From a modern point of view, many think of controversial films as being an affront to our tolerance of violence and sexuality or something political in nature. But there was once a time when films stirred controversy simply by experimenting with new ideas and bold approaches to the filmmaking process. The French New Wave (La nouvelle vague) of the late 1950s and 60s was one such movement of filmmaking which created debate and ignited discussion on the use of various techniques. Starting with Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows' (1959) and Godard's 'Breathless' (1960), these young auteurs deliberately rejected the structure and form of traditional cinema in favor of exploring novel and innovative "policies" to narrative and the visual style of film.
Amidst this environment of experimentation, Alain Resnais ('Hiroshima Mon Amour') created what is arguably the most daring and audacious film ever made, or at least, the first film to truly push our understanding of what a film should be. With its beautifully photographed imagery of a privileged resort, filled with wealthy patrons dressed in tuxedos and silky gowns, 'Last Year at Marienbad' is at once strangely ominous and perplexingly evocative in its depiction of simple conversations between strangers. But the film also leaves an impression of something more meaningful or some sort of eloquent insight into the human condition while at the same time completely denying any absurd notions. Still, there is something utterly captivating about Resnais' experiment which continues to mesmerize viewers.
In the end, 'Marienbad' is a truly elegant masterpiece of intentional self-contradiction, a richly complex labyrinth of possibilities which insists on audience involvement while also reinforcing the gap between art object and spectator. The hauntingly poetic visuals demand further investigation of their cryptic intent and significance, but the endless discussions generated ultimately go nowhere in this maze. It is a collaborative product by radical novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet (La Jalousie) and Alain Resnais, and it ignores all the previously established conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. It does more so than any other film before it. There is no linear coherent storyline, no accessible sense of space and time, and no clear protagonist. Though there is a character who narrates events as they occur.
At its core, 'Marienbad' follows two would-be, nameless lovers walking the immense halls and the beautifully-designed gardens of a baroque château. An unnamed stranger "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches an unidentified woman "A" (Delphine Seyrig) and tries to convince her they had an affair the previous year. According to the man, they agreed to unite the following summer and escape the watchful eye of her mysterious escort "M" (Sacha Pitoëff). She has no recollection of any such affair or of the brazen stranger, but "X" refuses to give up and continues to pursue her. Eventually, and through lovely photography that is just as calculatedly organized as it is incoherently disorganized, the man persuades her with his words, which somehow have the power to create a past that merges with the present.
As the film progresses, the viewer is challenged with its dream-like environment (known as "oneiric") to search for meaning, to constantly question what is reality and truth. Even as "X" continues to narrate their last meeting, inconsistencies within his story suddenly arise, and he, too, wonders the accuracy of his tale. They fell in love at "Karlstadt, Marienbad, or Baden-Salsa. Or even here in this salon." The film came just in time at the early formation of post-structuralism, meaning that it participates, unbeknownst to the filmmakers at the time, with the view that an art object's subjectivity is solely based on the interpretation of its spectator. As such, 'Last Year at Marienbad' welcomes all opinions while also rejecting all of them once the viewer delves deeper.
It is a profoundly complicated riddle without an immediate answer, a self-contradiction that works tremendously well because Resnais did it perfectly and brilliantly. The film even seems to evoke one of Descartes' treatises on the duality of mind and matter. In fact, "X" almost serves as the ideal Cartesian threat to "A"'s sense of reality. He is the site of instability and uncertainty to her oppressive existence, represented by the stifling nature of the baroque architecture surrounding "A". Resnais even goes so far as to always photograph her while enclosed by perfect frames: windows, doors, mirrors, etc. Unfortunately, the moment this becomes a possibility, other ideas come to the surface with numerous allusions which hint at 'Marienbad' existing forever in its own temporal/spatial plane.
