a piece by Eric Hehr


“Gravel, stone, marble, and straight lines marked out rigid spaces. Surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here - down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me ...” - Last Year at Marienbad, 1961.

 


 


 

 

            In 1961, Alain Resnais released his film, “L'Annee derniere a Marienbad” (released in the US as “Last Year At Marienbad”). It was met with mixed reviews from critics and audiences. The film was refused entry from Cannes, but won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. It would be championed by Ado Kyrou in his 1963 book, “Le Surrealisme au Cinema,” while also securing a spot in Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.” Film critic Pauline Kael called it, “a high-fashion experimental film, the snow job at the ice palace...back at the no-fun party for non-people.” To some, it’s a groundbreaking work of cinema. To others, it’s an emotionless feature-length version of a perfume commercial.

             “Last Year at Marienbad” continues to polarize critics and audiences to this day. While it’s arguably one of the most influential films to come out of the French New Wave (prompting further cinematic exploration of memories in Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (1962), the discordant sense of location in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), and the non-linear sequencing of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) it lacks the cinematic pedigree of it’s new wave contemporaries such as Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) or Godard’s “Breathless” (1960). This is partly due to the fact that “Last Year at Marienbad” exists within a grey area of cinema.

            Although it was released during the French New Wave, it lacks the gritty “cinema verite” style associated with the movement, instead embracing a rigid and ornamented aesthetic. The central plot revolves around the relationship of a man and woman who fell in love the year prior, yet it defects from the conventionality of a love story. The film operates within the realm of dream logic, borrowing much of it’s singular tone and aesthetic to surrealism, but it’s not classified as surrealist cinema.

            The film is anchored by a deceptively simple plot: in an opulent hotel, a man tries to convince a woman that they had fallen in love the previous summer at Marienbad, although the woman has no recollection of this ever happening. Much like Resnais previous film, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), the main theme of “Last Year at Marienbad” is memory. While “Hiroshima” focused on the importance of memory and the consequences of forgetting, “Marienbad” examines the deceptiveness of memory. Essentially, “Marienbad” is a rumination on the way that memory can manipulate events, reconstructing the past based on our own perspicacity. Memories are not reality, but how we choose to remember.



            The plot of “Marienbad” is structured into a series of disjointed fragments, dismantling continuity and operating within the realm of dream logic. As opposed to the conventional three act structure, “Last Year at Marienbad” is told in a series of esoteric flashbacks that embrace the enigmatic nature of dreams. It presents time and space as fluid streams of consciousness, often bleeding into each other and upsetting our perception of what is real and what is imagined, what is past and what is present. This autonomous tonality contributes to the sense of amnesia that “Last Year at Marienbad” produces throughout the course of it’s 94 minute long duration. It’s hypnotic, atmospheric, and unconventional; like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing crucial pieces to form the entire picture.

            The advent of surrealist cinema pre-dates “Marienbad” by forty years, beginning in 1920’s Paris. Artists such as Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel were using film as a new canvas, playing with the fabric of conjoined sight and sound to produce new works such as “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’Or” (1930). While American cinema had taken on an increasingly populist cloak of commercialization, the early French surrealist films did not concern themselves with commercial viability or mass appeal. They negated form and structure for tone and mood, dealing with abstractions through aesthetics. Cinema was a medium in which to nullify the boundaries of reality, and films such as Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood Of A Poet” (1931) or Maya Deren’s “Meshes Of The Afternoon” (1943) played with the photographical nature of film to express the subconscious state.

            On the opposite side of surrealist cinema was the Hollywood studio system. This was cinema as pedestrian escapism - passive entertainment that was universally appealing and accessible. By 1939, there were more movie theaters in the United States than there were banks. The use of “block booking” at theaters solidified the stranglehold of the studio system, increasing supply and demand while decreasing quality and artistry: “It wasn't good entertainment and it wasn't art, and most of the movies produced had a uniform mediocrity, but they were also uniformly profitable ... the million-dollar mediocrity was the very backbone of Hollywood” (Life Magazine, 1957). Although this era of Hollywood filmmaking concerned itself more with commerce than authorship, it would produce films such as Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), which drew from the avant-garde aesthetics and dream logic of surrealism cinema while masquerading as a psychological thriller.

            But a film like “Last Year at Marienbad” was an anomaly. While a surrealist film such as “Meshes of The Afternoon” was made for $275, “Marienbad” boasted a $500,000 budget. The film has the polished look of a big-budget studio production. It was shot almost entirely on location in Munich over the course of ten weeks in the fall of 1960 (a budget and production schedule unheard of for a French film. At the time, France was suffering in the economic fallout of WWII, prompting filmmakers to seek low-budget solutions to production methods, which would lead to the DIY aesthetic of the French New Wave).

