On Alan Resnais’ Last Year of Marienbad (1961)

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by Jacqueline Valencia

The thing about this movie is how it keeps repeating. It gets copied, distorted, spliced, and re-analyzed through other people’s films ad nauseam, and with good reason. The genius in Last Year of Marienbad is in its reiteration of enigmatic patterns that obfuscate real meaning in life. Those patterns are lifelong constructs built upon images, Jungian-like symbolism, and in that psychological maze there exists an existential horror: characters continue to exist the way they do because that is all they know.

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I’ve long admired Alain Resnais‘ work because he presented the world an analysis of itself in a multitude of perspectives. The montages of Hiroshima Mon Amour poked through the confusing world of memory to reveal the frightening capabilities of the mind. Whatever we dream, whatever we aspire, can be made flesh or can destroy it. In Last Year of Marienbad, Resnais dreams and lets us witness a visual journey within memory.

In order to recollect, one must envision the past over and over again. The film follows this memorial circular structure through reenactments and the recollections of its characters. I use the word “characters” loosely since the three main characters (a woman and two men), are more akin to archetypes than actual people. They have backgrounds and experiences, but their placement in the film is merely to act as guides through a visual narrative rather than a concrete story. After one of the men loses a seemingly table game he rambles on:

“I walk on, once again, down these corridors, through these halls, these galleries, in this structure of another century; this enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel, where corridors succeed endless corridors; silent deserted corridors.”

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The sweeping tracking shots force the viewer into a hazy maze of hallways, palatial settings, open expanses, and tableau vivants as meditations on the fallacy of visual memory. Does the woman remember her past lover? Or is she being coy? Are the men vying for the woman’s attentions or are they utilizing her ethereal nature to understand themselves better? Are we in the woman’s dream? The horror really sets in when the viewer realizes that these questions are an extension of the film’s real motive: it’s haunting you.

“X: I must have you alive. Alive, as you have already been every evening, for weeks, for months.


A: I have never stayed so long anywhere.”

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People, objects, and events are reflected in the mirrors of the sets making the dream journey infinite. As the orchestral score plays in and out of the scenes, the scenes themselves become image instruments playing with views and the viewer’s brain processes. As we witness, we are being witnessed upon. Flashbacks feel like non-sequiturs, but soon become a struggle between wish fulfillment and unreliable memory. Truth eventually gets more muddied and obscured as the continual dances of light and love ground the viewer in the very real present. The viewer is forced into enjoying the now, to feel the sadness, and infuses pain beyond despair, and in every sense of zen and meditation the film accomplishes all of this seamlessly.

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Resnais’ tribute to Alfred Hitchcock is a sneaky cardboard cut-out.

I’ve often compared a few horror movies to Last Year of Marienbad because of the tight suspense the film holds its viewer in. Resnais was strongly influenced by the absurd leanings of Alfred Hitchcock‘s mastering of suspense. Last Year is ripe with tension, sewn together with hidden agendas, and even at the film’s conclusion a horror based dissonance stays within the film’s digestion. The scares are bloodless yet visceral making this a strong foundation for the psychological thriller genre.

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You can witness strong influences in Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, Herk Harvey‘s Carnival of Souls, David Lynch‘s Twin Peaks series, and recently in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s  Only God Forgives. It’s not just the sweeping shots, or extended lenses, it’s that same intangible friction between memory and reality that permeates these films. They also dwell in a silence that is far louder than their fractured and penetrating scores.

This morning I woke up to the news of Resnais’ passing and remembered one of my first published retrospectives was on him. Although not his best work, Je t’aime je t’aime is one of my favourite works of his. Resnais experimented with every genre he could: sci-fi, horror, comedy, drama, political film essays, to name a few. But it is his unabashed fervour for the film medium that made him such a great influence to many who still push the boundaries of the definition of “film” as a progressive driving force in art. From film shorts in the 1930s to this year’s Life of Riley, Resnais was relentlessly unstoppable and in that he was eternally young.

Caught in the endless passion of his art, Alain Resnais will continue to make us question the world of the visual in his film recollections. Those corridors of examination extend far beyond life.

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Warning distributed in Astor Films Publicity Packet

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French Film Master Alain Resnais Dies: http://variety.com/2014/film/international/french-film-master-alain-resnais-dies-1201123897/

Alain Resnais: From Marienbad to the Bronx: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1972/4/14/alain-resnais-from-marienbad-to-the/

The Shining As Vertical Film Study: http://academichack.net/SHININGwebdraft.htm

Marker, Resnais, Varda: Remembering the Left Bank Group: http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/52/marker-resnais-varda-remembering-the-left-bank-group/

Alain Resnais: A Snapshot of An Enduring Auteur: http://nextprojection.com/2013/06/08/a-snapshot-of-an-enduring-auteur-alain-resnais/

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