L’année dernière à Marienbad

France, Italy, 1961

Directed by Alain Resnais

With Delphine Seyrig (the woman), Giorgio Albertazzi (the man), Serge Pitoëff (the woman’s husband)

The camera’s eye is turned upwards, shooting ceilings, vaults and medallions; then it is lowered and moves along remarkably long corridors and huge rooms or halls, still capturing this exuberant style of architecture and ornaments evoking the German Baroque. Sentences depicting the narrator’s wanderings in these adorned and endless corridors can be overheard, at least if enough attention is paid, for the sound is rather low, the words sounding like a whisper wafting over a splendid but inert world where people barely move and speak, resembling odd creatures somehow frozen in time.

It turns out the place is a sprawling and luxurious hotel in Marienbad, or Carlsbad, or elsewhere in the Mitteleuropa, where wealthy people come to rest and relax. They are now, as the film begins, attending a theatrical performance and so, in fact, the words were part of the lines of the lead actor. The corridors, rooms and halls are where, in the rest of the film, they meet to chat, gossip, and play games, and where a man tries to convince a woman they met at the same hotel a year earlier and that they had a sort of affair that now drives him to talk to her again and to flee with her. But she claims she does not remember anything, that he is inventing a story and that she needs to be alone.

Drifting in an amazing and maze-like place, lost in memory: Delphine Seyrig (left) and Giorgio Albertazzi

The women’s husband is observing their conversations, which can start off at any time and in any circumstances and end in an abrupt way before being taken up again and again, in an endless, tedious cycle spreading over a period of time seemingly impossible to size up, taking place in those corridors, rooms and halls, but also the vast garden spreading before the building, architectural visions introduced at the start and that turns out to be a repetitive, obsessive motif as maddening as the characters’ talks.

Compositions become an open field where the narrative can extend into any direction, irrespective of the reality that a shot seems to introduce and neglecting common sense narration. A long shot captures the woman alone in a huge dark hall, for instance, clearly implying she is alone, lost in her thoughts; then the camera moves closer as she talks aloud; then it moves back while panning to the right and the man appears; finally, it keeps sliding to the right and other guests are standing, talking or not, in what is a different hall, or not. Editing goes further in opening, or rather breaking, the usual field of a scene, as a conversation can go on naturally, with the characters having the same tone and attitudes, even as they have changes clothes and the environment is altogether different.

The transformations and breaks which the film constantly and masterfully displays strangely segue into the wider, crazy continuum of this long, awkward encounter of a man and a woman, in this definitely, tragically locked-up space – the corridors, rooms, halls and garden looking like a kind of unique and sprawling maze; and the fact that pictures representing the building and the garden are often hung on the walls, and regularly shot by the camera, just bolsters that impression of a self-contained world cut off from the stream of life.

The debut feature of Alain Resnais, “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959), already featured a couple with no name struggling with a burden too big for their frail shoulders, in this case the horrors of World War Two and the effort to survive historical tragedy as life goes on. This second film, also written by a famous and divisive figure of the French literature of the time, Nouveau roman star Alain Robbe-Grillet, moves into a far more intimate, psychological territory and grapples with memory and past quite differently.

The facts that are claimed by the characters seem hard to prove and to reconstruct for the audience: not only the woman disputes the man’s assertions but the montage promptly introduces flashes that hint at a different reality that may be hers but then can change in the most disturbing way – the hotel room where she supposedly stayed the previous year has never the same decoration – while giving a chronological order to the scenes has been made really impossible. In a way, the story is about the obsession of the man for the woman and the repetitive, ponderous lines emphasize a compulsive need, a fantasy driven by his guts – whether they actually had an affair or not may be, in this respect, a bit irrelevant; what matters, at least to him, is to connect what stirs his mind with that distant body.

The woman, meanwhile, cuts an even more ambiguous and tragic figure; she may be deeply dissatisfied with her life but is unsure about what she feels and wants – the overbearing presence of a stern and hostile husband is obviously an oppressive factor. The man and the woman break from the narrative stereotypes of lovers not only because they lack an identity and a context making them relatable but also because the place, the words, the camera, the editing emphasize their more basic impulses and show the impossibility of connecting them.

Both lead characters depict odd but dramatic events describing their deaths – the man telling how the woman collapsed on her bed after her husband shot at her and then the woman crying as she saw again the partly crumbled balustrade in a terrace from where the man fell to his death. The film has previously featured, in a stunning low angle, the shooting practice a few of the guests, including the man and the husband, make to pass time; the main visual motif remains that these eerie moments when people suddenly freeze, falling silent and becoming still, as if the reel stopped turning (but it has not); and the film would end by a deeply dark night where no one is to be seen.

Death is obviously an overarching theme in “L’année dernière à Marienbad”, perhaps the real background to the characters’ fate and feelings lost in a place straight from a grandiose cultural past and now frozen into a theater of vanities and idle lives (those jet-setters are remarkably redolent of the characters shot at the same time by Michelangelo Antonioni as he develops his singular vision of the Italian and European upper classes and the individual’s struggle to fit into the modern world). As the finale suggests, it may be also a story of ghosts, the tragedy of a mysterious passion that cannot find a sense of achievement inside the society where they come from.

The final lines of the man are a telling, if ironic, comment of the film’s style: he explains the woman is now following him in the French style garden of the hotel, which means a garden with no flowers and wild vegetation and made up of long, rectilinear paths bordering vast, perfect rectangles of grass with a few trees – the kind of garden where it is impossible to get lost, and yet they both are getting lost in those paths for ever. The film could have been a classic, straightforward tale of love – but it chooses to break narrative rules and to offer an iterative, ingenuous, riveting, and radical approach, asserting that the naked desires and brutal torments of men and women can be depicted in a brand-new style which allows cinema to reflect the chaos of the conscience, skipping the comfort of transitions and logics, compelling the audience to find their own ways to cope with the elusive traits of frail people.

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