Last Year At Marieband


At a weekend gathering, a man (referred to in the screenplay as X, and played by Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince a woman (referred as A, and played by Delphine Seyrig) that they had fallen in love the previous summer, “in Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon.” In his telling, the two had planned to run away together, from “M” (Sascha Pitoeff), who may be A’s husband or lover, but certainly exercises authority over her.

Now, the year has passed and X has come to their agreed rendezvous to take her away. A claims she does not recognize X, and cannot remember any agreement between them. At first, X is surprised, and he recounts conversations the two of them had, supporting details, relating scenes convincingly.

The soundtrack features music by Francis Seyrig, mostly performed on an organ – Gothic, liturgical, like a requiem and Narrated by X with the other characters have a few lines of dialogue here and there. The more the man talks about their activities the previous year however, the more convincing he becomes. A persists in not remembering, even though X produces a photograph of her as a proof of his claim.

The imagery of the film is lush yet formal and disciplined (formal surrealism?). The editing gives us jump cuts and sound overlaps. We see her in white, in black. Dead, alive. The film, photographed in black and white by Sacha Vierny, in widescreen allowing Resnais to create compositions in which X, A and M seem to occupy different planes, even different states of being. The artificiality glazing the visuals with a patina of stillness, much like the fashion photos of Helmut Newton or Philippe Halsman — and perfectly in sync with A’s over-the-top Chanel.

The woman, A, moves about the hotel in a series of stylized poses. She spends her time reading, watching a play, walking about the gardens, and having conversations with X. M hovers throughout the film, drifting from room to room, engaged in a multitude of pursuits. In particular, he gambles and plays a variation of the game of “Nim” with the other guests, which he claims he always wins. The camera travels sinuously; so that any sudden movement is a shock (when A stumbles on a gravel walk and X steadies her, it is like a sudden breath of reality).

At one point X submits a more dramatic episode of their alleged past at Marienbad: “One evening, I went up to your bedroom…” Changing images of a plush bedroom appear. At a subsequent point X’s voice describes the details. “At that hour, in any case, he [M] is at the gambling table. I had warned you I would come. ‘You didn’t answer. When I came I found all the doors ajar…” At a later point X asserts: “You’ve always been afraid. But I loved your fear that evening. I watched you, letting you struggle a little… I loved you. There was something in your eyes, you were alive… finally… I took you, half by force.” A few moments later X recants the rape aspect of his visit to A’s bedroom: “Oh no… Probably it wasn’t by force… But you’re the only one who knows that.”

In one version she is aghast, afraid of his violence. In another she welcomes him with dizzy joy, arms open. In yet another she is dead, presumably shot by M.

Still more drama is added to the story. M, after a conversation with A in her bedroom, leaves — supposedly to exercise with other male guests at the hotel’s shooting gallery. X intends to use M’s absence to pay A a visit. Unexpectedly M reenters A’s bedroom, brandishing his pistol. He shoots A, who comes to lie on a rug in a lascivious posture. The alleged incident is conveyed both by images and words.

Before long X recants this whole story, however: “No, this isn’t the right ending… I must have you alive…” The fact that X begins to treat details of last year’s events at Marienbad like obvious fictions of a conventional movie drama naturally casts doubts on the entirety of his allegations concerning their affair.

Another mysterious aspect is X’s haunting narration and much of his speech, eternally stuck on repetition. He always returns to two themes: the atmosphere of the hotel and his first encounter with A. It’s a constant liturgy, spoken over and over again with only minor variations throughout the film. The effect is that of an intelligent and cultured man in the grips of an obsession.

The narrative presses on. The insistent, persuasive X recalls a shooting, a death. No – he corrects himself. It did not happen that way. It must have happened this way, instead. Everything is narrated in the past tense, even when we seem to have arrived at the present. The present too, the implication is, will become a story any minute now, and like all stories, subject to debate and denial.

