Last Year at Marienbad

Wed Feb 3 2010

Last Year at Marienbad has been on my list of movies to watch for at least ten years.


It’s a gorgeous movie. Imagine the scene near the end of 2001 where Dave finds himself in a beautiful room. Imagine that scene in black and white, and make it an hour and half long. You’re on your way to Marienbad.

The story takes place in a luxury hotel. The interiors are rococo, the grounds are gravel, the trees are perfect cones. The people are beautiful. The women’s clothes are by Coco Chanel, and the heroine, played by Delphine Seyrig, is beautiful. Her hairstyle in the movie apparently caused something of a stir.

The plot is très simple: A man, a woman, and another man. One man is maybe the woman’s husband. The other man is pursuing her, telling her that they met last year at Marienbad. He tells her that at Marienbad she agreed to leave her maybe husband and go away with him. She doesn’t remember meeting him last year.

There are other people in the resort. They’re all very well dressed and very elegant. Sometimes they say things, and sometimes they things they say are not non-sequiturs. They dance, they watch a play, they play cards and some domino-like game. Also, there is a game involving matches.

Watching this movie, you find yourself doing odd things, like wondering whether this is a “movie” or a “film,” and why you can’t just turn it off. You know that at the end there will be no ending. That there will be no resolution. The woman will not go with the man. Or she might. You just hope it doesn’t end with someone shooting themselves. You especially hope it’s not you.

Maybe the idea is to bring your own meaning to the movie, as if it were some sort of Rorschach test. But as Pauline Kael says, “though it’s silly, albeit at times amusing and pretty, it is in no way an accidental blot.” When it’s finally over, there is the satisfaction of having done something. Or did you just dream that you did?

But we’ll never know for sure what happens in this movie because if this it teaches us anything, it is that we can’t be sure of whether what we are seeing happened, will happen, or never happened.

The only thing that is certain is that we spent 94 minutes watching it. Of that there is no question whatever.

Kael called her review of Marienbad (along with La Dolce Vita and La Notte) “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties.” It occurs to me that I haven’t seen the other movies in Kael’s review. And it occurs to me, too, that I don’t have to, because at long last I’ve seen Marienbad.