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Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad)

(1962) *** 1/2 Unrated
95 min. Astor Pictures, New Yorker Films, Rialto Pictures. Director: Alain Resnais. Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff, Pierre Barbaud, Francoise Bertin.

/content/films/3456/1.jpgGorgeous and elliptical, Last Year at Marienbad arrived in 1961 as a daring anomaly even within the revolutionary context of the French New Wave cinema. The experimentation of screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet (better known as a novelist) and director Alain Resnais perched between the New Wave's modernism and postmodernist self-awareness of forms deconstructed and reconstructed (but one signal: a cardboard cutout of Hitchcock making a cameo). The strong influence of Last Year at Marienbad on other films is obvious: compare The Shining and Mulholland Dr. to name but two. On the other hand, the original article--with its non-linear editing and trance-like acting aimed at faraway spaces--also became an instant subject of derision as a prototype for the impenetrable European art film.

As the film's narration instructs, the film appears to take place in an "edifice of a bygone era...this sprawling, sumptuous, baroque, gloomy hotel." In this otherworldly limbo, formally dressed men and women go through motions. Are they alive, ghosts, or figments of someone's dream? Whatever the case, they are trapped in feedback loops of unfulfilled desire or the wasteful, meaningless conversational inanities that define their lives. The straight paths and "rigid spaces" of the estate's neatly trimmed symmetrical gardens and long corridors belie the twisted, tangled central conflict: a man (identified in the screenplay as "X") pursues a woman (alpha female "A"), insisting that, in spite of her husband "M" (Sacha Pitoëff), "X" and "A" were lovers the previous summer, "in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon."

A (Delphine Seyrig) protests no memory of their supposed assignation, but X (Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) persists. As X recounts his version of the story, matters become increasingly unclear. Though A's refusals are confused and unconvincing, X's descriptions prove contradictory, an effect Resnais exacerbates by mismatching his words and the film's visuals, and enabling circular narration and editing. Nothing defines the film more than the disorientation of time and space. Mirrored glass turns ballrooms into prisms, a firing squad of tuxedoed men takes aim at a shooting gallery incongruously located inside a hotel foyer, art on the walls depicts the chateau in which the art hangs, and the geography of the hotel and its garden mockingly changes, commonly within a single scene (Resnais shot at three different palaces outside Munich). Most disturbingly, a panoramic view of the garden shows only frozen people--and not the shrubs or statues--casting shadows. Flashbacks kill time during X and A's waiting game, even as X remarks, "Time doesn't count."

There's another game, a variant of Nim played against an eerie man who can't lose (as in 1957's The Seventh Seal, where man's opponent was Death himself). Here, it's M who wins every game, except the one played for A's errant heart. Did a body meet a body coming through the hotel last year? It seems likely that this desire of one or both figures was in some way actual, but was it an affair or a rape? Either way, the two share a vague awareness that perhaps they are only playing parts in an allegory or perhaps a reenactment (a reincarnation?) of the same doomed Romantic love story. The failure of time to move forward suggests there's no exit. X tells A, "We're like coffins buried side by side in a frozen garden."

One thing's for sure: Last Year at Marienbad is itself a masterpiece of Trompe-l'œil architecture, tricking the eye and the mind as an aesthetic lark. Photographed with consummate skill by Sacha Vierny, this abstract and abstruse "story of a persuasion" (as its authors called it) is so much like its surreal setting: beautiful but foreboding, silent, cold, haunted, its sense of history intimidating and labyrinthine (not helping: the pipe-organ score by Francis Seyrig, so redolent of what's become archetypal haunted-house music). As much as any potential characterization, the persuasion is authorial.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Monaural

Street date: 6/23/2009

Distributor: Criterion Collection

In a new Criterion special edition on Blu-ray, Last Year at Marienbad hasn't looked so good since its debut in 1961. The indelible black-and-white photography comes through with spot-on contrast and strong detail, and the image is happily free of any digital artifacts. Sound comes in two varieties: an untouched mono track insisted upon by director Alain Resnais and a restored track with hiss removal. The inclusion of both only seals Criterion's deal of a definitive special edition.

In bonus features, "Alain Resnais Audio Interview" (33:04, HD), recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2008, comes illustrated by footage, film stills and other art. Among other topics, Resnais discusses the influences of André Breton, Pandora's Box, Stanislavski & Strasberg, Mandrake the Magician, painter Piero della Francesca, and Vertigo.

"Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad" (32:37, HD) collects the memories of first assistant director Jean Léon, second assistant director Volker Schlöndorff, script girl Sylvette Baudrot, and production designer Jacques Saulnier.

"Ginette Vincendeau on Last Year at Marienbad" (23:02, HD) offers a film scholar's discussion of various interpretations.

Also included are two documentary films by Resnais: 1956's "Toute la mémoire du monde" (20:57, HD), "about the French national library in Paris and the archiving of memory," and 1958's "Le chant du styrène" (13:37, HD), "shot in the Pechiney polystyrene factories."

Last up are two "Trailers" (3:33 and 2:11, HD). The package comes with a 48-page booklet containing essays about the film, credits, and tech specs.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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