In a remote but chic baroque hotel a man (Giorgo Albertazzi) attempts to convince a beautiful woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they once had an affair. The woman (who the narrator only refers to as A) is unsure, puzzled, yet visibly intrigued by the man's statement. Much of what the man utters seems to be true, much of it seems to be false. Did they ever meet? Did they have an affair?
Often referred to as the quintessential art-film Alain Resnais's L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad a.k.a Last Year at Marienbad (1961) is believed to be indirectly based on Alain Robbe-Grillet's (who also appears to be the film's screen-writer) novel La Jalousie a.k.a Jealousy (1957). Yet, the title of this film is a direct replication of Salvador Dali's most well known work.
Relying on a narrative where facts and fiction seem so closely intertwined that the main protagonist's statements often further complicate the structure of the story rather than bringing partial clarity to it Last Year at Marienbad is a most difficult film to categorize. Certainly I have often had trouble using one of the standard clichés that critics love stamping on films with provocative constructions. Is Last Year at Marienbad a romantic story gone awry, a provocative retrospective of a fictional relationship, or a film whose cinematic language was never meant to be deconstructed? I am unsure!
Filmed against a spectacular background of repetitive music tunes the quest of the main protagonist to rationalize a dream (and the presence of a woman his heart desires) Last Year at Marienbad is a stunning representation of one director's vision of cinema as the highest form of artistic expression. Revealing advanced camera-work, unusual technique of storytelling, and a groundbreaking use of narration as the only unifying segment in this fractured into little pieces film Alain Resnais has achieved perfection. Not because his film does not suffer from unneeded emphasis on philosophical issues that are far from being crucial to the story, it clearly does, but because the manner in which the unexplainable is addressed provides the viewer with the freedom to interpret what is being shown on the screen in a fashion very few directors that I know of have been able to achieve.
Many have argued that Last Year at Marienbad is a cinematic enigma that was never meant to be solved. The unshakable foundation of this most complicated story about yearning is as difficult to crack open as anything I have seen during the years. Many times I felt that the more I wanted to apply logic to what was shown to me the more I became uncapable of deducing the director's thought process. Was the man we meet at the baroque hotel a stranger, was he someone Alain Resnais knew, or was he the director himself attempting to recall a disastrous affair? Countless times I was certain it was him and Last Year at Marienbad a film that was meant for someone special, someone the French director could not have!
Yet, during the years my initial impressions of the film faded away and I fancied different theories, I looked for different explanations. As time went by I was less preoccupied with the story and its mystery and more daunted by its execution. After Last Year at Marienbad nothing was as artistically-refined yet intellectually stimulating as this black and white extravaganza from the early 1960s.
Asked to summarize his feelings about the effect time has had on cinema, its evolution, the French director would utter: I don't think that there is any such thing as an old film, you don't say, "I read an old book by Flaubert," or "I saw an old play by Moliere. How well said!! Forty five years have passed since Alain Resnais completed Last Year at Mariendad and I can hardly think of another film that changed my perceptions about cinema as much as his film did. Great cinema doesn't age, it never will!
In 1962 the film was granted the Critics Award for Best Picture courtesy of the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics; Oscar Award for Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay (Alain Robbe-Grillet) received in 1963; Golden Lion Award for Best Film received at the Venice Film Festival in 1961.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the print used for this UK release appears to be in great condition. Color gradation is flawless, contrast is handled exceptionally well, and the condition of the actual print suggests an excellent master-source. Furthermore, aside from a few very tiny dots in the opening 20 seconds I could not detect any substantial print erosion, quite the opposite in fact, it is evident that Optimum have used the same print elements provided for the earlier released French disc. There is also an excellent degree of film grain which is not obtrusive but providing a very film-like feel to the image. Last but not least the print has been transferred progressively and seen with the proper equipment the impressive cinematography of Resnais' work truly shines. Very, very well-done indeed!! PAL-encoded, Region 2.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original Dolby Digital 2.0 French audio track and fixed (sadly, non-removable) English subtitles Optimum have provided an equally impressive audio treatment. Clearly there has been some detailed restoration work performed here as I could not detect any annoying hissing, pop-ups, or cracks. The French audio is crystal clear and dialog very easy to follow. Furthermore, the English translation is exceptionally well-done (white English subtitles are used) and I do believe that even the more pretentious of dvd aficionados will find the English text to be of exceptional quality.
Fortunately enough this very reasonably priced British disc also offers a good amount of extras. Together with the main feature you also get a lengthy introduction by Ginette Vincendeau highlighting important fragments from the film's history, the French documentary (also available on the Studio Canal version) "Dans le Labyrinthe de Marienbad" by French critic Luc Lagier who delves deep into the mystery behind the film (this is very much a critical analysis of Resnais' work), a rare short film by Alain Resnais titled "Toute la Mémoire du Monde" focusing on the National Library of the City of Paris. Last but not least we have the original theatrical trailer for the film.
At this point there is hardly any need, at least as far as I am concerned, to keep hoping for the rumored Criterion release. If such release materializes in R1 land fine, by all means I would consider it. But given the spectacular image quality provided by Optimum, which I am certain is a sub-product of the existing French disc, there is hardly any reason I could think of to keep you off this milestone of French cinema. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
This review was made possible with the kind assistance of Xploited Cinema.