‘Last Year at Marienbad’ – a mysterious romance on Criterion Channel and free on Kanopy and Hoopla

The very definition of “French art cinema,” Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (France, 1961), defies audience identification, narrative clarity, even any assurance that anything we see is “real” in any sense.

Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic, lost in time and space. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as “X” in the credits, tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, “A” (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. He persists. She resists. Scenes shift through time and space and perhaps reality.

It could be a ghost story (the church organ score is appropriately eerie and ominous) in a European castle, the foreign equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Or it could be film of memory, or perhaps dreams of a wished-for past, filled with flashbacks/memories/stories, but which are themselves full of elisions and gaps and even, at times, contradictory. Even in the imagery is unreal: a camera creeping through the luxurious hallways and ballrooms of a hotel absent any human presence, guests frozen in place in the elegant gardens as their shadows defy nature, actors positioned in space rather than directed, like enchanted statues to spitting out fragments of meaningless conversation.

It’s strange and surreal, full of odd humor and games (thanks to the original screenplay by “nouvelle romain” novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet), the most elaborate of which is the very tale that centers the narrative. Did something happen last year at Marienbad (or Friedriksbaad or whatever lavish castle vacation spot was in fashion that year)? Or is it simply an elaborate tale, a seductive promise cutting through the stifling existence of social decorum?

For all the abstraction, it’s a compelling film, a tantalizing mystery and a work of cinema as intricately faceted as a jewel. The characters betray no emotion, or at least seem not to, yet there is palpable tension behind the riveting gaze of Giorgio Albertazzi’s X. In one moment, A breaks the spell of emotional detachment by allowing a tear to fall down her cheek. Rather than providing answers, it merely makes the enigma richer for the viewer, who ultimately must draw their own conclusions to the story they’ve seen play out on screen. Which is exactly what the filmmakers intended.

The elegant, enchanting cinematography is by Sacha Vierny and Sacha Pitoëff costars.

It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earned an Oscar nomination for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s original screenplay.

In black and white, French with English subtitles

Read more at Turner Classic Movies

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Last Year at Marienbad (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Last Year at Marienbad (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases from the Criterion Collection features the original, unrestored soundtrack (at the director’s insistence) along with the remastered, cleaned-up version, plus the original half-hour documentary “Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad,” a new, generous 33-minute audio-only interview with Alain Resnais and two early the short documentaries by Resnais: Toute la memoire du Monde and Le Chant du Styrene.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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