Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, will be revived for the first time in decades at Film Forum for two weeks from Jan. 18 through Jan. 31 in a new 35mm Scope print. It was Resnais’ second feature-length film after his electrifying debut at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival with Hiroshima mon amour, from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras, that placed him at the head of the Left Bank branch of the Nouvelle Vague along with Alexandre Astruc, Jean-Pierre Melville, Chris Marker and Agnes Varda. (The Right Bank contingent of the Nouvelle Vague consisted mostly of former critics of Cahiers du Cinema, a magazine situated in an office on the Champs Élysées. These included Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Doniol Valcroze, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Pierre Kast.)
As it happens, I was doing my year in Paris in 1961 when Last Year at Marienbad opened at a Right Bank art theater on a direct line from my Left Bank hotel, the Hotel de Seine, across the Pont Neuf to my ultimate destination, the American Express lobby, where American cinéastes like me found a lifeline from home in the form of a timely money order, to make possible our seemingly aimless meandering in the streets of the world’s movie capital. Resnais was not then too high on my list of auteurs. I was too busy savoring the glories of Max Ophüls’ Lola montès; Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme; the endless revivals of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Josef von Sternberg; Claude Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes; and François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste. I was too deeply into the cinema of narrative to be overwhelmed by an avant-garde exercise in virtually dispensing with narrative altogether. It provided a conversation piece for students and cinéastes, and I saw people in cafes playing the film’s famous or infamous match game, which I finally figured out, but when I tried to get my solution published in a film magazine, by then nobody was interested, which is very much the story of my life in those years. I shall have to take another look at the film to see if it has stood the test of time.
Time and memory. These are the great themes of Resnais, and the two implacable antagonists of human existence. His Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard, 1955), is still the most emotionally powerful film on the Holocaust, and the question asked at its conclusion is how long will we remember the horrible spectacles supposedly inscribed in our consciences for all the days of our lives. We are getting answers to that question all around the world.
No such profundity and gravity is present in the comparatively playful Last Year at Marienbad. Its action, or rather, lack of action, takes place in a baroque universe where the human beings cast shadows, but the trees and shrubs do not. The nameless woman, played by Delphine Seyrig, is pursued by a man, played by Giorgio Albertazzi, who repeatedly insists that they met the year before in Marienbad. Seyrig’s live-in companion or possibly her husband, played by Sacha Pitoëff, remains impassive and unconcerned through all of Seyrig’s questions of what they were doing last year, and where. The situation would be somewhat comic, if the images were not so relentlessly stylized and insistently haut bourgeois.
I recall the Coco Chanel gowns that Seyrig wore throughout the proceedings, and I recall also becoming fixated on her gleamingly stockinged knees, which, I supposed makes Marienbad more sensuous than sensual. Several years later, while attending the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia as a member of the New York Film Festival Selection Committee, I was driven by the late Richard Roud to the real Marienbad, now Marienske Lazne, and it was not baroque at all, but Greek Classical. Then again, Karlovy Very itself was once the legendary Carlsbad in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The point that I am very slowly making is that time changes everything, and it often plays tricks with our memories.
To conclude: Sacha Vierny’s exquisite black-and-white cinematography would be unimaginable in color. Its very starkness depends upon a world in which there are only two chromatic possibilities and the mediating shadows linking them together. The eerie organ music accompanying the images was composed by Seyrig’s brother, Francis. Last Year at Marienbad is from another time in the evolution of the cinema. Its seductive interiors were reportedly shot mostly in Nymphenburg Castle in Bavaria, but this does not make it a fairy tale. Seyrig’s palpable mental anguish is very real and contemporary.