           In regards to the look of the film, Resnais was hoping to recreate a “certain style of silent cinema.” This prompted him to ask Kodak if they could supply him with an old fashioned black and white stock that would “halo” or “bloom” to recreate the soft, diffused look of films from the silent-era. Most of the dresses in the film were designed by Chanel, and Resnais was adamant about the specificities of the costuming. The amount of detail that went into the visual components of “Marienbad" was comparable to a Hitchcock production, yet the dreamlike narrative of the film lent itself more to a Bunuel film.

           The opening tracking shots of “Marienbad" introduce us to grandiose locations and lavish costuming. We glide through the airless hotel, watching it’s aristocratic guests behave with stifling artifice. We sense that something isn’t right here - something is wrong. But it’s also so beautiful to look at. The technical level of craftsmanship in “Marienbad’s” visuals are stunning, layered with subtle visual production tricks that build upon the film’s quiet dissonance.

          The most notable example of this is a wide shot from the terrace of the hotel, looking out into the courtyard. A handful of well dressed hotel guests are strategically placed, framed by triangular hedges. All of the guest cast long shadows on the ground, yet the triangular hedges - much larger than the guests - have no shadows. This was achieved by painting the guest’s “shadows” on the ground in front of where the actors stood, and the hedges were actually flat cut-outs made by the production team. Understated, yes - but it’s this kind of shot that informs the mystery of the film. While our brain may not pick up on it right away, it subconsciously recognizes that this place is unnatural - beyond our realm of reality. Is this a dream?



          On it’s surface, “Marienbad” does not look like a surrealist film. It’s fashionable and hyper-stylized. The camera work is methodical and lavish. But it doesn’t look like a Hollywood drama. The shots are framed to a point of artificiality, creating a bizarre atmosphere that feels clinical and other-worldly. Unlike most surrealist films, “Marienbad” also has a plot and central characters. However, the plot is never resolved, and the characters are shrouded in secrecy. They speak to one another in cryptic dialogue, recalling surface level memories of objects, clothes, and environments that may or may not exist. “Marienbad” uses every aspect of cinema to toy with our pre-conceived expectations of plot, character, structure, conflict, and resolution - all of the essential cinematic elements that we’ve come to expect from a mainstream cinema. Yet it chooses to employ these elements as disorientating aesthetics as opposed to storytelling techniques. It purposefully avoids explanation, making it both alienating and endlessly enticing.

          Because the film offers no certain conclusions, it has sparked much debate over the past fifty five years. What is it trying to say? What does it mean? One of the theories is that all of the characters are ghosts, existing in a purgatory of infinite regression. They are stuck in the hotel for eternity, experiencing time and place within the non-linear confines of the spirit world. It’s also believed that “Marienbad” is a modern day adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice, two character from Greek mythology. In the myth, Orpheus attempts to resurrect his dead lover (Eurydice) by traveling to the underworld to make a deal with Hades. Hades grant Orpheus the resurrection Eurydice on one condition: while escorting Eurydice from the underworld, Orpheus must walk in front of her and not look back until they have reached the land of the living. Orpheus does as instructed, but in the last stretch of the journey, he panics. He confuses his location in the under world to be the land of the living, and looks back at Eurydice, thus trapping her in the under world forever. In regards to “Marienbad,” this would make the hotel the under world, the man Orpheus, the woman Eurydice, and the husband figure Hades.

         Another speculation is that “Last Year at Marienbad” is Resnais’ commentary on the European upperclass in-between WWI and WWII. Resnais’ films prior to “Last Year at Marienbad” were both politically charged: “Night In Fog” (1956) is a harrowing documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959) is a moody love story about a French-Japanese couple effected by the dropping of the atomic bomb in WWII. Keeping this political sensibility in mind, many believe that “Last Year at Marienbad” (which gives no definitive sense of time and no sense of a world beyond the hotel) is a critique of the upper class and their ignorance of the geo-political situation in Europe prior to WWII.

          With it’s glacial sense of pacing, splintered editing, and repetitious dialogue, “Last Year at Marienbad” blurs the line between surrealist art film and dramatic love story. It functions within the realm of dream logic, defying the rules of narrative fiction and Hollywood dramaturgy. It’s a haunting meditation on memory and perception that continues to mystify to this day.

