Alain Renais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), shown as part of Brighton’s Cine-City Film Festival, was screened suitably enough in a somewhat grandiose wing of Brighton Museum. This was a perfect place to showcase a film set in a breath-taking, unnamed hotel, with its high ceilings and symbolic connection to the film’s subject matter: the problems of narrative, subjectivity and memory. After all, the very notion of museums is to preserve memory and like the hotel in the film, Brighton Museum too has a refined architectural structure meant to exaggerate its contents. And so Cine-City allowed Last Year at Marienbad to wash over you in a clever act of verisimilitude.
Last Year in Marienbad was a contentious film upon release, called a triumph of narrative cinema, and an ‘aimless disaster’. Set in a hotel, the film centres on an unnamed mans (Georgio Albertazzi) attempts to convince an unnamed woman (Delphine Seyrig) that they were together the previous year ‘in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon’, and that they fell in love and were to meet a year later. In terms of certainty this is the closest you will get to any real sense of security, initially it seems it is told by the man to the woman, however as the story is elaborated the actual narration becomes as ambiguous as the question of whether they met. The film lends itself to multiple interpretations most interestingly that the narrator is simply trying to clarify events with moments that suggest he does not know himself.
This ambiguity is the focal point of this film, and is above all else concerned with form and what it can do, being far more polarising than other attempts at narrative ambiguity. This film is static in every aspect from its cinematography to its pacing of narrative, and as it leads you down a labyrinth of memory it can leave you feeling less that there is a truth to be uncovered, but more that truth is something you cannot ever know. The film’s use of space, memory and non-linear concepts of time wash over you without sacrificing content and invoke problems of subjectivity reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). This film is meticulously unified in this pursuit of ambiguity: the shots, also sterile and beautiful like paintings; extras are speechless, often frozen as though the one who is imagining them has to put their autonomy on hold whilst he pieces together his own story; and the hotel, with its ‘cross-laden corridors, leading each to empty rooms’ is the perfect space to deal with the nature of appropriating memory into a narrative.
Whilst it’s a triumph of narrative cinema, it is not without problems. As much as its passivity lends the film the space and inconsistency to drive home its point, it does not need 93 minutes to achieve this and its impotency can become grating. The bland characters, and total lack of any sense of humour (which given its absurd approach to memory could have benefited from some synaptic tomfoolery) stop the film being what most would consider entertainment, something admittedly it was not trying to do, but it doesn’t seem Fellini ever compromised the substance of his films to play with absurdity and consequently it suffers in comparison to efforts like 8 ½ (1963).
This film is definitely worth watching for anyone who does not care for resolution and admires static beautiful cinematography, echoing Beckett, Kafka and Fellini. This film resonates more as a step forward in cinema and experimental narratives than as a masterpiece. Inevitably, like its narration, it lacks the pieces to truly make a whole.
By Robert Smith.