A does not remember. She entreats X, unconvincingly, to leave her alone. He presses on with his memories in the second person: “You told me … you said … you begged me … .” It is a narrative he is constructing for her, a story he is telling her about herself. It may be true. We cannot tell.


Pieces of evidence of past encounters, such as the bracelet and the snapshot, are quickly discounted as proofs of anything. As the film goes on the photograph itself seems more and more like fantasy than proof. The woman sits in a chair, looking at it enfolded in a book. She opens a drawer in her hotel bedroom and finds it there. She opens the same drawer and finds it full of copies of the photograph, 15 or 20 of them.

A points out that “anyone could have taken the snapshot, at any time, and anywhere: the setting was vague, remote, scarcely visible…” All these uncertainties about important events go together with the film’s practice of frequently showing details as different when they should be the same. A’s bedroom is furnished quite differently every time it is shown, and sometimes A is wearing different dresses even within the same scene or during the same conversation. It is the basic strategy of the film to account for all the possibilities and eliminate the difference between fact and fiction, between inner thought and external event.


The men play a game. It has been proposed by M. It involves setting out several rows of matchsticks in four piles: 1, 3, 5, and 7mand then removing, as many as they want, but only from one row at a time. Playing alternately, each player can take as many matches as he likes from any one pile; the one who must take the last match “loses.”

The first step is to write (or imagine) the number of matches in each pile in numbers to the base two, arranging those binary numbers in a column for addition. The player who is left with the last matchstick loses. M always wins. On the soundtrack, we hear theories: “The one who starts first wins … the one who goes second wins … you must take only one stick at a time … you must know when to … .”


To win the game, let the other player start; then remove matches in such a way that the number of units in each column after your move is either even or zero (but do not, leave your opponent an even number of piles with one match in each).

“He knows all the outcomes in advance,” someone says. Sort of. Tall, he looks down at the other players, dominating them.

Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are using the properties of this game much as Bergman used the two-dimensional properties of chess in The Seventh Seal. The film pretends that Nim is a true game in which either player could win. Actually, once the piles are laid out, the game is as determined as tic-tac-toe — a perfect symbol for possibilities which begin as many but converge to one foregone conclusion. A leaves with X.

The play mentioned in the film. Rosmer, probably refers then, not to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, but to a folktale about Rosmer Havmand. He is a troll or merman, handsome in form, who lures a maiden away from her home to his other world.

The woman at first refutes X’s claim but is gradually swayed by his insistence. “He offers her the impossible, what seems most impossible in this labyrinth where time is apparently abolished: he offers her a past, a future and freedom.” Indeed, in therapeutic terms, by accepting a past one has repressed, one does achieve this freedom. By accepting time, specifically the fact that time forecloses possibilities and eliminates freedom, one achieves freedom.

When he seems to have finally reached her, she has moved into another time, into another memory. As he renews his efforts to convince her, new nightmares arise. He is not even sure of loving her, or even if it was she who was or the object of his love.

A finally agrees to leave with X.


At the end of the film, the lovers (A and X) run away together into the night, but this flight is recounted to us by X, in the past tense. We see A in traveling clothes, waiting in a lobby for X and the clock’s stroke of midnight — the deadline she has set in order to give M a chance to prevent her from leaving. The clock strikes, X appears, and A gets up to leave with him. A little later M appears, troubled, in the vacant lobby, and then walks to his suite. The result is that the story can be re-started from the beginning: the whole thing took place last year, and it can be repeated ad infinitum.

The last shot of the film is of the castle looming darkly in the night, while X’s voice defines the conclusion of the story: “The park of this hotel was a kind of garden a la francaise without any trees or flowers, without any foliage… Gravel, stone, marble and straight lines marked out rigid spaces, surfaces without mystery. It seemed, at first glance, impossible to get lost here… down straight paths, between the statues with frozen gestures and the granite slabs, where you were now already getting lost, forever, in the calm night, alone with me.”

