Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Florian Adler

April 19, 2023

The Un-Understandability of ‘Last Year at Marienbad’

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Cornell Cinema recently showed the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, a French film about an old hotel populated by wealthy guests. It focuses on an unnamed man, the narrator, who aggressively insists that he had met the female protagonist, an unnamed woman, one year ago and she promised to give him an answer as to whether or not they could be in a relationship. She, however, has no memory of ever meeting him. Most of the movie consists of the man trying to convince her that his memory is accurate and hers is inaccurate. He wants her to leave the second unnamed male character who may or may not be her husband, which, at the end of the movie, she does.

The opening scene perfectly sets up the tone of the movie: Suspenseful, confusing and unsatisfying. The narrator mumbles about the empty hallways, the ornate decorations and the mirrored walls of the castle-like hotel in which the movie takes place. Creepy organ music drowns out his words, which would be almost incomprehensible without subtitles. Somehow both loud and quiet at once, the speech goes on just long enough to wonder if he’s repeating himself. The four minute scene tested my attention span, as did the remaining hour and a half of the movie.

Within the walls of the hotel, the passage of time is not clearly defined. The lack of progression makes it difficult to gauge how far into the movie you are or when the resolution will come, though it never really does. The story progresses only through gradual shifts of memory as the narrator insists over and over again that the woman promised to give him an answer as to whether or not she could love him. Through abrasive jump cuts, we are transported between the conversation happening in real time and the scene of his memory, making it difficult to get your bearings in one setting or the other. 

The lack of plot, repetitive music and strange cinematic style disorient the viewer and keep them confused throughout the entire film. Several times, I experienced déjà vu hearing the same conversation repeated slightly differently, in a different room of the hotel, with new outfits or provoking a new reaction. The man’s voice puts us into a sort of hypnosis that works both in the universe of the movie and outside it, convincing both the female protagonist and the audience that the two had actually met and she really was in love with him. 

The woman asks the narrator: “What is your name?” He responds: “As you know, it doesn’t matter.” Time and space don’t seem to matter, either, as the neverending conversation between the two jumps abruptly from place to place through ambiguous time. So, what elements of the story do matter? 

The violence of the narrator’s persistence is magnified by the unabating organ music. Yet, the facial expressions and tone are absolutely void of emotion. “Your life is a shadow and you wait for me to follow. Leave me alone, leave me alone,” the woman repeats, straight-faced. Paradoxically, it’s only after she runs outside the hotel for the first time, which I would have associated with breaking the spell he had on her, that she starts to emote. Her feelings shift from fear to fondness. By the end of the movie, she decides to flee the hotel with him.

The movie cycles through a few segments, switching just in time to keep my attention. A second important scene that reappears periodically is a game played by the bot-like guests at the hotel. It involves four rows of cards, matchsticks or photographs — it doesn’t matter which — and the rules of the game are unclear. The guests hypothesize that they must grab an even number of sticks. The first player always wins. But, no matter how many times it is played, the rules are ambiguous. The movie operates similarly: Every principle concerning time and space in this dream-like world fell apart as I tried to work them out. 

The film is somehow very cohesive, each element working in tandem. Even during moments of silence, when the organ music isn’t playing, its anxiety-inducing quality lingers. One of the first scenes, before the central conflict is introduced, shows the ending of a strange play wherein a woman tells a man that her husband is gone and she can finally be with him. The end of the film will eventually mimic this. The director brings order to the chaos he created in a world where nothing makes sense.

The most prominent sensation as I watched the movie was frustration, which dissolved only when I stopped trying to get it. Did or didn’t the unnamed woman meet the unnamed man a year ago? Does she love him or doesn’t she? Which scenes are happening in real time and which are memories? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Does a film need to be understood to be enjoyed?

I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone impatient, like myself. But, if you have the attention span for it, Last Year at Marienbad tests the limits of what a movie can accomplish when you can’t trust the filmmaker to create a comprehensible storyline. 

Rachel Cannata is a sophomore in the Hotel School. She can be reached at [email protected]