last year at marienbad (1961)
A mundane repetition, enigmatic and confounding in its similarity, punctuated by instants which are re-lived over and over via memory, eventually becoming narrative; a personal narrative which twists their occurrences to the mind's liking until they have become what is most appealing. If we could burrow into your mind and live there for some hours, taking in all the half-thought thoughts, the garbled dreams, fantasies, memories, ambitions, desires; we would exit with an unreliable understanding that may be an illusory perception. With Marienbad, Resnais speaks this language of the mind, the language of the subconscious, better than perhaps any other filmmaker has achieved. If Brakhage spoke the language of the eye, Resnais speaks the language of the hippocampus. The limitless depths of the human mind, the intellect, our remembrance. The mind as blank canvas, the promise of potential, the ecstasy of the 'beginning' gives way. Each initial brushstroke, each line drawn, a prison. The past, haunting, reaching to remember. Running from memory, wishing to forget. Fragments. Were they dreams? The mind witnesses a puzzle, a game, and instantly becomes engaged to solve it. Each time we lose, we start back at the beginning, each loss is a new blank canvas, we set it up and try again. From the first move we make in the game, we are trapped. Trapped to repeat the pattern, to lose the game all over again. Still, we start back at the beginning. We imprint, onto what we encounter, a narrative of our choosing; but we never chose it at all. It was chosen for us by the mind, our own subconscious, taking the experiences we've given to it by our living and applying them to what we see.
Last Year at Marienbad wraps us up in the experience that the mind goes through daily at our most subliminal level, the experience that our higher senses mercifully filter from our perception. We cannot deny its familiarity, our basic understanding of the images we see. These characters seem to linger on, ghostly and without inner desire, repeating the same patterns over and over, almost as a memory played on loop, the mind reeling, like the reels of film. Maybe, we think, if I play it back again I will be able to make sense of the events. We have our emotional experience, the bits of experience that lodge in our brain and won’t leave. With these comes our inevitably incorrect recollection of events, who we were distorting to form our self image interacting with other images. Resnais and Marienbad form these images for us in varying degree, we recollect little, after the credits, of any character or experience other than their core emotional sting. A woman whose mood shifts from welcoming to dismissive in an instant, a domineering and intimidating man whose intellectual superiority seems a God among men. As in the film's iconic shot of the gardens, only our figures cast shadows. As in the minds of those who walk the halls of this vast hotel palace, only the characters leave impressions, the space is immortal, as are our statues, the blank faces of the statues, the blank canvas on which we impress our own interpretation of their thoughts and feelings. The other people centered around our central character are much the same. Resnais infuses the film’s progression less as acts or sequences and more as layers of narrative that we dive in an out of, with the space and our central character’s observations and recollections are built on its unchanging permanence, and his interactions with the memory of the actions of people, which are fleeting and potentially entirely false. This specter of a man may even be dead for all we know, in one of Resnais’ most cryptic flashback sequences played near the end of the film (as though it were a revelation) are of our character falling from a broken ledge as her husband approaches. The film places form and structure at the forefront, the structure is anything but unchanging, it morphs as we move through it, it reveals itself and yet moves in a spiral around a central point. The empty souls onscreen regularly stop what they’re doing to focus on some spectacle, or anything that might change their status quo, even a waiter cleaning up a broken glass is obsessively observed by the partygoers hungry for something human to happen. The other couples we overhear at the film’s opening lament their inability to connect, though they are physically standing side by side, they are separated by an ocean in their ability to feel the precense of the other. They are unable to connect in a way that makes them feel present in the world of the other, in the truer sense. They exist in an endless pose, yes as statues, an empty series of gestures that mimic the behavior of living and bleeding human beings with soul behind their eyes, yet here we see only postured flesh. The addiction to the familiar paces of the routine, the only fear not being of a death of passion in life, but of an unknown element, of a moment out of the stasis. Our central character wants to live, he sees his key to life in the woman and her promise to join him in life, the woman desires her purgatory above all else.
The power in Resnais’ filmmaking here is that it will likely be interpreted differently in each decade that an audience views it in. The film has so many labyrinthine corridors within itself that it’s all what we as an audience choose to focus on that informs the read, Resnais does not demand that we pick up any pieces, rather leaving it up to us and still besting our efforts to pin it down at every turn.