I’ve encountered many who claim to respect, albeit not necessarily enjoy, Alain Resnais’s seminal classic Last Year at Marienbad. Their reasons vary but ultimately their thoughts move similarly. ‘Yea, it sure is great but it sure is boring,’ one said. ‘I admire the cinematography, if only there was a more engaging story,’ said another. I’m not here to convince anyone of his subjective likes or dislikes, and nor am I to say what the film is not—boring, slow-moving, isolating. Viewers can make up their own minds. And I suppose my opinion resides somewhere in between. In fact, Last Year at Marienbad is not only a great film, but also one that has been highly influential. There really is nothing like it.
The tale takes place at a French chateau, where people move about quietly or they don’t move at all. Decorative ceilings are every bit as intricate as they are distant. Outside, the landscaping is so perfect that from a distance the humans look like trees, or vice versa. And this is where the separation exists. It is not merely humans, but ‘the’ humans that populate this film. We witness them, barely moving as they stand around. They appear rich, elegant, and suffering from an eternal ennui. No one has a name. If an alien were to watch, it might believe that this is what humans are like—disengaged and preoccupied with the past. The narrator gives a clue, as he speaks in a low murmur in second person. But to whom is he speaking? […]