A Night to Remember
last year at marienbad (1961)
directed by Alain Resnais
April 25, 2021
To attempt to decipher Last Year at Marienbad is to rob it of its allure. Whether one considers the film a frustratingly formalist indulgence or an atmospherically experimental masterpiece, it is impossible to deny the distinct impact of Alain Resnais’ 1961 sophomore feature. What qualifies as a mainstream “narrative” motion picture has since been up for debate, not to mention the actual content of the film. Nameless characters, plodding narration, and an unabashed disregard for spatial and temporal cohesion – these are the defining features that have befuddled viewers for the last 60 years. Classical Hollywood standards of plot, motivation, and causal logic (standards the movie-going public has been conditioned to expect) are abandoned in favour of a cinematic adaptation of the nouveau roman. Resnais worked in close collaboration with avant-garde novelist-turned-screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet to fashion a story devoid of any of the clear-cut building blocks that make up stories; the result is an incredibly idiosyncratic experience that rewards the submissive spectator. One of the many peculiar designs of the film is its carefully edited fabrication of architectural space as a means of heightening disorientation. Having already admitted to the futility of prescribing the meaning of Last Year at Marienbad with any certainty, this essay aims to explore the mechanics behind its geographical ambiguity and how the palace on display manages to make the unspoken, visible.
From the opening credits, there is an unsettling lack of identification with the screen. The film immediately distances itself from its audience through X’s voice-over, accompanied by a pipe organ score and a methodical montage of the chateau’s interior. The camera glides through empty hallways, lingering on ceiling ornamentation, baroque chandeliers, and myriads of mirrors. There is no real feeling associated with these images; if anything, the repetitive monotony of X’s delivery flattens beautiful scenography into a bleak ghost town. Our entry into this dreamworld is a disembodied voice robotically describing what we are already looking at: “Cross corridors leading in turn to empty rooms, rooms heavily laden with a décor from the past. Silent rooms where the sound of footsteps is absorbed by carpets so heavy, so thick, that all sound escapes the ear … This huge, luxurious, baroque, and dismal hotel where corridor follows corridor. Silent, deserted corridors …” and on it goes. What distinguishes Last Year at Marienbad from other, more traditional movies is the intentional vagueness of its point of view. Since there is no set-up of characters or scenario (we don’t see X, the speaker, until the 12 minute mark), we are left wondering whose perspective we are following. In his article “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera,” Kenneth Johnson makes a point that the “wandering camera” is a representation of our narrator’s consciousness, considering he is the only human presence we’ve encountered thus far (52). As a testament to this, Resnais is on the record for telling his lead actors, Giorgio Albertazzi (X) and Delphine Seyrig (A), not to emote; inspired by the silent era, performances were meant to be solely external – a mechanically choreographed dance, if you will. Consequently, people blend into architecture. They become nothing more than moving ornaments, fabrications of the environment framed exclusively for the camera’s gaze. The lack of a motivated POV further confuses the back-and-forth nature of the narrative structure, allowing viewers to project their own emotions, frustrations, and interpretations onto the screen.
Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the untethered, seemingly “mind-of-its-own” navigation of the camera, let us look to one particular scene as a microcosm for the ever-changing built space on display. As the film progresses and some inkling of a plot becomes apparent, this foregrounded ambiguity becomes more than a stylistic choice; rather, it materializes the repressed turmoil of its characters. Almost exactly midway through the movie, X doubles down on his efforts to remind A of their previous encounter. We are never told where this occurred (“In Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon”), nor if it ever did occur. Regardless of their detachment from reality, the images are always at the service of the narrator’s whim; wardrobes, locations, time – all are indexical to X’s memory. This is apparent in a selection of five chronological shots (see image above), starting 42 minutes in. From the pairing of dialogue and visuals we can assemble the sequence like a four-dimensional puzzle, situating each moment in time and space. Even such an exercise requires a degree of diagrammatic subjectivity, considering the castle plan can never be entirely accurate due to shifting monuments and nonsensical continuity. Consider the cuts from shots B to C, and C to D: the mirrored blocking of Seyrig’s figure in the frame bookends an apparent non sequitur of her and Albertazzi standing on a balcony. However, Seyrig’s position in shots B and D temporarily obscures the fact that she is in an entirely different locale within the castle. Why this strange jump? Because at that moment, X tells her: “One night, I went up to your room;” Resnais opts for jarring the audience into new settings, forcing them to play catch-up with the abruptness of X and A’s back-and-forth, instead of tailoring the narrative flow to the spectator’s expectations. That being said, there is an undeniable logic to how the film is edited, primarily due to the fact that every shot was dictated in the script; Resnais himself has mentioned that anybody with Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay could have made the same movie. Sylvette Baudrot, the production crew’s continuity girl, was assigned the herculean task of mapping the entire chronology of events, ensuring no one on set lost sight of where and when each piece of the film was taking place. While a high degree of control resided over the making of Last Year at Marienbad, the director was never interested in sharing what any of it meant, or if there was any inherent meaning to begin with; “It’s not my role to give explanations,” said Resnais in an interview shortly after the film’s release. “For that matter, I don’t think the film is a real enigma. By that I mean that each spectator can find his own solution … meaning that my solution is of no more interest than that of any other viewer.” It is a divisive experience by design, but that calculated mystery sown into the very fabric of the celluloid is what has kept the picture alive all these years.
