Alan Resnais was something of an over-achiever. Night and Fog, his thirty-minute examination of the aftermath of the Holocaust, has serious claims to the titles of both finest short and finest documentary ever made; Mon Oncle d’Amerique, which Resnais shot in Montreal, is frequently cited by Canadian critics as the best film ever to emerge from their country; Hiroshima Mon Amour became a monument in cinema history and sacred text to the French New Wave; and Last Year At Marienbad managed to be better than them all.
During my abortive college career, I once spoke to a friend about Marienbad, which we had both seen on TV the night before. Overhearing us, another student asked, ‘What’s Last Year At Marienbad?’ As I readied myself to reel off some pretentious claptrap about a haunting investigation into the ambiguity of memory that eschews conventional narrative and reinvents our expectations of the movie, my friend said simply, ‘A beautiful film.’ That, I realised instantly, was the perfect answer.
The geometric precision, what Ian McEwan might call the ‘mathematical grace’, of Marienbad’s set design and cinematography is astonishing. If you’re at all interested in photography, you could have a hell of time just watching this movie with the sound off. (And you’d probably understand as much of what’s going on as you would if you watched it with the sound on.) But beyond just being beautiful, this faultless photography is as important to the film as anything said or done by anyone in it, and moulds the mood and tone of the work as effectively as, in a novel, does perfectly crafted prose. The brilliant clarity of Resnais’s images (particularly notable when watching the digitally re-mastered DVD), doesn’t, as you would expect, make the scenes it shows us easier to comprehend. Instead, the clearness of what we see contradicts the fuzzy uncertainty of what we think about it, and further undermines the faith Hollywood has implanted in us that all films will be unchallenging to watch and easy to understand.
Alongside this, the jarring organ sounds (to call them ‘music’ would be stretching the definition) and stylised performances – which somehow seem both impassioned and emotionally distant – combine to create an onscreen environment unlike any we have seen before. It’s through them that, just as Brazil and Der Cabinet Des Dr Caligari manage to recreate on film something of the experience of dreaming, Marienbad manages to recreate something of the experience of memory.
If you’re suspicious of art house cinema and like your movies to have a gripping story, characters you can relate to and a neat ending that won’t leave you with more questions than answers – or any questions at all – you probably shouldn’t read the next sentence. Marienbad doesn’t really have a plot, it barely has a setting, and we don’t really learn much about its three main characters, who are identified only as A, X, and M. The beautiful A seems to be married to the stern M, and the peculiar X spends most of his time trying to persuade her that she had an affair with him a year ago in Marienbad. After introducing these quasi-characters the film then presents string of unanswerable questions about them: were X and A lovers? Is he lying? Is she? Were they ever together at Marienbad? Were they ever together at all? If you’d never heard of this movie before reading this, then ‘Do we care?’ might seem a more pertinent question. The answer, amazingly, is yes. Few art films are as captivating as this one, and very few are anywhere near as good.
As I’ve no doubt demonstrated, it is difficult to write anything worthwhile about Last Year At Marienbad. The film is so purely a work of a cinema that trying to describe it in words feels like trying to paint a picture to describe a piece of music. In fact, the only words really worth writing about Marienbad are these: watch it.
Austere yet enjoyable, difficult yet exciting, open-ended yet satisfying, Last Year At Marienbad is a treat you should allow yourself at least once. If all that sounds like pretentious claptrap, then just remember that Marienbad is, above everything else, a very beautiful film.