When they leave the hotel together, they are not arm in arm but quite separate, walking like zombies, their backs to us. They can only get away, it seems, in order to come back and start again, trying to remember, trying to forget.

X’s last words state explicitly that the pair is getting lost in the very world that they are seemingly leaving: in the Cartesian park with its clipped bushes and regular pathways that add up to a giant labyrinth. Proceeding from the inside of the building to the open spaces of the park represents, to be sure, a certain escape or liberation. (It is significant that earlier in the movie the pair was increasingly shown outside the walls of the hotel.) But the gardens of the park are still part of the hotel, part of the Cartesian world.

In taking their leave X and A are not getting very far. All they accomplish is a certain variation of their life inside the Cartesian world. What they say and do is not spontaneous and free, but part of a studied ritual. Hence the fact that the very last picture is that of the dark and looming castle which, although the camera is moving away from it, “seems to grow larger and larger” (according to the screenplay).

Descartes reminds us that waking up from a dream can itself be part of a dream. No matter how awake we feel, we may still be asleep and in the grip of a dream. There is no possible way of getting “outside” of our minds to determine in what state we actually are. It is similar with X’s and A’s escape from the hotel. Although X and A rebel against the confinements of the world of the castle, their futile rebellion is nothing more than yet another variation of life at the hotel. The end of the theatrical and ceremonial life is itself a ritual and part of the show.


Starting with the “flux doctrine” of “Heraclitus,” according to which everything is constantly altering (“You cannot step twice in the same river”), to Henry Bergson, who was one of the first philosophers to incorporate cinema into a philosophical discourse.

Bergson, whom Proust admired, made a distinction between the concept (“clock time”) and the experience of time (“real time”), arguing that “real time” is experienced as “duration” and apprehended by “intuition.” He further stated that time is in constant flux, with moments of the past and the present having equal reality.

In literature, Marcel Proust with his novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” and on the scientific side, Albert Einstein with his “Theory of General Relativity.” Einstein posited that time is simply another dimension, which with space forms a four-dimensional space-time continuum (that was until recently, when seven more dimensions were added with the M-theory, the “theory of everything”).

Stephen Hawking distinguishes three different “arrows of time”: thermodynamic, cosmological, and psychological (“A Brief History of Time,” 1988). Although all of these three time arrows enter in our daily lives to a greater or lesser extent, we are here only concerned with the psychological arrow of time.


Space too is a worry. The protagonists can’t remember, if it was in a fancy hotel in a German spa, to be sure. Friedrichstadt, perhaps? Karlstadt? Last year in Marienbad is just one of the possibilities.

lush with furnishings, moldings, and sculptures, the setting is a luxurious hotel, one with ornate ceilings, vast drawing rooms, enormous mirrors and paintings, endless corridors and grounds in which shrubbery has been tortured into geometric shapes and patterns.

The baroque tracery of the ceilings and walls represents a style in which the decorator has actualized all the possibilities a given line has. We see baroque plasterwork with endless branchings and mirrors with intricate reflections.

There are endless formal gardens surrounding the hotel. And shadows, especially the iconic image of people standing in the garden: the people have shadows but the shrubs do not. (Resnais had the people’s shadows painted on the gravel.)

The guests — elegant, expensively dressed, impassive making cryptic conversation, watching a play, attending a concert, shooting in a shooting gallery, and playing games of cards. They all vousvoyer, addressing one another in the formal “you” as aristocrats do. It is “a place for relaxation. Conversations are overheard. Words float in the air as if trapped inside the hotel, in search of a listener. Time itself moves forward or backward, depending on the subject of conversations, or the mood of the people. No business is carried out. No plots are hatched.

