The terminology generated within film criticism to adequately describe, analyze, and evaluate a film remain in perpetual uncertainty since new formulations of motion picture art develop with every succeeding generation. The set of critical assumptions and theories that can accommodate familiar film narrative structures are challenged by films whose characteristics present an undefined realm of film art that cannot be dissected by the existing nomenclature. Transitional films that reside in the liminal space between what can be traditionally comprehended and what lies beyond the cinematic horizon are invariably met with polarizing responses. Perhaps the most infamous example of a film destabilizing the foundations of film art and film criticism is Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
The movie centers on two guests staying in what is described as an “enormous, luxurious, baroque, lugubrious hotel”; a man who insists they had shared a love affair a year before at another hotel, and a married woman who insists she has no memory of such a relationship ever existing. The story contains the mechanics and visual trappings of a typical drama but lacks any narrative comprehensibility. The obscure motives and opaque characters of the film present the complexity of memory and the subjectivity of human consciousness but eschew arriving at any conclusion. Marienbad instead deals with the chimera that is ‘last year’, grappling with the contradictory interactions of the past and the present and the impossibility of objectivity in memory. Each sequence of the two interacting could be a memory of the year prior or a mere visualized fantasy of the man, as his multitudinous attempts to place the details of their time together create a repetition of the same events in different locations. This further enshrouds the film in an ambiguity of temporal and spatial dimensions, as the repetitiousness of the dialogue and scenes confound any one strand of causality, instead inheriting the irrational compositional logic of a dream.
The atmosphere of the film is decidedly oneiric, using tactics of defamiliarization to create uncanny tableaus and compositions. The subject of the visual estrangement is the utter decadence of the bourgeois, whose presence in the neverending hallways, salons, and gardens of the hotel resembles dead souls suspended in limbo. The spiritually desiccated throngs of the joyless elite stand in mannequin-stillness, furnishing the background of the scenes and assuming a symbolic function of the hotel’s soulless vacuity.
The exception to the unidentifiable hotel-goers is a gaunt man who may or may not be the woman’s husband. He, the potential husband, plays a variant of the mathematical strategy game nim with the other hotel patrons, and since he wins every game the other patrons suspect that their losing is an inevitability. When not playing the potential husband and the woman share scenes that suggest some formal relationship. The bachelor believes the woman denies their shared past for the sake of her marriage, but that belief is challenged when he vaguely recalls fleeting fragments of having forced himself on her the year prior, a possibility that he tries desperately to blot out. Now the man’s obsessiveness can be interpreted as predatory, and the woman’s amnesia takes on the possibility of suppressing a past trauma, adding a new and dire dimension to an already inscrutable set of plausibilities.
The illusion of ‘solving’ the past is analogous to the unwinnable game of nim, in which all strategies are futile and unfailingly lead nowhere. As such, her denial of all memory is her method of subverting that unwinnable search for truth by not playing at all, refusing the possibility of any memory’s plausibility and actuality. Her choice to spiral into the black void of absolute uncertainty creates a Schrodinger’s dilemma: the two had met last year and they had not, they shared a love affair together and she was raped, she wants to remain with her husband and she wants to escape him. Thus verity and falsehood become more tools of the subjective mind to try to understand reality—nothing is certain and anything is possible. By embracing incomprehensibility as a fundamental law, Last Year at Marienbad elevates the aesthetic impressions above meaning and invites a new understanding of art as serving a faculty of the mind and spirit incompatible with knowledge.