A convincing case could be made for Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to be called the most attractive work of cinema of all-time—a formal, stylistic, and visual sonic boom
Winner at Venice
It’s Resnais’ second feature after Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959— this one-two punch is lock-step (if not better) than Truffaut and Godard at the time
Starts, like Resnais’ debut, with a gauntlet-thrown-down stunner of an introduction opening- there are these rolling tracking shots, low-angle shots of an luxurious hotel and a voice over repeating a series of phrases that often pair with the grand visuals—“corridors, baroque, galleries, empty, salon, marble, doorways, doorframe, mirrors”- repeated over and over for 5 minutes as if Resnais’ is boldly putting you into a trance or hypnotizing you
Low-angle chandelier shot, dwells on the ornate architecture of the interior at 5 minutes
A framed picture of the garden maze at 6 minutes and perfect frame of the hallway (we’ve had nothing but perfect frames so far)— this movie, the hotel set-piece, the maze, the corridors—clearly an important film to Kubrick and The Shining
Silent figures, beautiful people in black tie, banal gossip, mystery card game
Shot at not one but three Bavarian luxury hotels
Art-museum quality frames galore including this stunner at 12 minutes that could be from Pawel Pawlikowski or Cuaron’s Roma—perfect symmetry
Heavy use of mirrors in the formal visual design for Resnais
Kubrick for sure was influenced, I think Lynch is another—Leos Carax— surrealism, smoky—design, mood and form favored over narrative – certainly cinema’s great labyrinth
Overheating splices of dialogue, everyone stopping in a the middle of the scene – never seen anything like it—vacant models holding poses as the camera glides by with formally repeated tracking shots—the camera is always stalking like ghost
The key shot—one that could be cinema’s single finest (yes, all of cinema)—is the shot (often repeated in the film and variations on it after) of the meticulously manicured symmetrical gardens at 26 minutes. Statues and fountains
Debut for Delphine Seyrid (who had a nice run after this including work with Demy, Truffaut, Bunuel—she’s very good here), Giorgio Albertazzi the male lead— characters without names— Sacha Pitoeff as the young Boris Karloff-looking character
Form- repeating the scene the way the character remembers it (mostly Albertazzi) with his voice over— but we’ll get it again with the actor mouthing words
A meditation on memory, subjectivity (Wasn’t it cold that summer? Over and over) – replaying the same scene with different outcomes
It is like the final segment of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse meets The Shining
Seyrid in triplicate in the mirror
At 38 mins Resnais (always the editing genius) splices in frames of Seyrid in an all-white room—Fight Club’s Fincher splicing— then throttles it and goes to that in the next scene like the transitions in Easy Rider
Endlessly enigmatic and impenetrable—best to let the visuals and rhythms wash over you and not try to unlock it
Certainly feels like the Uncle of WKW’s In the Mood For Love, so much in common there
Cutout of Hitchcock hidden in a frame at one point, add to the mystery and homage
There’s a progression in the narrative but it does double back often and stops completely, repeats certain shots and sequences like overlooking the garden
The camera never stops—you can get spoiled by the visuals actually- there are 50 shots here more beautiful than any one in really good films
A jump edit sequence where Seyrid’s character (at 70 mins) lays in bed four times from different angles—close to the Varda Cleo shot repeated three times that would influence Scorsese
Tone poem, fever dream, ambiguity, memory, nightmare (that organ score is more nightmare than dream), like an unwinnable game of chess, a mirage, elliptical
Sacha Vierny as the cinematographer— go on to work with Greenaway from 1985-1996 or so and take part in all of his most important work
[…] Last Year at Marienbad – Resnais […]
I was blown away by this film. Honestly. I don’t even know how I missed out on it for so long, considering how highly I regard Hiroshima, but this was a complete revelation to me. I havent seen such a groundbreaking film in a long time (and I can’t think of many that are more groundbreaking than this). It was otherworldly and unforgettable. Whether we talk about the gorgeous black and white photography, the flowing camera movement or the Mise en scene. The photography captures the excessively decorated baroque resort beautifully and poignantly at the same time – it’s like a ghost, a character in the film that never ceases to haunt our protagonists until they are set free. This is one of the very few works in which people are utilised as pieces of scenery. And I would guess it is a very conscious choice – in His and Her eyes, nobody there matters, it’s as if they were objects. With Seyrig’s detached melancholic gaze drifting away from her reality and Albertazzi’s eyes solely searching for her, no other character really matters with the notable exception of her husband, who works as the consciousness of the story and the place itself – it is the human form of that lavish prison. As what we see is someone’s memories, the gaps in which are filled with his