Alain Resnais: Gone Home to Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad. Photo Courtesy Rialto Pictures.I had originally planned to write a light-hearted post about Las Vegas to go with TCM’s airing of Ocean’s 11 until I heard about the death of Alain Resnais, one of the original French New Wave filmmakers. And, though I know my post will get lost in the many obits and tributes to Resnais, and a nod to old Las Vegas would likely have appealed to more readers, I wanted to write about the director who expanded my understanding of what film could be. Most film instructors and cinephiles remember seeing their first New Wave movie, usually at an age when they begin to check off the titles on that list of masterworks they intend to see. For many, it is a playful turn by Truffaut or an exercise in cool by Godard, but for me it was the cinema’s most enigmatic puzzle, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

I first saw Marienbad in a film class. I found it difficult to get my footing in the story, which seemed to circle around itself. It was like waking up from a dream to discover I was in another dream. At a large, luxurious hotel, a woman referred to as A is approached by a man called X, who claims that they had met last year at either Frederiksbad or Marienbad. At first, A, who is at the hotel with M, her current husband or lover, denies that she knows X. But, X continues to persuade, seduce, and influence A until she begins to believe that the two did have an affair last year at Marienbad. Is X lying to A for his own agenda, or has A suffered a trauma that has caused her memory to fail? Is M a cruel or supportive husband, and what is the meaning behind the game of sticks he constantly plays. Some of the scenes seem to be the thoughts and fears of the characters, but the real and the imaginary are not clearly distinguished. I was immediately pulled into the intrigue of the characters, haunted by the melancholy mood, impressed with the austere black-and-white cinematography, and challenged by the insanely ambiguous narrative. After class, my peers and I pondered the meaning of the movie; I knew that if I could only figure it out, I would understand the mysteries of a sophisticated adult world just out of reach to me.



Our professor told us that film critics, scholars, and intellectuals had analyzed the film in depth, but I didn’t realize how different their perspectives were until I researched them myself. Reviewers at the time were vexed by the film and angered by their inability to dissect it: Louise Corbin from Films in Review hissed, “The simple truth about Last Year at Marienbad is that a not untalented young filmmaker has forsworn the hard work artistic creation entails, and has allowed his immature and meaningless fumbling to be promoted by those who wish to convert Western culture into an irrational confusion.” Actor-director Jacques Brunius argued in favor of the confusing nature of film, noting that the ambiguities of the narrative are “the ambiguities of life itself.” Dwight MacDonald of Esquire thought the film was a beautiful charade and akin to a crossword puzzle but “lacking in emotional effect.” In Fifty Classic French Films, historian Anthony Slide echoes MacDonald’s opinion that Marienbad deliberately contains no warmth, humanity, or feeling, because it is an exercise in cinematography.



Then again, film scholars do not look for meaning so much as for context and significance.  Much has been written about the film’s formal characteristics, including the fragmented narrative, the disruption of time, and the disorienting space, which means that Last Year at Marienbad is a film about the medium of film. An easy interpretation, given that all New Wave films are about film. This is the explanation that I preferred when I saw it for a second time with another movie-lover who was new to classic foreign films. I was writing my dissertation at the time and much more learned in the ways of film, or so I thought. Looking for a way to identify with the content or characters didn’t seem as important to me because I had discovered a fascination with self-reflexive movies. I felt that—like Resnais and his film—I was above simplistic explanations and the need for emotional identification with the material.



When I began to teach film studies and contemplated showing Marienbad to represent the French New Wave, I uncovered interpretations by scholars and experts in other fields. Art historians were attracted to the formalist visual design, including the panoramic views in which characters are mere shapes in a composition, the repeated and re-composed shots, and the fragmented sense of time. Relating Marienbad to Cubism and Surrealism expanded its credibility as a work of art on par with the paintings of Picasso and de Chirico, which helped me appreciate it on a new level. Other scholars chimed in with alternative claims. According to Roger Ebert, a professor once explained to him that the characters represent the mythic archetypes of the lover, the loved one, and the authority figure as discussed by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Literary scholars found it a version of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, while others felt it was a narrative version of the psychoanalyst-patient relationship, though I suspect the latter was by a writer who was angry at his shrink.



The Internet offers scores of speculations and attempts to deconstruct the meaning, purpose, or significance of Last Year at Marienbad. The “cutest” ones are those by young web scribes who insist there is a logical, linear plot in there somewhere, if we can only figure out the right key. Perhaps X is a ghost; perhaps X has chased after A year after year but this time she has finally broken down; or, perhaps A has been traumatized by rape. The most suitable tribute to Alain Resnais may be that fifty years after its release, Last Year at Marienbad still prompts us to think about what we saw and try to articulate what it means. Resnais’ work reminds us that the discussion of film is so much more rewarding than mere consumption—something alien to many of today’s young movie-goers.



