Last Year at Marienbad (Blu-ray)
Directed by Alain Resnais
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 94 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: June 23, 2009
Review Date: June 20, 2009
One gets the feeling that director Alain Resnais had a joyous time making his legendary puzzler Last Year at Marienbad. The film is so full of creative filmmaking techniques that its inventive spark is palpable even today while watching it almost five decades after its original production. It’s notoriously enigmatic and resists easy analysis, but there are few films like it, and its very eccentricity gives it certain virtues missing from more easily assimilated movies.
In a gorgeously appointed baroque hotel, an attractive man (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a cooly reflective woman (Delphine Seyrig) and insists that they have not only met a year ago but that they had a romance and she promised after a year to go away with him. Expecting her to come with him now, the man is surprised by the woman when she denies ever having met him and insists that her companion (Sacha Pitoëff) would not react favorably to the strange man’s unwanted attentions toward her.
What does it all mean, this haunting foray into memory, possession, and persuasion? Who knows? Are they all dead, and this is hell? Is the man insane and carrying through with a plan with a total stranger whom he only thinks he knows? Is the woman an amnesiac caused by the man having raped her a year ago and thus has blocked the horrifying incident from her consciousness? Is the woman merely playing hard to get or perhaps using the stranger to make her companion jealous? All of these are possible interpretations of the basic skeleton of a story supplied by screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet. And in the end, the solutions of the story’s conundrums aren’t of much interest to the director (one gets the feeling he‘s having much too much fun filming sequences in mirrors or playing with the time and space continuum of the story to worry about mundane matters such as linear storytelling), and it wasn’t of much interest to this reviewer either knowing in advance that the story’s puzzles are insoluble. A much better approach to this amazing compilation of stylized performance, exquisite production design, and directorial flourish is simply to sit back and drink it all in in large, voluminous gulps. Resnais keeps his camera always on the go in a series of mind numbing slow tracking shots through the hotel’s long, expansive corridors and immense rooms, never losing sight of not only his film’s central characters but also with an eye on the intricate decors and the mannequin-like extras that populate the frames. And that mind-bending table game of wits that Pitoëff wages against Albertazzi using cards, matches, dominoes, or photographs keeps the viewer equally off balance, the confounding tone of the piece reflected in the games being played both on card tables and in the lives these characters are living.
Resnais has obviously directed the actors to remain remote and cool, detached from emotions that ordinary mortals would find bubbling unhealthily to the surface under otherwise similar circumstances. The three leads, none of whom have character names but are placed in cast lists as X (Albertazzi), A (Seyrig), and M (Pitoëff), all accomplish what their director has obviously wanted: they’re mostly blank slates on which the audience can write anything they wish to have the story mean depending on what each individual viewer wishes to be happening.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The grayscale is mostly beautifully rendered in this high definition transfer with superb black levels and whites that only bloom when the director wants them to (though the blooming effect at one point reveals some narrow banding) There’s also a bothersome hair that pops up through one scene right in the bottom middle of the frame. However, the extra resolution of high definition brings out details in the hotel decors that are stunning. The white subtitles are sometimes a bit pale and pose a bit of a problem when placed against the sunlit backgrounds though this only happens a couple of times. The film has been divided into 21 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 audio track (1.1 Mbps) has much more dynamism than one might expect from a mono track with the consistent organ music having real presence through much of the film. There are some instances of light hiss in the quietest scenes, but it’s not overly intrusive. And, of course, there is some slight distortion in the higher sound levels of the tracks owing to the limited fidelity of this almost fifty-year old movie.
Two theatrical trailers are combined into a trailer compilation section which runs 5 ¾ minutes in 1080i.
An audio interview with director Alain Resnais is quite informative as the legendary filmmaker discusses making the movie and his interpretation of its meaning. This runs 33 minutes and features a selection of stills that run behind the audio track as it plays.
“Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Last Year in Marienbad” is a 32 ½-minute featurette with many of the collaborators from the movie (production designer, cinematographer, assistant directors) describing various elements of the film’s production and its reception. It’s presented in 1080p.
Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a video critique of the movie citing its innovations, its place in the pantheon of French New Wave films, and its various interpretations in this 22 ½-minute feature in 1080p.
Two of Alain Resnais’ short documentaries are included on the disc. Toute la mémoire du monde about the National Library runs 21 minutes and is in 1080i while Le chant du styrene deals with styrene polymers which turns into a riot of shapes and colors and runs 13 ¾ minutes. It’s in 1080p.
The Criterion Blu-rays are including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The enclosed 46-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a terrific set of stills from the movie, a celebration of the film by author Mark Polizzotti, screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet’s marvelous introduction to his published screenplay, and film author Francois Thomas’ defense of Grillet’s views on the film and its director.
Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, Last Year at Marienbad has both its defenders and its detractors as do many great works of art. Serious students of the cinema would do well to visit or revisit the film especially in this beautiful looking high definition presentation. It’s intricate construction and resultant complexities always reward the open-minded and imaginative viewer.