Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

“I can lose. But I always win…”

So boasts the spectral Sacha Pitoëff to one of the many hotel guests unwise enough to challenge him to a game of chance. He plays a character called M who may be Delphine Seyrig‘s husband, possibly the owner of the hotel or even the devil himself. There are so many theories as to just what is going on in the transcendental Last Year at Marienbad that it seems a fool’s errand to attempt explanation.

The story revolves around a couple resident at a grand hotel. Giorgio Albertazzi is convinced he and Seyrig met one year earlier at the resort of Marienbad (or perhaps elsewhere; that detail seems not to matter), they fell in love and after waiting the requested twelve months he has returned to take her away. She professes no knowledge of the encounter but charmed by his persistence, begins to warm to him and contemplates leaving. Une intrigue tres simple, n’est-ce pas? Oui, but the way this film unfolds makes it one of the most mind-bending of all time.

The camera travels the halls and ballrooms of this grand château, peopled by a mostly silent clientele in evening dress. Sometimes the guests attend a performance of Ibsen, sometimes they play cards or dance but a lot of the time they stand frozen in place, staring off into nothingness. With the endless corridors, elegant garden topiary and the single, solitary barman I was half expecting to see Jack Torrence walk in from the kitchen.

Albertazzi keeps cornering Seyrig every chance he can get, attempting again and again to convince her they are soul mates. His plaintive pleas echo through the halls of the château, repeating over and over all the while jumping through space and time, from present to past, from this year’s hotel to last. He is narrator of the film when they are not on camera, she the object of his desire every moment they are together, the subject of his thoughts when they are apart.

Last Year at Marienbad

The story contains obvious echoes of the descent of Orpheus into the underworld to rescue Eurydice; once there he must convince his lover to return with him of her own volition or lose her, so watching the film in this frame of mind it begins to make sense and the action follows some sort of logic. But I could be totally wrong, after all Alain Renais himself has said there is no meaning whatever to it. The ultimate puzzle then, developed to drive an audience to madness? Or maybe meaning does not matter in this instance. Perhaps it is enough to wrap yourself within the mystery and take in the gorgeous photography, the ever present organ music and Seyrig’s immense ostrich feather outfits.

I don’t think I have ever seen a film quite like this one. At once both captivating and frustrating, it’s not hard to see why critics & audiences have been split since its release. A must-see if only to appreciate the director’s construction of absolutely pure cinema.

Last Year at Marienbad – directed by Alain Renais (1961)

In Short
A man returns to take his lover away from a mysterious hotel, but she claims not to know who he is.
Trailer here