Last Year at Marienbad

Is The Seventh Seal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

You can watch The Seventh Seal on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). 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.

Is Last Year at Marienbad the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

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.