Furiously beautiful and fatefully unforgettable, Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (L’année dernière à Marienbad), released in 1961 and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in an absurdly detailed screenplay, is of its time. Its greatness lies in being a riotous puzzle box with silken and sheer and shiny surfaces that should dazzle, somewhat comforting in their concreteness as figures and objects, but discomfiture of memory and time and dream in its very form. A fantastic world of impossible wealth and improbable ennui and sculptured hair and Coco Chanel couture tacking through castle and courtyard in the shapeliest but least-definable of waking dreams: it is a thundercrack. (Robbe-Grillet said he was describing “a purely mental space and time—those of dreams, perhaps, or of memory, those of any affective life—without worrying too much about the traditional relations of cause and effect, or about an absolute time sequence in the narrative.”)
Undulant in the brain, these meetings of strangers in the night and by day, imagery shimmying and shimmering and splintered, Resnais’ snoot-cock at chi-chi is both mordant and adoring. Yet there is more to do than to look or listen passively: it must be invented in the watching.
A fresh, attentive viewer unencumbered by the scads of writing in the nearly sixty years since—down, internet, down!— not limited to multiple Criterion editions, or who shrugs off the piled-on pelts of surmise academic and fashion-driven, can be similarly drizzled in the dazzle. Of course, its look has been coopted and elongated and futzed-up in fashion-world iterations and Resnais’ hold-me-close-go-fuck-yourself editing shatterhand has enriched the possibilities of film editing, of space and of time. Several contemporary reviewers looked upon “Marienbad” as a puzzler, manic, mad, empty, or a callow plaint about the “sick soul of Europe.” (Yet it became a huge art-house success.)
Jonas Mekas took a swing in The Village Voice, scoffing that any critic who had been following experimental filmmaking would know that “Marienbad” was a “pretentious ornament” and “a stone in the cemeteries of the dead.” “You couldn’t have endured this trompe l’oeil style” is one of the gnomic yet knowing utterances in Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay that bloom anew in its new century of livid life. There are as many ways to creatively misunderstand “Marienbad” as “Marienbad” will ever have viewers. 94m. (Ray Pride)
The 4K digital restoration of “Last Year at Marienbad” opens Friday, May 31 at Siskel.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.