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Last Year at Marienbad


Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
Art House Rating



I watched Last Year at Marienbad for the first time in three decades, so I have my own "new" way of interpreting it. It certainly does fit into Resnais' themes of time and rememberance, but I actually bought into looking at it as a horror film/ghost story/nightmare after only a few seconds of the funereal organ score by Francis Seyrig (the lead actress's brother). I decided that was an appropriate reaction, especially when all the tracking shots down the hallways at the beginning reminded me of The Shining which came out 19 years later. Besides that, the "hotel" reminds me of both the Overlook (or Hearst Castle) and its maze. Also, the narration by the persistent "suitor" sounded like something which someone who knows he has no chance with a certain woman would say. Add in that "theatre performance" near the beginning and the ending and several other ambiguities, and you've got three-fourths of David Lynch's filmography from the last 14 years.
Now, this is not to denigrate what Resnais accomplished here. It's just that I know several filmwatchers, including several of the sophisticated variety, who write this film off as just too "into itself" to care about or try to decipher in the usual ways. It feels right to me to look at the film as a ghost story since nobody in the film seems to be living, no matter how much the narrator wants one to live. If it's not a ghost story, then perhaps it's someone's descent into mental illness. I have a very close friend who talks a lot like the narrator in this film. He repeats himself over and over, and no matter how often he's contradicted, he tries to correct people who understand the situation even better than he does. Then, when things don't seem to be going "his way", he changes the "facts" and "details" with new info which he had somehow forgotten for 25 years. I'm not saying that this friend is truly insane, but if he were forced to undergo some kind of standard test, I fear that he would not pass it because he is in denial to just so many things that I'm not sure that he can turn himself off when necessary. He really reminded me of the narrator here; someone who has been jilted and will not take no for an answer (whether about love, family, career, etc.)

Some of the surrealistic flourishes seem to work better when you think of them as either being interpreted by "people" who are in denial about their state of either life or sanity. For example, it would make sense inside the narrator's head that the woman wanted him so we do get a scene (repeatedly) where she seems to be welcoming him. It's also strange that is the scene where he actually denies forcing himself on her. On the other hand, the only times I recall those two individuals touching was when they were dancing (a la a "Dance Macabre") and when he cornered her and she put her hand to his mouth so as to tell him not to speak (I'm sure there were more but you see? memory). But the other man, the Gamester, he touches her head while she's on her bed and seems far more comfortable with her in an intimate situation.
[I don't really want to rehash all the old "interpretations" now, but maybe after I rewatch it, I can think about those. However, I feel that I'm more likely to latch onto my own horror flick interpretation. Resnais had already made Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour which were both horrific. There is no hint of romance or passion in Night and Fog while Hiroshima is mostly passion. Last Year at Marienbad is certainly 99% devoid of passion, so even if you don't want to interpret it as a horror film, a ghost story or even a vampire film (there are some interesting visuals involving the sun and the night at the same time and a neat strip of overdeveloped film during a long track down a hallway), it may be a film which you find difficult to warm up to. However, I can understand why it's become a lionized iconic puzzle just as much as I can see why many people would think it was boringly unwatchable. It is rather short though and looking at how influential I now see it to be in my own certain quirky ways, I can see how some people could also fluctuate back and forth between the two "extreme" positions.