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In 2009, critic John Powers wrote, for my money, the best introduction possible to the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. He said he was “bored and baffled” by it and that it was “art cinema with a vengeance.” In recalling a conversation he had after it seeing it, he asked a question that really is such a smart way to phrase an exercise that comes up a lot when you watch “classic” film: “can something be great if it’s not any good?”
Last Year at Marienbad is a mess. It’s tremendously boring and feels very long despite being a short experience. Roger Ebert called it “a deliberate, artificial artistic construction” but says it’s possible to be bored when watching it. He listed it among his list of greatest films list but gave a review that makes it seem like he doesn’t seem to like it that much.
Just about all critical discourse I read follows Powers and Ebert in calling this a critical piece of cinema history and a true accomplishment but also a bore and, frankly, a not very good movie. Why and how have we constructed a world where it does not matter if your piece of art is entertaining? I will confess to liking a lot of movies that are not enjoyable (Magnolia is one of my favorites but I definitely ruined a party with it once) but there has to be something said for a baseline of “good,” right? We should care first if it’s a positive experience, if not also a pleasant one, to watch your film. You can certainly make art on top of that and you really should try, most of the time, but it should be a movie first.
There are three characters in Last Year at Marienbad. They are not named, but are traditionally referred to by single letters, though not in the film itself. X is a man who tells Y, a woman, that they met last year, possibly at Marienbad. Possibility is the theme, as Y does not believe they’ve ever met, but X is insistent. It is not clear who is correct, though X has a photograph of Y that complicates her story. M, who may or may not be her husband, may or may not believe either of them, and may or may not interfere as X tries to pursue Y.
The one positive thing I’ll say is that this is a bold choice. Nothing officially happens here, as every character is shown doing some things and not doing others, sometimes within stories. When X details what happened last year, at Marienbad, we see Y doing those things. This doesn’t mean it happened, but it also doesn’t mean it didn’t. Director Alain Resnais says it’s critical that you believe this did happen and seems to want you to think about why she would say that it didn’t. Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet says it didn’t happen and seems to say the director is tricking you. The inconsistency is part of all of this, as the text itself doesn’t answer the question. The trailer for the film at the time leans into this as a mystery for the viewer to solve, going so far as to say that you get to be a writer of the film yourself. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure Movie, which is to say that it is barely a narrative. Arguably it’s not even a narrative, as every version of the story is contradicted and subverted.
Powers’ review is scathing, but it concludes by saying this is something you have to experience for yourself. I don’t know if that’s true. If this sounds frustrating and silly to you, then you know already that you don’t need to see it. If you’re even slightly interested in a complex experience that honestly doesn’t pay off for everyone, then you do. A lot of care was put into this film, even if it’s not always in service of an experience you can recommend. The characters move through a haunting castle filled with background characters who mostly stand perfectly still and stare. It’s immersive despite being so stylized. It’s remarkable, in a way, but I kept expecting something to happen. Nothing happens.
I don’t think this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, obviously, and it’s a classic for a reason. I’d much rather be frustrated by an art film than watch an actual bad movie, but I hope to not watch any bad movies for this series. Last Year at Marienbad is an oddity because nothing that makes a movie stand out is present. The performances aren’t necessarily memorable. The visuals are interesting but repeat over and over. The dialogue is often meaningless, when present at all. It’s all about the ultimate question of if the titular event happened or not, wrapped up in the fact that you aren’t even intended to get an answer.
That piece is what keeps me from suggesting you watch it. When you watch a great film with a question at the center, you are expected to form an opinion that changes your view of what you saw. That will happen here. You may believe this couple met last year and that this woman, deliberately or not, is blocking the memory. You may believe they didn’t and this is his way of hitting on her. You may believe she is married to the tall, serious man who appears to be her husband or you may believe he has kidnapped her or otherwise has control over her. You may find whatever conclusion you draw to be enough for you, but I did not. It all comes down to that question, which is possible to be answered in the affirmative. I just couldn’t get there, but I think it’s interesting that even for people who could, they still felt the need to acknowledge, even in a list of the greatest films of all time, that this one is a tough one.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Judas and the Black Messiah is a great experience with a message worth hearing. People who take issue with it don’t like that it’s a story told through the lens of a betrayal, but I’m always fascinated at that kind of critique. It’s fair to not like what a movie chose to do, but that’s different than discussing what it actually did. Last Year at Marienbad does what the writer and director intended. I don’t like that, but it makes Ebert’s list because of execution, not intention.
Is it the best movie of all time? No. I think Husbands is a more compelling film to watch but might be the only movie I’ve watched for this series I enjoyed less than this one. I’m glad I saw it and I think the idea of a story that alternatively may or may not be true is obviously interesting, but Persona asks similar questions within an actual story. You walk away from Persona with some big questions and a sense that potentially what you just saw was not entirely real, but you have so much more to unpack. A movie does not have to be a pleasant experience to be worth your time, but it really ought to try to be a movie.
You can watch Last Year at Marienbad on Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.