 

 

a piece by Eric Hehr


“Gravel, stone, marble, and straight lines marked out rigid spaces. Surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here - down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me ...” - Last Year at Marienbad, 1961.

 


 


 

 

            In 1961, Alain Resnais released his film, “L'Annee derniere a Marienbad” (released in the US as “Last Year At Marienbad”). It was met with mixed reviews from critics and audiences. The film was refused entry from Cannes, but won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. It would be championed by Ado Kyrou in his 1963 book, “Le Surrealisme au Cinema,” while also securing a spot in Harry Medved’s “The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.” Film critic Pauline Kael called it, “a high-fashion experimental film, the snow job at the ice palace...back at the no-fun party for non-people.” To some, it’s a groundbreaking work of cinema. To others, it’s an emotionless feature-length version of a perfume commercial.

             “Last Year at Marienbad” continues to polarize critics and audiences to this day. While it’s arguably one of the most influential films to come out of the French New Wave (prompting further cinematic exploration of memories in Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” (1962), the discordant sense of location in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980), and the non-linear sequencing of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001) it lacks the cinematic pedigree of it’s new wave contemporaries such as Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) or Godard’s “Breathless” (1960). This is partly due to the fact that “Last Year at Marienbad” exists within a grey area of cinema.

            Although it was released during the French New Wave, it lacks the gritty “cinema verite” style associated with the movement, instead embracing a rigid and ornamented aesthetic. The central plot revolves around the relationship of a man and woman who fell in love the year prior, yet it defects from the conventionality of a love story. The film operates within the realm of dream logic, borrowing much of it’s singular tone and aesthetic to surrealism, but it’s not classified as surrealist cinema.

            The film is anchored by a deceptively simple plot: in an opulent hotel, a man tries to convince a woman that they had fallen in love the previous summer at Marienbad, although the woman has no recollection of this ever happening. Much like Resnais previous film, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), the main theme of “Last Year at Marienbad” is memory. While “Hiroshima” focused on the importance of memory and the consequences of forgetting, “Marienbad” examines the deceptiveness of memory. Essentially, “Marienbad” is a rumination on the way that memory can manipulate events, reconstructing the past based on our own perspicacity. Memories are not reality, but how we choose to remember.



            The plot of “Marienbad” is structured into a series of disjointed fragments, dismantling continuity and operating within the realm of dream logic. As opposed to the conventional three act structure, “Last Year at Marienbad” is told in a series of esoteric flashbacks that embrace the enigmatic nature of dreams. It presents time and space as fluid streams of consciousness, often bleeding into each other and upsetting our perception of what is real and what is imagined, what is past and what is present. This autonomous tonality contributes to the sense of amnesia that “Last Year at Marienbad” produces throughout the course of it’s 94 minute long duration. It’s hypnotic, atmospheric, and unconventional; like a jigsaw puzzle that is missing crucial pieces to form the entire picture.

            The advent of surrealist cinema pre-dates “Marienbad” by forty years, beginning in 1920’s Paris. Artists such as Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel were using film as a new canvas, playing with the fabric of conjoined sight and sound to produce new works such as “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) and “L’Age d’Or” (1930). While American cinema had taken on an increasingly populist cloak of commercialization, the early French surrealist films did not concern themselves with commercial viability or mass appeal. They negated form and structure for tone and mood, dealing with abstractions through aesthetics. Cinema was a medium in which to nullify the boundaries of reality, and films such as Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood Of A Poet” (1931) or Maya Deren’s “Meshes Of The Afternoon” (1943) played with the photographical nature of film to express the subconscious state.

            On the opposite side of surrealist cinema was the Hollywood studio system. This was cinema as pedestrian escapism - passive entertainment that was universally appealing and accessible. By 1939, there were more movie theaters in the United States than there were banks. The use of “block booking” at theaters solidified the stranglehold of the studio system, increasing supply and demand while decreasing quality and artistry: “It wasn't good entertainment and it wasn't art, and most of the movies produced had a uniform mediocrity, but they were also uniformly profitable ... the million-dollar mediocrity was the very backbone of Hollywood” (Life Magazine, 1957). Although this era of Hollywood filmmaking concerned itself more with commerce than authorship, it would produce films such as Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), which drew from the avant-garde aesthetics and dream logic of surrealism cinema while masquerading as a psychological thriller.

            But a film like “Last Year at Marienbad” was an anomaly. While a surrealist film such as “Meshes of The Afternoon” was made for $275, “Marienbad” boasted a $500,000 budget. The film has the polished look of a big-budget studio production. It was shot almost entirely on location in Munich over the course of ten weeks in the fall of 1960 (a budget and production schedule unheard of for a French film. At the time, France was suffering in the economic fallout of WWII, prompting filmmakers to seek low-budget solutions to production methods, which would lead to the DIY aesthetic of the French New Wave).

