Forget Who’s Your Favorite Beatle, or Who’s Your Favorite Monkee, or even Who’s Your Favorite Little Rascal (for me, it’s Wheezer, God save him) — if you ask someone What’s Your Favorite French New Wave Landmark and they say Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), you’d better start a endless tab for cocktails, hunker down for a long and glorious night of gamesmanship and bedevilment, and forget about tomorrow. Famous as the über-art film openly mocked by Pauline Kael and the authors of “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time,” Resnais’ saturnine masterpiece remains exactly the film experience it was originally intended to be: a dream inside a puzzle inside a story that never actually takes place. Is there a better, more eloquent way to define movies?
Cavils are absurd, because “Marienbad” so obviously avoids being a “normal” movie in every frame. On the most fundamental level, it’s a ravishing formal achievement, patrolling in drunken, swoony slow-motion through the Neoclassical hallways, ballrooms and elaborate gardens of an apparently infinite hotel-palace, a stomach-churning, cobbled-together location that’s the film’s most vivid character (decadent but hollow), and a fantastically expressive statement about wealth, class, narcissism and the dying European aristocracy. (Kael lovingly slammed the film as a “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe party.”)
Resnais began as a liberal documentarian, and the architectural hyperbole of “Marienbad” is no accident. But the core of the film is, of course, more mysterious than that: it’s an exercise, or a triathlon, on the very slipperiness of narrative, and therefore of memory. Or vice-versa. Within this cavernous maze of ornate filigree and looming artworks, the comatose guests stalk or sometimes just stand, and we follow one such tuxedoed zombie (Giorgio Albertazzi) as he attempts to make a woman (Delphine Seyrig) remember that they had, in fact, met and engaged in a romance the previous year, maybe in Marienbad, maybe here. He spins yarns and speculations like a talkative Beckett character, she toys with him, plays along, he doubts his memories, moments and slices of dialogue repeat themselves, and the film never establishes anything “happening” in the present tense — just a rumored sense of a past that might never have been.
Resnais’ movie (written and conceived by nouveau roman pope Alain Robbe-Grillet) is both a hypnotic trance to endure and a text intended to be interpreted in an infinite variety of ways; it was the latter aspect that made the movie both spectacularly popular back in a more adventurous filmgoing age and vulnerable to lowbrow attack. But think of Beckett and Calvino and Sartre, and you get closer to the film’s accomplishment; the great existentialist questions on hand are easy to scoff at, but are also still harrowingly difficult to answer. What allowed the movie to rock bourgeois worlds in the early ’60s (the ample Criterion supplements document the film’s reception as attentively as its production) was its daring evacuation of narrative orthodoxy, asking us to wonder if anything in the film is “real” (such a silly question, but one that still drives viewers nuts), and to understand meta-characters who seem to be talking about “now” as if it already happened, or has already been imagined, and may already be forgotten.