The vague, frequently irritating and pretentious but nevertheless awe-inspiring L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (1961) by Alain Resnais is 50 this year, hence its commemorative re-release in the UK this week. So, should you go? Well, if you want to even pretend that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to the language of cinema, I’m afraid so…
Resnais, whose earlier work such as Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and, later, Muriel (1963), used similarly unconventional techniques, was one of the pioneers of French New Wave cinema, which sought to challenge traditional concepts of narrative construction.
The screenplay for …Marienbad was written by acclaimed French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who had not worked in cinema previously – Resnais wanted his work to be untouched by preconceived notions of pacing or structure, and this is exactly what Robbe-Grillet achieved.
A summary is by and large pointless, as this is a film that simply demands repeated viewing if ‘understanding’ is what you’re after – in a nutshell, it’s simply about beautiful, brown-haired woman ‘A’ (Delphine Seyrig) and man with an Italian accent ‘X’ (Giorgio Albertazzi) who may, or may not, have met a year previously at Marienbad, the beautiful, ornate, cathedral-like château in which they find themselves wandering from the film’s outset. There’s a long, long trail a-winding for both characters (and the audience) to reach any kind of destination – the journey includes devilish parlour games and a loaded gun, and takes in elements from many genres, including romance, the supernatural, even horror.
It’s safe to say that if you do not enjoy the stereotypical perception of French cinema, you might prefer a Coke, popcorn and blockbuster, for there is no doubting that Resnais pushes his luck more than a little in terms of audience attention-span expectations. However, if you allow yourself to fall under its spell, this is a film that will remain with you forever, and one to which you will return. So, what’s it going to be then, eh?
94 mins. In French.