           In regards to the look of the film, Resnais was hoping to recreate a “certain style of silent cinema.” This prompted him to ask Kodak if they could supply him with an old fashioned black and white stock that would “halo” or “bloom” to recreate the soft, diffused look of films from the silent-era. Most of the dresses in the film were designed by Chanel, and Resnais was adamant about the specificities of the costuming. The amount of detail that went into the visual components of “Marienbad" was comparable to a Hitchcock production, yet the dreamlike narrative of the film lent itself more to a Bunuel film.

           The opening tracking shots of “Marienbad" introduce us to grandiose locations and lavish costuming. We glide through the airless hotel, watching it’s aristocratic guests behave with stifling artifice. We sense that something isn’t right here - something is wrong. But it’s also so beautiful to look at. The technical level of craftsmanship in “Marienbad’s” visuals are stunning, layered with subtle visual production tricks that build upon the film’s quiet dissonance.

          The most notable example of this is a wide shot from the terrace of the hotel, looking out into the courtyard. A handful of well dressed hotel guests are strategically placed, framed by triangular hedges. All of the guest cast long shadows on the ground, yet the triangular hedges - much larger than the guests - have no shadows. This was achieved by painting the guest’s “shadows” on the ground in front of where the actors stood, and the hedges were actually flat cut-outs made by the production team. Understated, yes - but it’s this kind of shot that informs the mystery of the film. While our brain may not pick up on it right away, it subconsciously recognizes that this place is unnatural - beyond our realm of reality. Is this a dream?



          On it’s surface, “Marienbad” does not look like a surrealist film. It’s fashionable and hyper-stylized. The camera work is methodical and lavish. But it doesn’t look like a Hollywood drama. The shots are framed to a point of artificiality, creating a bizarre atmosphere that feels clinical and other-worldly. Unlike most surrealist films, “Marienbad” also has a plot and central characters. However, the plot is never resolved, and the characters are shrouded in secrecy. They speak to one another in cryptic dialogue, recalling surface level memories of objects, clothes, and environments that may or may not exist. “Marienbad” uses every aspect of cinema to toy with our pre-conceived expectations of plot, character, structure, conflict, and resolution - all of the essential cinematic elements that we’ve come to expect from a mainstream cinema. Yet it chooses to employ these elements as disorientating aesthetics as opposed to storytelling techniques. It purposefully avoids explanation, making it both alienating and endlessly enticing.

          Because the film offers no certain conclusions, it has sparked much debate over the past fifty five years. What is it trying to say? What does it mean? One of the theories is that all of the characters are ghosts, existing in a purgatory of infinite regression. They are stuck in the hotel for eternity, experiencing time and place within the non-linear confines of the spirit world. It’s also believed that “Marienbad” is a modern day adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice, two character from Greek mythology. In the myth, Orpheus attempts to resurrect his dead lover (Eurydice) by traveling to the underworld to make a deal with Hades. Hades grant Orpheus the resurrection Eurydice on one condition: while escorting Eurydice from the underworld, Orpheus must walk in front of her and not look back until they have reached the land of the living. Orpheus does as instructed, but in the last stretch of the journey, he panics. He confuses his location in the under world to be the land of the living, and looks back at Eurydice, thus trapping her in the under world forever. In regards to “Marienbad,” this would make the hotel the under world, the man Orpheus, the woman Eurydice, and the husband figure Hades.

         Another speculation is that “Last Year at Marienbad” is Resnais’ commentary on the European upperclass in-between WWI and WWII. Resnais’ films prior to “Last Year at Marienbad” were both politically charged: “Night In Fog” (1956) is a harrowing documentary about the Nazi concentration camps, and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959) is a moody love story about a French-Japanese couple effected by the dropping of the atomic bomb in WWII. Keeping this political sensibility in mind, many believe that “Last Year at Marienbad” (which gives no definitive sense of time and no sense of a world beyond the hotel) is a critique of the upper class and their ignorance of the geo-political situation in Europe prior to WWII.

          With it’s glacial sense of pacing, splintered editing, and repetitious dialogue, “Last Year at Marienbad” blurs the line between surrealist art film and dramatic love story. It functions within the realm of dream logic, defying the rules of narrative fiction and Hollywood dramaturgy. It’s a haunting meditation on memory and perception that continues to mystify to this day.