Last Year at Marienbad
Not just a defining work of the French New Wave but one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art, Alain Resnais’ epochal Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad) has been puzzling appreciative viewers for decades. Written by radical master of the New Novel Alain Robbe-Grillet, this surreal fever dream, or nightmare, gorgeously fuses the past with the present in telling its ambiguous tale of a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) who may or may not have met a year ago, perhaps at the very same cathedral-like, mirror-filled château they now find themselves wandering. Unforgettable in both its confounding details (gilded ceilings, diabolical parlor games, a loaded gun) and haunting scope, Resnais’ investigation into the nature of memory is disturbing, romantic, and maybe even a ghost story.
The Criterion Collection presents Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad in a brand new 2-disc special edition, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on the set’s first dual-layer disc. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
I haven’t actually seen any of the previous DVD releases for the film (an Optimum R2 release, and an out of print Fox Lorber DVD are the only two I’m aware of at the moment) so I can’t make comparisons but the Criterion edition looks quite good. The print has next to nothing in the way of damage, looking almost perfect in this regard. Contrast looks quite good and suits the film’s look, which can jump from incredibly bright to incredibly dark in a blink. Blacks and whites are strong and gray levels look very good. Detail is pretty good overall, though there are some sequences that can come off a bit hazy. Otherwise the image does look fairly sharp. In the end another nice black and white transfer from Criterion.
Last Year at Marienbad comes with two audio tracks, both French, one a restored track, the other being the original “untouched” track.
The restored track is fairly good with a few minor issues. Overall audio quality is good, voices are strong, sounding natural. The score to the film uses an organ primarily and for a majority of the film it sounds good, but at moments where it reaches higher levels it can sound a little edgy.
I sampled the alternate original “unrestored” track and in all honesty I couldn’t find too much of a difference between it and the restored track. A note in the booklet indicates the original track was included because Resnais felt that restored tracks can lose something, whether it be detail or altered in some other way, and just wanted viewers to have the option. The quality of the original track is actually pretty good, some minor damage from what I could hear, and music could sound a little edgier as well, but I was actually fairly impressed with what I heard.
I’d probably just stick with the restored track but the original track isn’t in as rough shape as I would have expected.
Criterion’s two-disc set includes a small collection of supplements, though disappointingly they seem to be more technical in nature than analytical.
The first disc only presents the alternate “unrestored” audio track and then two theatrical trailers, the original trailer along with the Rialto re-release trailer. Both are presented together under their own chapter.
The remaining disc supplements are found on the second dual-layer disc.
First up is an audio interview with Alain Resnais that runs about 33-minutes. The audio is played over stills and a couple of clips. I liked it though I must admit a mild upset that Resnais chose to talk more about the film’s production rather than the film itself. He begins with how he had come to collaborate with Alain Robbe-Grillet on the film, the script process (which he let Robbe-Grillet pretty much do on his own, only suggesting a big change and then other changes to make it easier for him to film), inspirations from Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician comic and Hitchcock (they both loved Vertigo and the insertion of the Hitchcock cut out in the film was nothing deeper than a “wink” to the director.) He further gets into the details of the actual shoot and some gives some technical information on the camera work, settings and locations, and then gets into the film’s music (the only thing he and Robbe-Grillet apparently disagreed on.) Unfortunately he doesn’t really offer much in the way of analysis for his film other than talking about the structure and that he considers it a love story. I was hoping for more in this regard but I otherwise did enjoy the interview.
Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of The Last Year in Marienbad is a 33-minute making-of documentary. Like other “making-ofs” from Criterion it’s a talking-head piece, this one featuring assistant directors Jean Léon and Volker Schlöndorff, script girl Sylvette Baudrot, and production designer Jacques Saulnier. It’s an informative piece, though again is more on the technical side. There’s a lot of pre-production stuff such as casting and then a bit on location scouting, which was rather hard since they were looking for a certain look that French architecture wasn’t lending (Nymphenburg palace in Munich provided locations for most of the shoot.) There’s also a lot of information about the difficulty of the shoot since there were a lot of sequences that would literally cut from one place to another almost as if the characters were magically transported there. Baudrot was also having trouble keeping track of everything and had to make up a rather complex chart to keep track of the film’s “timeline” which she does display briefly here. There’s more details about the camera work and some of the complexities including avoiding the multitude of mirrors in a couple of scenes. The doc then continues on until the film’s premiere, and there’s even a few colour photographs from the set thrown in. It’s a decent documentary, expanding on some of the material Resnais covered.
The only real analytical aspect of this release would be the next feature, a 23-minute interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau. The text notes describe it as an analysis of the possible meanings of the film but unfortunately a good chunk of it repeats material covered in the other features, such as the collaboration between Resnais and Robbe-Grillet and its acceptance by critics. She does get into possible interpretations though disappointingly really only concentrates on one, which I won’t spoil. She unfortunately avoids some of the more “out-there” though fun interpretations I’ve come across like “everyone is dead”, “they’re in an alternate universe”, or “time is stuck in a loop”. The interpretation she focuses on does make sense, and it’s completely possible when compared to a comment Resnais made in his interview.
The final set of features are actually rather cool. They’re a couple of short documentaries by the director.
The first documentary is entitled Toute la mémoire du monde a 21-minute black and white documentary by Resnais about the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is a wonderfully put together, lovely, and completely fascinating piece that covers the complex inner-workings of the library and its cataloguing system in a truly fantastic visual way. The second documentary is a 13-minute colour piece called Le chant du styrène, which is a rather bright, almost poetic documentary that starts with a simple plastic bowl and then works its way back to see all the work that went into bringing forth its existence (going all the way back to how the plastics that went into it are manufactured.) Both are rather wonderful pieces displaying Resnais’ early work.
Closing off the set a 44-page booklet. It includes a decent essay on the film by Mark Polizzotti, and then a reprint of a piece by Alain Robbe-Grillet where the author talks about the collaboration with Resnais that in the end states that Robbe-Grillet found the experience to be an absolute joy, though a preface to the piece suggests a lot of it is probably fiction. Closing off the booklet is another essay, this one by François Thomas and it acts as a sort of rebuttal to the longer Robbe-Grillet piece, pointing out some contradictions to his statements and pulls quotes from other interviews with him that suggest he wasn’t all that happy with Resnais or at least didn’t share his view on what the film should be. There’s also a note from Resnais on why he included two French audio tracks on this release. In all it’s a great little booklet.
That unfortunately covers it. It’s a nice set (and a nice looking one; the packaging is pretty sharp) but I guess I was hoping for more analysis on the film itself, maybe even at least in a commentary, which I’m shocked Criterion didn’t bother with. It’s such a wonderful, yet frustratingly bizarre film (and in my opinion all the more fun because of that) and has been written about so much I guess I expected more in this regard.
The transfer is quite nice and serves the film well and I kind of liked the inclusion of two audio tracks, though I’d probably just stick with the restored track. And while the supplements are interesting, with my favourite features being the two Resnais documentaries and the included booklet, I admit I still have no idea what this film is really about (shamelessly) and I was hoping for a more scholarly “film school” approach of the film or maybe some fun with the interpretations of it. But despite this I do love the set and give it a healthy recommendation.