The guests take walks along statuaries, hedge-mazes, fountains, and long gravel paths. Everyone appears in evening clothes to attend a dinner, a concert, or a play presented at the hotel’s theater, a play that resembles the events that are unfolding in the very film we are watching— these define a world in which all possibilities (whether known presently or not) have been established at the outset (and will be narrowed down as the film proceeds)

Anti naturalism

We see the same effect in Antonioni and Bergman, and it had good intentions behind it. It was meant to signal a departure from naturalism, It’s notable that in this film Resnais succeeds best with his anti-naturalist note when the actors are either quite still — so still you don’t know whether they are in a moving picture or a photograph — or dancing, rocking slowly, dully, to the sounds of an unearthly waltz.


The “new novel” lacks the conventional elements of the literary realism, such as dramatic plotting, psychological analysis, and unities of time and place. His writing style has been described as “realist” or “phenomenological” (in the Heideggerian sense) or “a theory of pure surface”. Methodical and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace (though often reveal) the psychology of the character. The reader must slowly piece together the story, in the repetition of descriptions, the attention to odd details, and the breaks: a method that resembles the experience of psychoanalysis in which the deeper unconscious meanings are contained in the flow and disruptions of free associations.

On the one hand, Marienbad draws quite naturally on its cocreators’ prior accomplishments. Like Hiroshima, it weaves a hypnotic network of repeated phrases and recurrent visual, musical, and narrative motifs. And like Hiroshima, it stages a prolonged tug-of-war between two unnamed protagonists, he wooing her from a rival love interest with a psychoanalyst’s perseverance, caught between resistance and surrender — both films culminating in a virtual “transfer of affect.” Like Robbe-Grillet’s novels, meanwhile, Marienbad offers only the elements of a story, leaving the viewer the responsibility of piecing them together. And like the novels — Jealousy(1957) being a prime example — it introduces into the mix distinct undertows of murder and violence, as well as telling variants that constantly upend whatever certainties we think we’ve gained. Jealousy, moreover, rehearses the triangular dynamic of Marienbad, including the watchful husband and the use of the initial A to designate the heroine.



The chance of cinema is the breakdown of sound from image, praised by Eisenstein as a fabulous possibility, brilliantly played with in Singin’ in the Rain but largely ignored by an industry and a public that wanted synchronised talk and appropriate musical cues. The most vivid instance of the breakdown in Last Year in Marienbad — a truly haunting one that’s hard to shift once it’s got into your mind — has the characters attending a concert at the spa hotel. Two violinists visibly, energetically hack away at their instruments, but we hear only the familiar organ music of the soundtrack, as if the film were determined to substitute its own noise for all actual sounds of the world it is depicting.

And the most beautiful, integrated uses of the breakdown occur when the man describes an image from the past, the woman in a particular place and a particular posture, while the screen shows us the woman in a different posture and place, almost aggressively not doing what the voice-over says she is doing. But then, when the voice is talking about something else, we will see the image we have heard described, and surely, most of us, be tempted to believe the description is correct, even if the image has gone astray.

“Marienbad” is a love story, although not a “story” in the conventional narrative sense, since the fragmented images cannot be scanned chronologically. The “story” is not told rather it is described using a juxtaposition of physical images, through memories and associations, projected through a space-time continuum, which destroys both linear chronology and fixity. Any attempt to provide a satisfying chronology for the film would contradict the assumptions upon which it was built, as well as the manner in which it is shot.

There are some elements of horror in the movie. The first eight minutes are reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Outsider. Stanley Kubrick plucked huge parts of Last Year at Marienbad to make his version of The ShiningThe film is also influenced by the silent movie, Pandora’s Box and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. A more unusual inspiration is the Mandrake the Magician series of comic books.

Resnais had tried to obtain old-fashioned film stock to get the “halo” effect typical of silents, and his use of overexposure and exaggerated gestures is remarkable. Resnais throws in another bit of cinema tradition: a ghostly profile of Alfred Hitchcock, incongruously appearing at screen right at about eleven minutes and thirty seconds — a nod to the master of suspense and his famous cameos, as well as a hint that Marienbad is, at bottom, a mystery.)

