For all its ostensible chilly formalism, for all its legendary difficulty, in the slowly shifting dynamic of suggestion, resistance and surrender that underlies every moment of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) there are things that, to my mind, can’t help but worm their way into the most tenebrous corners of the psyche. Memory, to paraphrase a character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, is a language we all (mistakenly) believe we speak. But its malleability, its essential formlessness holds the key to our deepest fears and desires. The seduction at the heart of Marienbad is that of having someone recount to you all that you can’t recall about some moment that’s either dissolved into the fog of your past or, your strongly suspect, never happened. The seducer wants you to believe in that romance you never had, telling it to you over and over until this miracle happens and you begin to complete the memory yourself. And if you can be persuaded of the verity of this memory—of not only the romance but also the possibility of its revival—you may still have the chance at freedom you thought lost.
The promise of Marienbad is right there in a narrative as utterly simple as its realization is labyrinthine, a variation on a thousand other movies—in short, a love triangle. At a vast luxury country resort populated by well-heeled guests, X (Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince A (Delphine Seyrig, virtually unknown at the time) that they met in this same place the year previous, fell in love, and planned to run away together. Away from prying eyes and oppressive décor; from M (Sacha Pitoëff), A’s pale, vaguely vampiric husband, who always wins at the impenetrable table games he plays with the other guests; from “this edifice of a bygone era, this sprawling, sumptuous, baroque, gloomy hotel where one endless corridor follows another,” a place where people seem to always be returning out of sheer habit, where statues seem to move when no one looks, and people often resemble statues, a place where even shadows reveal discrepancies and whose boundaries are never breached at any point in the movie. As the camera continually surveys the place, adrift like a listless ghost, you start to wonder if the only “true” memories are to be found within its moldings, chandeliers and sculpted doorways.
Director Alain Resnais and novelist-turned-screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet never let on. Robe-Grillet was inspired by Adolfo Bioy Casares’ fantastical masterwork The Invention of Morel, and his script shares the late Argentine author’s design of a narrative logic that remains partially hidden from the audience while providing a solid foundation for all that transpires. Sacha Vierny’s weightless camerawork and Jacques Saulnier’s production design—the hotel’s interiors were all constructed—convey an absolute elegance that would imbue countless perfume adverts and inspire Stanley Kubrick’s wandering through the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (80). In the flamboyantly elliptical editing patterns of Resnais and editors Henri Colpi and Jasmine Chasney, the film’s baffling yet most explicit expression of its interplay of memory and fantasy, we find the blueprint for the most mesmerizing sequences in Wong Kar-Wai. In Seyrig’s marvelous performance, aided by a dizzying array of costume changes furnished by Coco Chanel, bewitching make-up and sweep of bangs that seem to invite her being swept off her feet, we’re given a beguiling balance of cool opacity and near-palpable anxiety. She’s in danger. She proves just how many expressions one face can give to uncertainty and unease, while still every bit the embodiment of useless glamour and the elusive promise of sex. She’d soon play the central role in Resnais’ still more intricate investigation into the same core themes—plus a bracing political subtext—in Muriel (63), and moodily inhabit another similarly memory-haunted house in Marguerite Duras’ India Song (75).
Watching Criterion’s well-endowed and gorgeous new director-approved DVD edition—also available in Blu-ray—I fell under the spell of Marienbad all over again. Which is to say I got totally lost in the thing, its details, repetitions, infinite mirrors and strange echoes, the shattered glass and collapsing marble rail, the sexual assault that reads as clown show. And even after having just seen it again I question my memory of it, small moments that may have happened, or maybe just alluded to, maybe only suggested in some subtle way. Maybe I just invented them, as we sometimes do with movies that consume us. I’ll happily re-watch it and try to confirm whether this or that memory is true, though I suspect I’ll just get lost all over again. Either way, these memories are worth holding onto, even if they lead me astray.