Those who do not like their cinema challenging and ambiguous need not apply for ‘Last Year at Marienbad’; however, if you’re after an unforgettable experience that will keep you thinking as you try to piece together what you watched for days afterwards, this is the film for you.
First released in 1961 but remastered in association with fashion giant Chanel for the 75th Venice Film Festival (where it won the Golden Lion award upon its initial release), ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ does not have a clear plot, its characters remain virtually unnamed, and the idea of a logical, coherent narrative is thrown out the window. I went into the film with little to no idea of what I was getting myself into, and I personally think it enhanced my experience. As such, I will keep the outline of the films story as brief as possible, in the interest of allowing others the same experience: during their stay in a luxurious chateau which may or may not be the titular Marienbad, a man simply named X (Giorgio Albertazzi, ‘The Assassination of Trotsky’) tries to trigger the memories of a woman known as A (Delphine Seyrig, ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels’), who may or may not remember him, as he recounts the times they may or may not have spent together at the hotel in the previous year. Still confused? Unsure if you can trust X as a reliable narrator? You’ll probably still be feeling the same after the house lights go back up.
The film is presented in black and white and in the absence of colour, the film relies on slow tracking shots of the jaw-dropping architecture of the sets, the impending doom of the organ-heavy, almost horror-like score, creative editing, and lighting to help the film establish tone. All of these elements are executed impeccably, and at times the film has the energy of a moving art gallery curated by a madman. While it is not explicitly disclosed as the correct interpretation, the reading of the film as a supernatural ghost story is justified and supported by the film’s presentation. The geometric layout of the chateau’s gardens, the robotic ways in which the characters do and do not move through the spacious halls and rooms, and the card games they play together feels as if the characters are bored, they’re stuck, they’re waiting for an unknown thing, and it appears as a purgatory of sorts between life and death. Unsurprisingly, the film feels like a fever dream; from the very opening credits, the dialogue is repeated in a lyrical fashion, repeated in different locations and different times, marked by changes in costume.
‘Marienbad’ is a unique cinematic experience that invites viewers to roam its monolithic halls again and again, feeling like a new film every time.
Speaking of fashion, the film has made a name for itself in the fashion world as one of the best-costumed films of the 20th century; A floats along in various Chanel creations, mixtures of black and white lace, jewels and feathers that make her feel like an otherworldly creature; and the audience can see for themselves why X has coveted her ever since their apparent interactions last year.
The beauty and lasting effect of ‘Marienbad’ lies in its rewatch factor: like the recent Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’, which literally let its audience control its narrative and put the decisions of the characters in the viewers hands, ‘Marienbad’ encourages viewers to become active in their viewing experience, to think of the story from different angles (I do mean this in a literal sense; certain character movements are shown from different angles, one after the other, all perfect in their execution). It is up to the viewer to decide how invested they are in story, how they want the story to end. Unlike films with more clear narrative structure that benefit from repeat viewings for picking up on clever clues, dialogue and detail normally missed the first time, ‘Marienbad’ is a unique cinematic experience that invites viewers to roam its monolithic halls again and again, feeling like a new film every time.