Watching Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad [1961, and you can view the entire film here] reminds me of my earnest college days when I spent so much time and effort digging up obscure film titles from everywhere in the city, hoping to go far in my incredible thirst for a proper film education. (Where did that passion come from?) I devoured everything: film criticism by Pauline Kael and other luminaries, biographies of directors and classic movie stars, available film titles -- gleaned from all those readings -- which I found in Betamax, VHS, and laser disk format from assorted vendors around town who had no idea they had a treasure trove of classics in their midst. (Where are they now?)
I've always wanted to watch Resnais' film -- but this was one of the many titles that were so rarely available then that I had to contend with only hearing or reading about their legendary status on paper. And perhaps that was also one of the reasons why it took me so long to find Marienbad: its reputation as one of cinema's greatest enigmas -- alongside Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura , Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel , and Robert Altman's 3 Women  -- gave me ample reasons to delay my screening. Was I ready? Did I have the time and the concentration to finally watch it? But I've already watched Antonioni's, Buñuel's, and Altman's celebrated films many years ago, and loved them in fact. What was keeping me from watching Marienbad? Fear of being confounded, I guess.
Nevertheless, I finally did. Tonight.
And the critics and the books were right: what a strange film this is. It's overtly formal in composition, it's cold in its looping narrative, but it's also endlessly fascinating. It had a peculiar grip I can't define that had me going to find out what's happening next -- a reception that was perhaps even better than my own take to Resnais' own Hiroshima, Mon Amour , an earlier film whose elliptical style is in display and is even more extended in Marienbad. This film was inexplicably sexy. Cold, but sexy. Mysterious, but sexy. Sure, it won't be everyone's cup of tea -- especially if your idea of a perfectly fine movie is, let's say, the totally vacuous and pedestrian Letters to Juliet . It loops endlessly in time and narrative; it surrounds itself with the ornate in gilded objects, mirrors, sculptures, and garden shrubs tortured to geometric shapes; it makes strange uses of parlor games and guns; it uses its actors -- all dressed to the nines -- in the repose of mannequins; it presents a kind of dread with its insidious organ music soundtrack; it moves with a camera designated as a vehicle for dreamlike sequences; it riddles itself with subtle symbolisms and startling imageries (the shadowless trees in the sculpture garden, for example, see below); and puts all of these things in the service of a non-story about a man [named X in the screenplay, but never explicitly named in the film] who narrates what happens (or what does not happen), a woman [named A] that the man seems to pursue for some reason and that he's trying to convince they've met a year before, and another mysterious man [named M] that the woman seems to be under the control of. This film begs for the most fervent interpretation.
Resnais has been asked before what it all meant, and he famously said in an interview: "It's not my role to give explanations. For that matter, I don't think the film is a real enigma. By that I mean the spectator can find his own solution, and it will, in all likelihood, be a good one. But what's certain is that the solution won't be the same for everyone, meaning that my solution is of no more interest than that of any viewer."
The video of that interview can be found below:
In other words, the film is a Rorschach experiment. How you read it is a projection of your deepest desires, needs, wants. Or how you read is how you want it to be read.
So what does it all mean to you? In film critic Roger Ebert's Great Movies article on the film, he quotes Gunther Marx, a professor of German at the University of Illinois: "I'll explain it all for you. It is a working out of the anthropological archetypes of Claude Levi-Strauss. You have the lover, the loved one and the authority figure. The movie proposes that the lovers had an affair, that they didn't, that they met before, that they didn't, that the authority figure knew it, that he didn't, that he killed her, that he didn't. Any questions?''
But this is the explanation I like best. And perhaps it is because I am a writer endlessly fascinated by the sometimes surprising turns in the lives of the characters I create. It's still from Ebert, and he writes: "Can it be that X is the artist -- the author, the director? That when he speaks in the second person (``You asked me to come to your room ... '') he is speaking to his characters, creating their story? That first he has M fire a pistol, but that when he doesn't like that and changes his mind, M obediently reflects his desires? Isn't this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around? Of course even if X is the artist, he seems quite involved in the story. He desperately wants to believe he met A last year at Marienbad, and that she gave him hope -- asked him to meet her again this year. That is why writers create characters: to be able to order them around, and to be loved by them. Of course, sometimes characters have wills of their own. And there is always the problem of M."
Last Year at Marienbad as a metaphor for writing. I'll take that.