Not unlike Sergei Eisentein’s or Dziga Vertov’s cinematic experiments that sought to create the illusion of a unified space, Last Year at Marienbad constructs an impossible piece of architecture made possible through the medium itself. Expanding on the works of those two filmmakers, Resnais deliberately draws attention to the cracks within the filmic foundation surrounding X and A in order to spatially disorient viewers. As one analyzes the film, it becomes clear that such a palace could never exist; varying exterior angles contradict one another, rooms look out onto views they are in no position to look out on, identifiable landmarks like statues move, rotate, or disappear, often in consecutive shots. Based off of the real shooting locations, an interpretative drawing can be made to gather a general overview of the site. The picturesque gardens and building facades/interiors were photographed in Munich at the Chateaux Nymphenburg and Schlessheim. To achieve the impression of a never-ending grand hallway, sets were built in three different Parisian studios (no single studio was big enough) over the course of several months; in fact, many back-to-back shots in the film are separated by elongated stretches of time. The use of editing to bring such diverse elements into an emotionally (dis)satisfying work aligns with art historian Elie Faure’s idea of cineplastics – film’s ability to synthesize the movement of time and space. According to Faure, “By means of the cinema … time becomes a veritable instrument of space, ‘unrolling under our eyes its successive volumes ceaselessly returned to us in dimensions that allow us to grasp their extent in surface and depth’” (Vidler 46). The wavering relationship between X and A, a relationship that unfolds through spatial and temporal juxtapositions, creates “a new kind of architectural space, akin to that imaginary space ‘within the walls of the brain’” (Vidler 46). The final Frankensteined castle, as physically conflicting as it is, embodies the unreliable nature of suppressed memories, which is, according to this viewer, what Resnais’ film is ultimately about.
For all its stone-faced alienation, Last Year at Marienbad achieves the rare cinematic feat of reciprocating an audience member’s investment; the answer is there for those who seek it out. Behind luxuriant walls, hidden in deep shadows, lurking around that corner … or maybe the key is drenched in sunlight, standing tall and proud, surrounded by immaculately manicured lawns. Every aspect of film production – music, mise-en-scène, costume, lighting, blocking – blends into a universal corpse, only to be resurrected in the mind of the individual beholder. Like our estranged romantic couple, we are at the mercy of the creator, matches in a game of Nim. Suits gather around the table and argue how it is won: “The one who starts first … the one who goes second … you must take only one stick at a time …” The question remains: why stress over the secret behind the puzzle when the ending is inevitable?
“Alain Resnais: L’Année Dernière À Marienbad – 1961 – Making of.” August 27, 2015. MPEG-4, 32:37. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bpTQhYMUCU
Johnson, Kenneth. “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera.” Cinema Journal 32, no. 2 (1993): 49-56. doi:10.2307/1225604.
McGuire, Dianne K. “Rescuing a Neglected Art: Topiary.” Landscape Architecture 55, no. 4 (1965): 267-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26432465.
Resnais, Alain. “Alain Resnais interview 1961.” May 16, 2009. MPEG-4, 5:42.
Resnais, Alain, dir. Last Year at Marienbad. 1961; Paris, France: Cocinor.
Sgolacchia, Renzo. “Deconstruction of the Filmic Space – L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961).” Archined (October 6, 2017).
Vidler, Anthony. “The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary.” Assemblage 21 (1993): 44-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3171214.