Blu-ray Review: Last Year at Marienbad | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, May 24th, 2020  

Last Year at Marienbad

Studio: Kino Lorber

Nov 05, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad has an infamy that I have rarely come across in other films included in Kino Lorber’s Classics Collection. It has simultaneously been heralded as one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the 1960s, as well as one of the worst failures ever put to screen - depending on who you ask, this film does everything right, or gets everything wrong. However, one thing that cannot be debated or disputed is the effect on world arthouse cinema since its release, and even more so in the age of home consumption where it has been largely rediscovered and reevaluated.

The film takes place in a painfully baroque hotel, swarming with wealthy families who all seem to know one another. During the festivities one night, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), claiming they met the year before, while the woman insists this never happened. The man attempts to woo her with further claims of their prior tenderness, but she continually contradicts his accounts. Not long after this, a second man (Sacha Pitoëff), possibly the woman’s husband, enters the picture and begins undermining the man’s attempts while asserting his charisma and authority. While the film’s plot is not too far removed from any melodrama you would experience watching soap operas of the day (Coronation Street premiered the year prior), the whole plot is explored through densely ambiguous flashbacks which dramatically shift the time and location of the story, often calling the reality of what is occurring on screen into question.

This heavy ambiguity is etched into every fiber of this film, with many sequences being built from dreamlike tracking shots and repetitive esoteric narration until we question everything that is happening, including our own interpretation of each event. By the film’s conclusion, nothing is certain, and that directly lead to the film’s harsh polarization with critics and audiences upon its release in 1961. Its temporal distortions and manipulations, coupled by the contradictory accounts from both Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, turned many people away, citing apparent pretentiousness and incomprehensibility for its own sake. However, the best explanation for the style and structure of Last Year at Marienbad was when Resnais was quoted in saying, “for me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes.”

Lauded and reviled, the film has remained in fierce debate ever since, and it is quite easy to recognize all of the reasons as to why - this film is equally full of over-wrought poetic license while it also serves as a huge step forward for filmmaking as a medium and a language. The film impresses as if an oil painting of European high society from the 18th Century had come to life; though while its figures walked and talked as people would, they are unable to recognize their own humanity, and thus equally unable to connect to one another. Though there are countless interpretations of the style and plot, Last Year at Marienbad is all of these things and none of them, which is why arthouse cinema is so fantastic, and so divisive. It is a film that enables you to see a piece of the puzzle and yet, even if you find a place to put that piece, you’ll never be able to see the whole picture, which can be understandably frustrating for audience searching for definable stories and characters. While people move with a near-robotic rigidness, delivering many wooden lines to one another, it somehow manages to make the film amorphous and murky - the more determined and definite the characters behave, the more alien their experiences seem to the viewer.

While seeing and understanding both sides of this debate, I would have to fall into the camp of those who support this film - it is equal parts gorgeous and pensive, bewitching and frustrating. While I would not go so far as to claim this film one of the greatest ever, it definitely stands as a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the Left Bank filmmakers, and is a fascinating dive into the subconscious art of filmmaking. And it is absolutely wonderful that Kino Lorber decided to pick this movie up, especially since the phenomenal version from the Criterion Collection remains out of print, and that this release is brimming with numerous supplemental features.

The print’s high-definition digital restoration, completed via StudioCanal, is accompanied by an uncompressed 2.0 monaural soundtrack and optional English subtitles for its French dialogue. The film comes with an audio commentary by noted film historian Tim Lucas, co-creator of the highly influential Video Watchdog trade magazine, which is buttressed by Last Year at Marienbad A to Z, a visual essay by James Quandt, programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque. Memories of Last Year at Marienbad, a Super-8 behind-the-scenes documentary, accompanies Toute la mémoire du monde, a 22-minute short documentary shot by Resnais on the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1957. The release is rounded out with an interview with New German Cinema director Volker Schlöndorff, and a booklet essay by Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins.

While the debate surrounding the movie’s recondite nature will continue to rage, especially as newer audiences discover it, this particular release is worth far more than the asking price, and should be in every cinephile’s collection for its historical value alone; but also because Last Year at Marienbad is a cinematic experience like no other.


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