Whenever art-minded cinephiles fall for a movie that strikes others as plotless and pointless, they often defend the work for its “formal” qualities: the way the director combines technical elements like image composition, color, and sound to prompt a complicated emotional or intellectual response. French New Wave director Alain Resnais helped semi-popularize the notion of formalism as an end in itself with the 1961 arthouse sensation Last Year At Marienbad, a sumptuous enigma that has beguiled and irritated film buffs in equal measure for nearly 50 years. With its stubborn lack of answers and willful defiance of interpretation, Last Year At Marienbad is presented by its creators as a puzzle that doesn’t demand to be solved, but should rather be admired for the splendid curves of its individual pieces.
Resnais collaborated on Last Year At Marienbad with novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, an advocate of the “nouveau roman,” a kind of fiction that considered character and plot subordinate to setting. Even Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Marienbad opens with a description—of the ornate décor and sound-swallowing carpets of a palatial resort—repeated in a loop over credits printed in embossed white-on-white, like an invitation. When the movie actually begins, Resnais moves his camera slowly across endless mirrored corridors, tracking past elegantly dressed figures who stand stock-still. Eventually, Giorgio Albertazzi (playing a character named “X”) sidles up to Delphine Seyrig (playing “A”), and reminds her of a prior romantic encounter between the two of them that she claims to have forgotten. From there, Marienbad shifts easily from past to present and dream to reality, as conversations repeat and lovers murmur sweet nothings at each other in a near-parody of Hollywood convention.
Robbe-Grillet and Resnais reportedly worked well together in pre-production on Last Year At Marienbad; then Robbe-Grillet turned in a richly detailed screenplay (complete with sound cues and camera angles) that Resnais both followed closely and slyly subverted. Specifically, Resnais encouraged the actors to play their scenes broadly—in an homage to silent movies—and he underscored their actions with an obtrusive Francis Seyrig score that sounds at times like a novice learning the pipe organ. While Robbe-Grillet intended to explore the contours of fiction with overtly alienating characters and plot, Resnais set out to do the same with cinema, at the risk of actively irritating his audience.
Can a movie be faulted for failing to deliver narrative pleasures if those were never part of its creators’ plans? Can it just be appreciated the way an aesthete would admire an evocative photograph, a vivid painting, or even a neatly trimmed hedge? These questions continue to divide Last Year At Marienbad’s first-time viewers, many of whom watch the film expecting a masterpiece, only to find themselves trapped for 90 minutes with off-puttingly pretentious chatterboxes and a story that makes no sense. Those who love Marienbad are justified in their devotion; the movie is stunning to behold, marked by elegant camera moves and inventive editing, and for those attuned to its dreamlike wavelength, watching Marienbad can be like disappearing into another dimension, devoid of clutter.
But those who find Robbe-Grillet and Resnais’ work empty and exhausting shouldn’t feel like philistines either. Both men have admitted in the past that Marienbad isn’t really “about” anything except its indelible images and the fun of manipulating the artificial. Viewers who aren’t grabbed by that kind of playfulness from the get-go aren’t likely to find rewards in paying closer attention.
Key features: Two gorgeous-looking but oblique Resnais docu-shorts, and extensive interviews with Resnais and his collaborators, nearly all of whom break Marienbad down from (naturally) a formalist perspective.