“Last Year at Marienbad” – Chris Luedtke

I feel like cinematic oddities are a forte of mine. Perhaps it’s a personal thing, a desire to see things that I would never dream or think of, much less comprehend. A film that ponders these ideas, clutching them close like a blanket on a cold night, is something I’d gauge as a unique experience. And if you’re thinking this introduction is a bunch of rambling nonsense, then turn away, my friend, for Last Year at Marienbad will drive your ass up the wall even more.

A gathering at a hotel sees two people, named in the credits only as A / Woman (Delphine Seyring) and X / Stranger (Giorgio Albertazzi), meeting for what seems to be the first time. Everyone seems to have congregated for the sake of entertainment and general socializing, with plays and games staged throughout the evening. However, the Stranger and the Woman may have something in common. Perhaps they’ve met before. Perhaps he’s just trying to deceive her — or is it the other way around? Following the surreal path these two tread as the night goes on is the only way we may discover the truth.

While introducing the Stranger and the Woman takes a bit to build, Last Year at Marienbad allows plenty of time to soak in the setting. Once our leads encounter, the film still devotes considerable attention to its own background noise. Even characters we could consider somewhat major still don’t do much. M / Escort / Husband (Sacha Pitoëff) would be the perfect example of this. M is the Woman’s companion, and yet we seldom see them together. The disconnections in here rival those from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Incommunicability Trilogy. But with a closer look, we see these elements working on a volatile level. The distance characters form between themselves is an almost call and response ordeal. We’re sure they love each other one moment, and with the next sentence, tension snaps like an emotional twig.

I can’t stress enough how the dialogue here will either make or break the film for you. Personally, I didn’t mind it, because the only character that over-emphasized his points was the Stranger. This is also where the film falters the most. If we listen hard, his words don’t change much, nor do the Women’s responses, and yet there is a final say to their trials. However, the words are chosen carefully, so their content can flutter by unnoticed. Not a terrible sin on the film’s behalf, but if we catch on, we start to wonder how many times one can restructure the same sentence. Still, the Stranger’s persistence is something we can be bewildered by (the same applies to the Woman’s fluctuating persona.

Another aspect that deserves to be addressed is the film’s surreal nature. I speak mostly of its constant time travel, often without any prior announcement. One questions whether Marienbad even takes place in the present day. We’re never sure if our story is set in the now or in the characters’ own memories. It’s a vague quality that will leave viewers feeling bitter and/or bewildered, though I found myself enraptured. Director Alain Resnais refuses to feed viewers the spoon they’ve become accustomed to and forces them to figure his world out for themselves. Stance, setting, and chronology are obliterated like extras in a Michael Bay production, making the film certainly irritating but damn interesting.

Last Year at Marienbad is most certainly not a film for all. I’ve skimmed reviews both damning and praising of this picture. It has enough depth to fill a college thesis, so beware that it’s far from a casual watch. I wish I could delve more into its intricacies, but anything else mentioned would require a journey into Spoiler Country. If you’ve the stomach and mind for something out of the ordinary, I can’t recommend Last Year at Marienbad enough; it’s a must-see. But if you tend to scoff at arthouse fare, you’d best keep your distance.

Rating: ★★★½

-Chris Luedtke

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