Last Year at Marienbad is a rumination on an affair. Twelve months before, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) met A (Delphine Seyrig) and the two had an affair--or so he says and so she denies. The "plot" of the film is X trying to get her to admit to what happened. They had made an agreement to meet after the year was up, so that she could remove herself from her husband, M (Sacha Pitoeff). The film is structured as a string of elliptical, poetic remembrances, the same event revisited in multiple ways, the setting and the circumstance changing. The director, Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), is attempting to replicate the variables of memory and the flickering flames of passion. A romance may be alive for the man in one way, but alive for the woman in a completely different way, and fear of the future will alter its existence even further.
So it goes, over and over, M's insistence, A's denial, an off-hand admittance, a retreat. All the while, M circles the room, looking like a holdover from Dr. Frankenstein's lab, luring other men, including X, into a card game they can never hope to win. The game is another series of patterns, a sequence of cards displayed the same way each time, removed in a different order, but always with the same result.
Some viewers are going to find Last Year at Marienbad maddening, particularly the first time they see it. The screenplay is by experimental French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose book Jealousy used similar tactics to show a suspicious husband driving himself insane, and I so hated it when it was assigned to me in my first semester of college I've never read another of the man's books. Marienbad will require less of your time, but the film almost demands more patience and concentration, because Resnais, working with director of photography Sacha Vierny and art director Jacques Saulnier, has created such a gorgeous film, it's hard not to stop paying attention to what is happening and just stare. (Special mention must also be given to editor Henri Colpi, because Marienbad is the kind of picture that most likely really came alive in the cutting room.)
Shot at various locations in Bavaria, the opulent estates and posh interiors used for X and A's wanderings are tremendous. More distracting, however, is Delphine Seyrig. Outfitted in gowns from Chanel, she is one of the most dazzling women to ever appear on a movie screen. In some scenes, she wears a dress made entirely of feathers that is to drool over. With her inky black hair and pale skin, Seyrig is practically otherworldly. Though on the surface she must portray a chilly demeanor, her lies are apparent in her face and tentative movements. There seems little debate that A is the woman X is looking for. If she's not, if he really is mistaken, then she surely wishes he wasn't. If his tale is invented, then the variations are merely bait in a fishing expedition. Concoct enough scenarios, and maybe she'll agree to one of them.