As an adult who has lived a life with ups and downs, joy and sorrow, success and failure, I no longer expect to find an exact meaning for Last Year of Marienbad. Clear-cut linear stories and happy endings are for comic-book films and the children who chase after them. But, I am still intrigued, haunted, impressed, and challenged by Last Year at Marienbad, albeit for different reasons. The real appeal of the film for me lies its impressions and suggestions . . . and the reminder that any meaning in one’s life is lost in the shadows of memory—something you understand only through age and experience. As with life, there are no answers to the mysteries; there is no ending that will satisfy us.


8 Responses Alain Resnais: Gone Home to Marienbad
Posted By tdraicer : March 3, 2014 6:57 pm

This is (as usual) well-written and interesting, so I hate to hit a negative note, but I strongly disagree with this:

>Clear-cut linear stories and happy endings are for comic-book films and the children who chase after them

Putting aside whether there are comic book films that aren’t linear and where the ending is somewhat less than happy, the fact that a film (or book or any other work of art) is non-linear and downbeat does not make it adult, any more than a strong traditional narrative drive and a happy ending means it is a story for children. (There goes much of Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare’s comedies, The African Queen, the Adventures of Robin Hood, Singing in the Rain and The Bandwagon.)

I can certainly understand revolting against the Hollywood blockbuster mentality of the last few decades and holding up the virtues of the New Wave, but this sort of remark is, imo, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and forces some of us who would otherwise be your allies into opposition. Resnais made a fascinating film here, but he didn’t make the virtues of good traditional story-telling or a non-tragic ending obsolete.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 3, 2014 7:21 pm

Tdraicer: You are exactly right. I love happy endings and clear-cut, linear stories. I didn’t mean it to be taken so literally. Just that they are comforting in a way that satisfies us, like children. We are all children chasing after happy endings. And, how disconcerting it is when we are awakened by something that is not.

Posted By Doug : March 3, 2014 8:29 pm

I am novice enough to have not seen this film, though I will, someday. If it has puzzled so many for so long, it puts me in mind of “Inland Empire” by David Lynch. I would like to hear Lynch’s opinion of “Last year In Marienbad”.
I appreciate your posting about the passing of Alain Resnais,Susan. I’m guessing that, like Lynch, he didn’t ever explain the meaning of his works. I thought that in Surrealism the identity of objects remain constant to the artist’s localized logic-that a horse, for example, if it symbolized Life in one piece of art by an artist, it would be his or her symbol for Life across all of his or her work-it wouldn’t suddenly change and be a symbol for that artist of death.
Saying all of that leads to the question: Are there clues to the meaning of Resnais’s “Last Year In Marienbad” to be found in his other works? Can we understand more of what the symbols meant to him?
I don’t know why, but the art which comes to mind when I hear of works such as “Last Year In Marienbad” is the album “Kind Of Blue” by Miles Davis. A tonal dream open to interpretation, but Miles was saying SOMETHING.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 3, 2014 8:36 pm

For me, you get out of Last Year at Marienbad what you put into it. When I was young and did not know anything, I was completely mystified by it. When I began to learn more about film, culture, and living life, I got more out of it. Now, I realize that I will never learn as much as I want to about art or life, so there is still so much to get out of Marienbad. It will always elude me to some degree — in ways more traditional films do not.

Posted By Gene : March 3, 2014 10:18 pm

RIP, Alain Resnais. Hiroshima, Mon Amour was my first experience with Resnais and when I saw Marienbad I was mesmerized. To me it’s like a Chinese Puzzle Box, or a Fractal, or even better – a visual poem. Since there really is no interpretation there can be endless interpretations – not so much on its meaning as its impact on the viewer.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 3, 2014 11:05 pm

Well said, Gene.

Posted By David Bird : March 5, 2014 11:35 am

Thanks for the thoughtful tribute to Resnais and reflection on Last Year In Marienbad.
Your reference to clear-cut linear storylines and comic-book films is interesting, as American graphic narrative artist James Steranko has mentioned, more than once, that Last Year In Marienbad was one of his formative influences as he developed his graphic storytelling style when he started his comic book career in the mid sixties.
That mention was the initial prompt for me to see Marienbad, and I can say that it easily bested me (I was 16). I would love to see it again now that I’m 54.
Seeing Stavisky and Providence also seems a very long time ago. I often feel the contemporary world of film would be a difficult place now, for Resnais, or anyone with similar gifts. More’s the pity.

Posted By swac44 : March 5, 2014 12:29 pm

I was hoping I could post a link to the comic strip interpretation of Last Year at Marienbad by Montreal artist & reviewer Rick Trembles, but can’t find it online, so I recommend seeking out his collections of cartoon movie reviews Motion Picture Purgatory (Marienbad’s in Vol. 1).

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