Combustible Celluloid
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With: Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoëff, Françoise Bertin, Luce Garcia-Ville, Héléna Kornel, Françoise Spira, Karin Toche-Mittler, Pierre Barbaud, Wilhelm von Deek, Jean Lanier, Gérard Lorin, Davide Montemuri, Gilles Quéant, Gabriel Werner
Written by: Alain Robbe-Grillet
Directed by: Alain Resnais
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 94
Date: 06/25/1961

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Strand Hotel

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At an ornate hotel getaway, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (Delphine Seyrig) that the previous year she'd promised to run away with him. Whether or not they run away is hardly the point of this potentially maddening puzzler, which attracted large crowds of college students and sophisticates back in the early sixties, eager for a chance to work out its mysteries -- or indeed to see a film that even had any mystery.

Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad deliberately avoids a coherent point of view. The decorated walls and pillars of the hotel all look about the same, and the other residents barely move or talk at all. When they do talk, it's mostly inane chatter, about the weather (did it freeze one summer?). Each shot could be from this year, or last year, or some other year. When the man relates his version of events, it's only his version. The woman rarely agrees with him. Sometimes the man's story changes, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

On one day, they're meeting in the hotel's rigid, concrete garden (with its cone-shaped bushes and slabs of stone). On another day, they meet in her room. Did either event ever happen? What about the other man (Sacha Pitoëff), who looks like a reject from an "Addams Family" cartoon and may or may not be the woman's husband? What's up with that bizarre game he plays in which opponents pick up cards (or matches) and the last remaining card (or match) loses? The other man always wins; is it because he represents death? Or is it something else? Is this all a colossal joke?

I'm not sure, but what finally dazzled me about the film is the way that Resnais cleverly put together a 94-minute film without ever taking a stand on any single thing; every single shot, detail, story, and character is suspect -- and subject to change without notice. In this way, it's perhaps more honest than most other films, which claim to accurately represent a particular point of view. (Believe it or not, the film was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay!) Rialto re-released a lovely new black-and-white widescreen print to select theaters in 2008. A Criterion DVD followed in 2009.

In 2019, Kino Lorber released fine new Blu-ray and DVD editions (taking over for the out-of-print Criterion editions). The many incredible bonuses include a commentary track by Tim Lucas, an interview with filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, a visual essay by James Quandt, a making-of doc (featuring Super 8 footage shot on set), a short film by Alain Resnais: Toute la mémoire du monde (1957), and a trailer. Film critic K. Austin Collins contributes a liner notes essay.

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