In life, things are either one way or the other; here, they are both. The people cast shadows, but the bushes don’t; a violin plays, but we hear an organ. The heroine did lose the heel of her shoe. No, she didn’t. She did meet X a year ago, but she didn’t. And so on.

The style is not that of reality at all, but of dreams or the id:

The laws of logic — above all, the law of contradiction — do not hold for processes in the id. Contradictory impulses exist side by side without neutralizing each other or drawing apart; at most they combine in compromise formations . . . There is nothing in the id which can be compared to negation, and we are astonished to find in it an exception to the philosophers’ assertion that space and time are necessary forms of our mental acts. In the id there is nothing corresponding to the idea of time, no recognition of the passage of time. . . . Naturally, the id knows no values, no good and evil, no morality.

— so Freud in the New Introductory Lectures (1932),

The film is not a riddle. But of course there is considerable energy and anxiety in all of the options. Indeed, the more evidence X provides as proof of veracity, the more discrepancies emerge, and the more the enigma thickens. As the film progresses, the image on-screen appears almost willfully to clash with X’s voice-over description, sometimes prompting him to shout at it like an exasperated director with an especially temperamental star.

And with such an image we arrive at the film’s striking originality. Last Year in Marienbad shows us, without discrimination, what is assumed to be there now, whenever now is, what was there then (actually at several past moments), and what is imagined (or narrated) by someone to be there or have been there.

When Incidents and settings repeat, their details change between one iteration and the next: A’s remembered bedroom veers from bare to baroque; the hotel gardens sometimes boast a maze of shrubbery, sometimes grand alleys as stiff and straight as the gentlemen’s tuxedos. (Resnais obtained this effect by shooting at three different palaces — none actually located in Marienbad.) Added to the narrator’s stalkerlike pursuit of the reticent heroine, these inconsistencies imbue the film with an atmosphere of uncertainty, instability, and threat.

Marienbad appears “difficult” if we try to impose a traditionally logical and chrono-logical structure on the flow of sounds and images (though perhaps less difficult now that so many films have taken their cue from it — Chris Marker’s La Jetée [1962], Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining[1980], Christopher Nolan’s Memento [2000]).

By its own temporal discontinuity, its nameless characters and hermetically-sealed set, it demands that we accept it as reality itself rather than as a faithful and ultimately illusory representation of reality.

Marienbad says by its construction that art is a reality added to reality and not a copy of reality.

The film exists in a Möbius-style feedback loop, and it is impossible to determine which imitates which. Thus, though the film presents itself as non-representational, within itself it presents a story of artifice holding a mirror up to nature and vice versa (not only in the play but in the card game and the various paintings and sculptures around the resort). “X” and “A”, however, seem unaware of the mimetic nature of their activities.

It is possible to grow impatient with “Last Year at Marienbad.” To find it affected and insufferable. It is a deliberate, artificial artistic construction. “Hiroshima mon amour” should have prepared us by the way it explores his favorite themes: the anguish of oblivion and the fixity of time. In Resnais’ film traditional realism is no longer, replaced by a deeper realism, that of the mind. The illusion once dispensed with, the film has this problem before it: to replace not the forms but the reality of experience with its own. Now works of art must be real, not “realism” but reality itself. It is not a matter of “representation” much may be represented actually, but of separate existence.

Like most art, Marienbad is ultimately about its own experience, the true dialogue occurring not between characters but between maker and audience. Robbe-Grillet’s well-known comment that the “entire story of Marienbadhappens neither in two years nor in three days, but exactly in one hour and a half” — the duration of the film — could in this regard be said of any cinematic work. The midnight chime we hear at the beginning of the film is quite literally the same as the one that ends the stage- and screenplay, in an eternal loop that brings the story back to its starting point and leaves us, like the seduced (and abandoned?) A, “losing our way forever in the stillness of night.”

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Ric Amurrio