Last Year at Marienbad

I don’t know where to begin. Normally in my opening paragraph I give a brief synopsis of the film, y’know, “an eccentric old man invites his grandchildren, some paleontologists, a chaotician and a lawyer to try out his new dinosaur-filled theme park” that kind of thing, but the trouble with Last Year at Marienbad is that there is nowhere near enough plot to even begin a paragraph. Essentially, there’s some kind of swanky soiree at a swish estate that I think is somewhere in the Czech Republic. At said event, there is a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is resolute that he met a woman (Delphine Seyrig) attending the party a year ago at Marienbad. Meanwhile the woman’s male friend (Sacha Pitoeff) plays a game with cards, matchsticks and dominos called Nim, at which he seems unbeatable. This plays out for 90-odd minutes, until the film ends, with no foreseeable additions to anything approaching a story.

As you can probably tell, especially if you’re a regular reader of mine, this is not my kind of film, and I did not enjoy it one bit. There’s an area of cinema generally designated as ‘Arty’ (occasionally I had ‘-Farty’ to that moniker) that I either just do not get on with, I’ve never been in the right frame of mind when watching them, or – and this is probably more likely – I just don’t know how to appreciate. An example that comes to mind is Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, of which I wrote a pitiful 17-line review that I’ve no intention of ever expanding upon, because that would require another viewing of a film I’ve now sat uncomfortably through twice. These are films where it’s not simply a case of opting for style over substance, but in replacing any modicum of substance and replacing it with a spotlight and loudspeaker, with which the film proudly broadcasts its own opinions of itself, how gloriously stylish it is, and how glorious it is for being so stylish.

But I digress. Before viewing Marienbad I can’t say I’d heard very much about it, other than when it was selected for the LAMB’s Movie of the Month (and how that happened I’ll never know) there was a comment from Steve Honeywell over at 1001Plus which deemed the film”crap” and unworthy of another watch. As a respecter of Steve’s opinions I duly sighed, made sure it was on the 1001 list, and regrettably made it top priority on my LoveFilm rental queue, resolving that I may as well get it out of the way sooner rather than later, and this way I can listen to the Lambcast and have some idea about what is being discussed (hence why I still haven’t listened to the Night of the Comet, Metropolis and The Shape of Things episodes). I purposefully didn’t seek out any further information, and resisted the urge to do so during the film, although I must admit that the level of boredom had reached intolerable levels by about 45 minutes in, so I busied myself with other small tasks while keeping at least one eye on the screen. My only surprise is that it took so long to reach this tedium peak, because the first few minutes (which seemed to last at least a good few hours) are spent with Albertazzi’s character (none of the people in this film have names, but the three leads are credited as X (Albertazzi), A (Seyrig) and M (Pitoeff, although I has assured myself it was Martin Landau)) narrating how he walked around a building’s corridors, the silent, deserted corridors, describing every type of wall covering and flooring he passed, and after the fourth iteration of his only marginally modified description of this task I thought the entire film was going to be like this. Accompanying the narration was a slew of slow panning shots around the house, the only sign of life being the occasional distant footman, and a score that put me in mind of someone trying to play It’s A Small World on an out of tune church organ with half the keys missing and one foot stuck on one of the pedals.

Thankfully – although perhaps that is the wrong word to use – this opening is interrupted by discovering a room full of people all staring intently, yet blankly, at something unseen, and I was put in mind of a quote from Amelie: “When a finger is pointing up to the sky, only a fool looks at the finger,” and yet here we are, watching the faces of the people who are watching something, rather than watching the something instead. Clearly what they are watching is interesting, whilst their faces are anything but. It is revealed that their focus is a play that has just ended, which in turn I believe is a play showing the story – that’s definitely the wrong word to use – of the rest of the film, which is just another example of the film’s self-aggrandising, having the whole cast enraptured by a performance of the very film they are in. After the performance, the audience all begin conversing with one another, discussing I’m not entirely sure what, as we are only treated to the occasionally snippet of dialogue from the various conversations as the camera flits from one to another. Even when it stays with the same people for more than a couple of seconds, do not expect everything that is being said to be either audible or subtitled, as why would we want to listen to a conversation when we can try our best at lip-reading in French? Moreover, why wouldn’t everyone in the film all occasionally just stop talking and moving – completely in sync with one another – for the briefest of moments on several occasions, as though my disc was skipping ever so slightly? Later, A also becomes the only person not invited to join in the game of Musical Statues when she weaves her way through an otherwise static crowd. Maybe they all think that her vision is based on movement, and if they keep still she won’t be able to see them and will just leave them all alone (seriously, is there any film I can’t relate to Jurassic Park?). 

I feel the need to accentuate a couple of positives here. There was some great imagery and impressive use of mirrors, and the set looked exquisite, using a palatial estate resplendent with acres of grounds (and some delightful conical bushes), but in spite of its sheer scale it still isn’t big enough to stop the central couple from bumping into one another repeatedly. As expected, the woman are uniformly gorgeous, and impeccably dressed, but unfortunately this only highlights how vacuous they are underneath the glossy exterior. Damn. I tried to be complimentary, and look what happened. Obviously there are people in this world who not only like this film, but love it dearly (it now only made the 1001 list, but the Empire 5-Star 500 as well), but alas I cannot see the appeal. And what saddens me the most is that the director, Alain Resnais, has several other films on my various lists, of which I’ve only crossed off one other so far, the deeply unnerving Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (choose life, 1/10). I’m very much not looking forward to crossing off the others.

Choose life 2/10

15 thoughts on “Last Year at Marienbad

  1. I've looked at other reviews of this film, and I swear to you that you and I (and, SPOILER ALERT, Nick on the podcast) are the only three people who are seeing this film for the dull pile of artistic hogwash it really is. Over and over, I see reviews of this film touting it as deep and meaningful and all I see is pretension. I just don't get it.I'm not sure it's Resnais. I think it might be the fault of Delphine Seyrig, who was also in the aggressively dull Jeanne Dielmann.

  2. Dammit, I was looking forward to listening to everyone hate on this film whilst Brian attempted feebly to defend it. No surprise Nick didn't enjoy it though, it doesn't seem like his kind of film at all. I too had a glance around at the other linked blogs and found them to be far too positive for my liking. And now you've given me another film to not look forward to with Jeanne Dielman! Why are there so many terrible films on the List?!?!?

  3. I frequently need to remind myself that it's not the 1001 greatest films, but the 1001 films that are important to see for one reason or another. Jeanne Dielmann is another one like this one, though–the sort of film that makes the average film viewer hate critics who fawn over it.

  4. Jay, it doesn't surprise me to read this reaction. I feel like the LAMBcast was Brian loving it, Nick hating it, and the rest of us just trying to work through it. I do agree that Delphine Seyrig is not a strong part of the movie. I don't think Resnais minded since he wanted someone with a blank expression for that part, but she brings very little to it.

  5. Add me to the count of people who hated this. It's the kind of film that critics love because they can play with it for years, making up what they think certain parts mean, and no one can ever tell them they are right or wrong because there's actually nothing there to be found in the first place.A parallel I've sometimes drawn of films like this is to "modern art" paintings with random splashes of paint on the canvas. In both cases to me the "art" lies not in creating of it, but in convincing someone else to give you money for it.

  6. It's a shame you weren't captivated by the unique charms and delights of this marvelous film, but it certainly isn't for everyone (is any movie?). Having not yet listened to the podcast, it doesn't surprise me one bit that Nick hated it.

  7. She definitely does bring very little to it, which makes it all the harder to see why the guy is so insistent towards her. Yes, she's pretty, but she doesn't seem to have a lot going in terms of personality or ability to hold a conversation. And you're right about the standpoints from the podcast, I was just hoping for a few more reasons as to why many other people seem to like the film. Brian was shouting the praises of its choose-your-own-adventure stylings, but that doesn't make it 5/5 in my book.

  8. Thanks for the sympathy. I knew getting into this that I'd encounter a few films I didn't absolutely love, but I didn't think there'd be too many that are quite so terrible!

  9. When something is left quite so open to interpretation, it can sometimes come off as lazy film-making, as why should the director/writer decide what is going on, when the audience will happily do it for them? And yes, I feel the same way about modern so-called art. If it looks like I could have painted it then it isn't art, as my artistic limit is the logo at the top of the page.

  10. It'd be a dull old world if we all liked the same movies. I've got nothing wrong with people liking think-pieces like this one, but I'm always going to prefer something a little more plot-driven.Thanks for reading.

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