imagination and dreams, the past experience forever blended with and tied to the present time, the people who begin conversing, only to stop and begin again, are a perfect way of capturing the essence of our main protagonists’ account of their past and present, their vacant existence. What I loved was that throughout, there are several scenarios in one’s head as to what the nature of their encounter last year was. And why doesn’t she remember it? Did he assault her and she erased it from her memory as a traumatic experience (he does appear to stalk her at some point)? Did they have an affair and her husband shot her? Has her spirit haunted the hotel and is she a ghost without knowing so? Did her husband perhaps shoot him and it is him who is the ghost (she once refers to him as a kind of phantom)? What I think is wonderful is that the dreamlike nature of the film allows Resnais to play with those alternative directions and show us glimpses of them actually on screen, in a way that has us doubt the reality of anything we watch. It is a bold formal choice (it becomes progressively wilder during the last half hour) and I believe it pays off brilliantly. The script by Robbe-Grillet, as in Hiroshima by Duras, is undeniably poetic and accompanies the beautiful imagery (particularly the play on light and shadow) marvellously. It completes the ethereal tone that Marienbad employs. The film is so wonderful, that we run the danger of sleeping on Albertazzi’s voiceover, which is simply incredible and one of the better uses of the technique in cinematic history. A common theme in both Marienbad and Hiroshima seems to be the woman with the scarred past which she repels and avoids, causing her to remain a shadow of her former self, far removed from her reality, out of touch with her emotions. Seyrig is sublime here. She manages to establish a presence, as her character is essentially a reoccurring visual motif, other than just our enigmatic heroine, and somehow gets to repeat the same gestures, lines and movements over and over and it still works. She gives us a perfect sense of who this woman is despite the evasive nature of both her character and the film. Her wide eyed vacant stare (honours shared with Emmanuelle Riva – though Riva’s role is much more overtly devastating and tragic) and the fear we see in her give away her misery. It’s very impressive to me how she, more than anyone else in the film, fills the empty yet décor-saturated rooms of the hotel with her melancholy and sudden laugh. I guess it helps that she rocks those Chanel dresses, which brings me to my last point – Marienbad is impeccably stylish. I love the comparison with In the Mood for Love, because it is so damn accurate. Slow camera movements, careful placements of people and objects, meticulously designed set pieces, stylish clothes, a somewhat tragic love story, and a colossal achievement in tone and atmosphere – they are both two of the most stylish films to ever grace our screens. Last Year at Marienbad is to me a gigantic masterpiece, almost on par with the Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover (of which I also thought, due to the expressionism). The latter would get 50-100 spots ahead in the all time list due to the use of colour, but still – Marienbad is an all timer.
@Georg- great work here! I like the comparison with Greenaway’s masterpiece. This is certainly not an easy film– your breakdown here will likely help others wrap their arms around it. Thank you.
@Drake- haha, it’s always a pleasure! I quite like your take as well – I forgot to mention, I find the comment of the final segment of L’Eclisse meeting the Shining is very poignant. Somehow there is so much in common there, it is quite impressive and daunting. I do think the isolation themes shared in all three of those films help make the connection, but still a very well placed remark. Also I hadn’t noticed that Greenaway’s photographer is the one working here, which, honestly, makes perfect sense.
I just watched this film and what the hell. Like seriously. I don’t know what the hell I just watched. It was so amazing. Perfect unification of camera movement, mise-en-scene, editing and score. It might be the best film of all time. I really don’t know what to write. It was just so good.
You mentioned The Shining in your review and that film was absolutely influenced by this one but Suspiria was the one that came to mind for myself.
Absolutely with you on that. I haven’t put together a top 100 yet but I’m fairly sure it will crack it. Maybe even my top 50. Even the screenplay as well, so poetic in its repetition. Those first ten minutes are especially stunning. Just mind-blowing.
@Declan – I’m fairly certain this film will crack my top 100 and I could even see it entering the top 10. It’s fantastic. You’re right about the repetition too, which is brilliantly realized in the film. The opening where Albertazzi just keeps going on, and on, and on, saying the same stuff as the camera just strolls through this labyrinthine hotel, turning what should be a paradise into a hell… it’s some of the most electrifying cinema I’ve ever witnessed.
@ Drake – Also since I was mentioning films I thought were influenced by this earlier, I saw Under the Skin several days ago and Resnais’s influence on Kubrick absolutely shows up in Kubrick’s influence on Glazer.