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  Last Year at Marienbad Memories Are Made Of This
Year: 1961
Director: Alain Resnais
Stars: 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
Genre: WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 2 votes)
Review: A man's voice is heard intoning dialogue about this country mansion which he repeats over and over: about the corridors, the baroque decoration, the thick carpets which swallow sound, and so on. There are people here, such as the servants who stand silently awaiting to be called, and as we travel past the rooms towards the sound of the man's voice we see guests have arrived and are staring in rapt attention, almost in a daze, at something. Make that someone: two people stand on the stage of the mansion's small theatre, the man who is speaking and the woman who is listening; he finishes and the audience erupt in applause.

It's safe to say Last Year at Marienbad didn't get quite the same reaction from everyone who watched it, indeed it turned out to be one of the most divisive films ever made, with a cult who loved its gamesplaying and sleek, black and white appearance while many others became actively angry with the work and its refusal to explain itself over the course of ninety minutes or so. It belonged to the spirit of revolution in classical music of the era, where repetition and dischord were as important as melody, if not more so: never mind the content, feel the form and structure, though we had to look to the screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet to see the roots of his style were literary.

He had made a name for himself penning impenetrable, deliberately complex and confusing novels, part of an avant-garde movement in writing of the nineteen-fifties, so when a meeting was arranged with director Alain Resnais whose Hiroshima Mon Amour had made waves around the cinema world, it was a marriage made in experimental film heaven. Or hell, as some would have it, though in a way you could interpret the characters as having gone through some kind of temporal trauma to end up in a deathly limbo where time has lost all meaning and there is no escape. You could see the influence of this in many places from Patrick McGoohan's classic television series The Prisoner to Stanley Kubrick's equally tricksy The Shining, but this remained very much one of a kind otherwise.

The plot, such as it was, concerned a woman known only as A (Delphine Seyrig in her breakthrough role) basically being pestered by a man known only as X (Giorgio Albertazzi) who is intent on getting her to remember the last time they met, except she doesn't believe they have ever encountered one another before. He spends the rest of the movie trying to persuade her they actually were having a deeply meaningful love affair, yet she resists, and her mind begins to crack under the pressure, or at least that appears to be what is happening. The typical Resnais obsession with memory and the way we return to the past in our mind not so much to recall happy times but more like a tongue worrying at a loose tooth was well to the fore, and the detractors would tell you the results were screamingly boring, and oh how they liked to belabour this opinion.

However, maybe Kubrick had something in allowing Last Year at Marienbad to influence his chiller, for there was something about the language of horror movies here. That fear of losing your mind, of not being in control, even of psychological violence could be seen in the manner in which A is worn down: she never gives in but maybe she doesn't need to as everything around her has her trapped in what from many angles looks like a nightmare, not least the dreamlike atmosphere and methods. At points the film erupts in gushes of panicky emotion as Frances Seyrig's music, all too aptly sounding as if the Phantom of the Opera is playing his pipe organ just out of shot, rises to a frightening crescendo, and A is even shot by her husband (Sacha Pitoëff) in one scene before X decides that's not the way he wants to recall her because it doesn't fit the narrative in his mind. All the way through the side characters play an impenetrable game as if to echo the filmmakers' devices, and you may not understand this, but its eerie, sinister, even alarming quality was (ironically) hard to forget, love or hate its grasp on your subconscious.

Aka: L'année dernière à Marienbad
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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