Ah, Last Year at Marienbad, the mystery all film lovers eventually must grapple with. Denounced as impenetrable, lionized as richly accessible, this damn thing has had ’em buzzing for over half a century, and nobody has quite pinned this butterfly to the board. Its makers, writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and director Alain Resnais, devised Marienbad as the ultimate Rorschach test — the movie is almost entirely what you bring to it. Thus, it has attracted ecstasies of interpretation; this seemingly genre-free work has been claimed as a perverse parody/exemplar of pretty much every genre except maybe the western. People want to master this movie, and to insist upon the correctness of their mastery (as in, for example, the famous essay announcing that Marienbad is a stealth sequel to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ science-fiction novella The Invention of Morel, an essay that makes for invigorating reading but seems to lay big orange traffic cones in front of every other possible path into the film).
What everyone deems an insanely complex algebra test arises, of course, from a deceptively simple story. “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi) is attending a party. X approaches a woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig), and tries to convince her that they met a year ago, maybe at this location, maybe somewhere else. A doesn’t remember, except for when she seems to remember. Besides, she’s not alone; she’s there with “M” (Sacha Pitoëff), who may or may not be her husband. The narrative goes back and forth, never committing itself to an objective reality. X glumly narrates, repeating himself, sometimes contradicting what we’re seeing onscreen; he’s the final word in “unreliable narrator.” Roger Ebert postulated in 1999 that X stands in for the film’s creators, stating that something happened and then reversing it, crafting his own art/truth out of the imperfect findings of memory, essentially priapically asserting masculine control over a narrative that, like A, resists control.
I do not insist on the correctness of the following, but as a horror fan, this is the take I find most fun to chew on: Last Year at Marienbad is an art-horror film. The menacing organ music by Francis Seyrig (brother of Delphine) sets the tone. At times, the movie is like a super-classy Twilight Zone episode starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Boris Karloff. It has a peerlessly creepy aura — all those partygoers standing around frozen, like vampires or zombies or ghosts. Is X insane, a murderer, a ghost? Is A a ghost? Is everyone a ghost — is this the immaculate afterlife, with souls trying haplessly to find each other? My companion in the most recent viewing spent a good chunk of it believing that X was a rapist/stalker/killer; she didn’t trust him. And indeed, Marienbad toys with our standard narrative expectations, going so far as to obey Chekhov’s maxim about employing in act three the gun that you introduce in act one. The atmosphere is predominantly sinister, and so we expect something violent or dark to happen and break the pristine spell.
And it does. But maybe it doesn’t. X says that his eventual attentions to A were “probably not by force,” then later states more vehemently, with no qualifier, that they “were not by force.” Here, I think, the story he is telling to A and to himself first tries to let A off the hook for being an adulteress (that was serious shit in France in the ’60s) by implying that it wasn’t entirely her choice; then, overcome by frustrated love and longing, he more or less says “No, it was mutual; you are as complicit in this as I am.” Maybe they had an affair. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe she’s crazy. The filmmakers’ refusal to confirm or deny anything for the record effectively takes the movie out of the realm of political or moral judgment — except, again, that which we bring into it. Everything is there to support your pet reading of the film; nothing is there to support it.
It’s damn near impossible, even after just having finished watching it, to map out a linear account of events in Marienbad, or allusions to events, because we’re never quite sure where we are or when we are. People who respond to the film by grousing “I give up, nothing fucking happens in this thing” are possibly reacting to the overload that results when too much seems to be happening: is what we’re seeing right this second in the present, or the past, or the never-actually-happened, or what? The narrative is layered in a way that prevents first-this-then-that logical tracking.
I suspect that nobody would have fussed over interpreting Marienbad if it were aesthetically ugly — if it were an unshaven mumblecore drama that took place in some Motel 6 in Cleveland, say. (Joe Swanberg, don’t get any ideas.) But Sacha Vierny’s photography is rightly celebrated, taking the images to a strange zone of bleached noir — the whites are glittering white, the blacks are bottomless black. Filmed at three different châteaux in or near Munich, the film is also straight-up architecture porn; you could conceivably give zero fucks about what is or isn’t happening in the narrative and still groove contentedly on the baroque designs, the compositions, the gardens, the fashions (Delphine Seyrig wears Chanel dresses for the most part). The movie has serious goth cred in terms of its look as well as its drifting, morbid atmosphere. The milieu could be heaven or hell or both or neither; it could be X’s ornately appointed fantasy purgatory — if you’re to spend eternity chasing a woman you may or may not have a relationship with, you might as well spend it in style.
Last Year at Marienbad is the higher math, a love/hate object for everyone who ventures into it, the Schrödinger’s cat of world cinema, and yet almost humorously Hollywood-simple: There is a man, a woman, the man’s rival for the woman’s affections, a climactic gun fired, some suspenseful external conflict (that weird card/matchstick game nobody except M seems to know how to win), some kissing, even some breast-fondling (oh, you French guys). Like Marguerite Duras’ The Truck, it actually gives you what you want from a movie even while seeming to withhold everything you expect from a movie. And we come to the bottom-line question a viewer poses to the movie: What are you? To which the movie responds: What are you?