The film is a frustrating and maddening experience as it challenges all previous thoughts of film narrative and structure. Its power and immense influence can still be seen today, however, continuously parodied and caricaturized as the epitome of art house elitism. Or even worse, as the fitting stereotype of every film student's thesis project. In spite of all that, 'Last Year at Marienbad' remains the height of experimental filmmaking and the quintessential extreme of European art cinema, remembered always as a masterstroke of beauty.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Last Year at Marienbad' arrives courtesy of The Criterion Collection with a cardboard slipcover and a very minimal but elegant cover design. The package includes a 44-page booklet containing information about the transfer and a special note from Alain Resnais. It also features an essay by Mark Polizzotti entitled "Which Year at Where?", Alain Robbe-Grillet's introduction to the published screenplay, "So Close, So Far Away: Alain Robbe-Grillet and Last Year at Marienbad", and an afterword by François Thomas titled "The Myth of 'Perfect Harmony'".
According to the booklet included in the Blu-ray package, this high-def transfer was supervised and approved by Alain Resnais using the latest equipment to only clean up the picture. The results are absolutely astounding and well worth the effort put into it. Retaining its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the AVC MPEG-4 encode is a drastic improvement to previous presentations, giving cinema enthusiasts the opportunity to watch Resnais' masterpiece as if for the first time.
Immediately noticeable is the transfer's excellent clarity and resolution, allowing for much of the beautiful photography to be the main focal point. Many of the lovely architectural nuances found within these German palaces are clearly visible and exquisitely gorgeous to look at, adding to the narrative's dream-like nature. Other random fine details, no matter how small, are resolute and sharply well-defined where viewers can make out the intricate and elaborate design of the baroque fashion from a distance. Even in close-ups, facial complexions possess lovely and lifelike texture that will impress those familiar with earlier versions.
Brightness levels are superb and lush, rendering lavishly deep blacks that are inky rich and profound. The image displays remarkably dynamic gradations which provide it with a convincing and perceptible depth of field. Contrast, too, is in magnificent condition and pitch-perfect, showing crisp, clean whites that never bloom or overpower the image even at its most intense and brilliant moments. The thin veil of grain is noticeable and consistent, giving 'Marienbad' an appreciable cinematic quality which makes this the best presentation ever of Resnais' classic film.
As is also mentioned in the booklet, Resnais insisted that the unrestored monaural soundtrack be included with the remastered version. For purists, this is a great option, as the only difference between the two tracks are the random clicks, crackles and hisses normally accompanying older 35mm prints. It's a pleasant listen for those wanting to revisit this work of art as it was originally heard.
On the other hand, the uncompressed PCM soundtrack is equally impressive, despite being restricted to the center speaker. 'Marienbad' is a film purely driven by imagery and aesthetics, but the complementary music and dialogue play an important role to at least establish a subtle form of development and logical coherence. Character interaction and vocalization is simply marvelous and well balanced with clear, distinct tonal differences within each emotion emitted by the actors. Regardless of its one-channel presentation, the lossless mix exhibits a terrific acoustical presence and strong fidelity that somehow engages viewers to be absorbed by the drama.
The only notable concern is just before the film's denouement, when the music reached some very high frequencies, and the track couldn't perfectly maintain its sharp clarity. However, it is a minor issue for an otherwise wonderful soundtrack to the magnum opus of the French New Wave.
Criterion corrects the mistakes of the previous DVD release from Fox Lorber, not only with incredible video and audio but also in the supplemental department. Keeping with the tradition of providing cinema enthusiasts with the very best available packages, the studio releases 'Last Year at Marienbad' with a highly enjoyable and strong collection of bonus material fans will surely enjoy.
The controversial masterpiece from director Alain Resnais and radical novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet continues to absorb and captivate with its affront to film narrative and its mesmerizing photography. Since its original theatrical release, 'Last Year at Marienbad' has evolved into the embodiment of the French New Wave movement and the quintessential film of European art cinema. The Criterion Collection releases this stunning work of art on Blu-ray with a gorgeous audio and video presentation and a healthy package of supplements. This is a must-own for fans of experimental filmmaking and highly recommended for movie lovers.