Last Thursday, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center held a showing of Alan Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad as part of its The Eternal Return series. The movie is different from most in that it presents its plot in a confusing tangle of narrated flashbacks, present scenes, and disorienting shifts in time and location. Adding to the perplexity is the fact that the movie is spoken entirely in French, with English subtitles at the bottom. As first, I didn’t like this at all, as it meant I had to look away from the characters to see what they were saying, but by the end of the movie I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
The film seems to revolve around three main characters, though their names are never mentioned (in fact, the only name mentioned throughout the entirety of the film is Frank, and I’m pretty sure he never actually showed up). These main characters are one woman and two men: One dark, gaunt, and tall; the other more of an average height, with brownish hair.
The dark one is the woman’s lover? Husband? Something like that; it was never made clear besides the fact that he called her “my lost love” (once). He is also obsessed with a game involving any kind of object like cards, dominoes, toothpicks, or what have you. The objects are laid out in four rows: one of seven, one of five, one of three, and one of one. Two players alternate turns taking as many objects as they want, but only from one row. The person who takes the last object loses. Through the movie this man plays the game several times—a few against the shorter man—and never loses.
The shorter man is obsessed with the woman and incessantly attempts to get her to remember him despite her constant denials of knowing him. He tells her of several times that they had met, in a garden, and a hotel, narrating each scene with near eidetic precision. However, as the movie goes on, he recalls the scenes with less and less clarity. It is clear from these jumbled flashbacks that he and the woman had indeed been growing close, but that she was unwilling to leave the gaunt man. At some point, she asked for a year’s time and promised she would run away with the shorter man afterwards. The year later is presumably the present in the movie.
The woman, for her part, seems nearly bipolar in her vacillations between remembering the shorter man and wanting nothing to do with him. She goes back and forth, now wanting to leave with him, now wanting him to go away. Honestly, I found her rather annoying. I wanted to yell at her to just choose one already!
Overall, however, I enjoyed the film. While I was watching I was confused as to what was happening a lot, but at the end I felt that I had more of an understanding of what had gone on. It’s definitely a movie that requires two or three viewings to completely understand, such as The Prestige, but don’t let that discourage you from checking it out if you get the chance.