Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Alain Resnais’ exploration of representation in Night and Fog morphs and shifts into what eventually becomes Last Year at Marienbad as written by Alain Robbe-Grillet. While Night and Fog examines the idea of public memory by ruminating on representing a past event that affected so many lives, Hiroshima Mon Amour slowly narrows down this site of public memory down into the specific memory of the individual which only becomes more focused in Last Year at Marienbad.

The only way to describe what happens in Last Year at Marienbad in any brevity is a man’s recurring attempt to convince a woman of an affair they had a year before. However, as the man persistently repeats the story over and over again, the details morph, evolve and quickly become contradictory.

What initially appears as the tenuous reputation of the story soon becomes bizarrely fascinating. The recurring voiceover cuts in and out of audibility at first, leaving the audience piecing together fragments and shards that doesn’t quite come together. And once the film finally presents the entire rumination uninterrupted, a number of variants quickly follow it.

While the voiceover quickly becomes redundant, a moment of clarity emerges as the versions of the story change. It no longer becomes regurgitation, but a quest for clarity, a desire to conjure up the details once more. It no longer becomes the man telling the audience what happened but the man trying to remember what happened, or perhaps to even convince himself that the affair ever happened.

This is because the man is faced with the perpetual denial of the woman. She claims time and time again that she has no recollection of such events, that he has fabricated some tale that she’s the object of, perhaps out of inadequacy or simply out of a desire to get closer to her. She does not so much represent forgetfulness as much as doubt of the reliability of memory. As the man tries more and more to convince himself of his story, her simple denial is enough to problematize the every evolving affair of last year.

At some point, any semblance of trying to figure out whether or not the affair actually happened is abandoned. The film is more interested in exploring how these two extremes affect the human mind. How much is it the mind itself that fabricates and convinces ourselves of some truth and how does that implication also cause us to doubt our own memories?

In the midst of this mental rumination, Cinematographer Sacha Vierny crafts a nightmarish mood piece. The chateau becomes a hostile, hollow and oppressive site: a bourgeois haunted house. This is propelled and punctuated by the editing of Jasmine Chasney and Henri Colpi who transform the film into a fever-pitched nightmare.

Last Year at Marienbad isn’t interested in solving the mystery that it uses to draw us into the film. However, it poses that the mind is inclined to do the same, simply filling in interchangeable and arbitrary information whenever beset by such gaps. In this regard, Last Year at Marienbad is a brilliant self-inversion of the nature of the mind, twisting the method of the brain and placing it back into the minds of audiences.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing