning photography to get me through to the point where I can start to make my own guesses.

While my interpretation is in no way completely thought through I believe that the woman is the only real character. The first man is a memory lurking just outside conscience, something she may have blocked or repressed and the castle with all its corridors and repetitions is her mental prison. In the extra material they talk about that she could have been a victim of a sexual crime and that sounds plausible to me. The second man certainly looks menacing and capable of terrible things. She seems to have to make a choice between something that may liberate her or staying in her mental prison and her escape depends on remembering.

If I have the patience to watch it again I might completely discard this rough skeleton or be able to flesh it out, but for now it will have to do.

I am certain David Lynch watched “Last Year in Marienbad” before he made “Mulholland Drive”. Those two movies are like siblings, equally frustrating and open to interpretation, but also fascinating to watch.

In a harsher state of mind I would call “Last Year in Marienbad” a very pretentious movie and there is certainly something exclusive and snobbish about it. I know several French teachers from my high school days who would just love it. Yet, I cannot help thinking that this is a very interesting watch and definitely something you are not going to see every day. Recommended? Not to everybody.



  1. I hated this movie. Hated it. In fact, this is the movie that moved my blog from PG-rated to R-rated with the amount of swearing it brought out of me.

    1. Yes, that was the very clear picture I got from your review. Had I not been prepared for this I may have had the same reaction. I did not love it and I did find it outragously pretentious, but a part of me also thought it was fun. Today this is the image of a pretentious French art movie and that is an achievement in itself.

  2. I felt this very finely walked the line between intriguing and pretentious twaddle. I was impressed by the editing, and Resnais clear ideas regarding the images, but I still don't know if it was all worth it. Lucky it is short, so I may give it another go.

    1. I doubt I would give it another try, life is just too short and yes, this is horendously pretentious, but also to the extend that it is amusing. The cinematography is interesting for sure.

  3. Well, you know how I feel about eye candy and this movie has it in spades!

    1. That is true on both accounts. It just does not make a lot of sense.

  4. It's not for everyone, but I have Last Year in Marienbad in my top 100. I love films that can maintain a mystique many years after their initial release. Same goes for 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Double Life of Veronique. All three films are also visually stunning.
    I guess I don't need to visit Marienbad then, if the castle/garden isn't there?

    1. I think the upsetting thing about Last Year in Marienbad is the pretentiousness, the deliberate and shameless artiness. It feels snobbish and arrogant and it pisses people off. I agree that it has retained its mystique and nobody really knows what it is about, even today. Is this a good thing? perhaps. I am intrigued and frustrated, endeared and insulted.
      Marienbad is a very interesting place, truly charming, but I think you need to be 60+ to really appreciate it. It is also known as Marianske Lazne.