Last Year at Marienbad is a film that can “resists comprehension” (Gregory Reihman, 2014). It is easy enough to see why after viewing Marienbad: its incoherent structure and illogical plot, combined with dreamlike camerawork and visual effects, seem to differentiate it from a comprehensible reality that we are used to understanding. But though Marienbad may resist, comprehension and interpretation are not impossible. As Jeremy Shapiro notes, “the film forces the viewer to actively construct its meaning in order to have a coherent or fulfilled aesthetic experience” (Shapiro, 2000). The film’s emphasis on the multiple, and the distinct plot direction, make it a critique on the disparity between the structure of our thought and the structure of real life.
It is clear from early on that Marienbad is a strange film, beginning with an extended journey through the hotel setting of the story, accompanied by crunchy organ notes and a narration offering an analysis of human memory. But memories themselves are only interpretations; when you retrieve them, they are only thoughts. Thoughts are the real crux of Marienbad’s subject, as Renais specifically stated that he intended to create a film that further explored the idea of thought. Surrealism itself is supposed to explore the boundary between thought and reality, and that is exactly what Renais’ film does.
The film follows X, A and M in a strange love triangle that appears to be an tangled mess of different stories. It is entirely unclear from the narrative of the film whether X and A have ever met before, whether they have slept together, or even whether M has really killed A. The only consistency threaded through the film is X’s insistence that they have met before, last year at Marienbad; the only steady propulsion through the series of scenes is X’s desire for A to leave with him once and for all. In what should be a stereotypical ending, A does leave with X in the end- though the journey to the ending was so vague, so fraught with inconsistency, that it doesn’t feel stereotypical at all.
The film seems to follow X’s thought patterns as he envisions each and every possible scenario that could occur should he talk to A. The only truth we seem to grant in the film is X’s desire for A to leave with him, and it is this desire we see played out on screen- scenes of rejection, scenes of reluctant acceptance, a scene where A’s supposed husband kills her out of jealousy -until finally we reach the scene where A leaves her husband and departs with X. The movie is a literal journey through X’s mind as he imagines these scenario’s in his head, though it also seems juxtaposed with real scenes that occur in the hotel, blending the reality of X’s outside world and the one he creates within his head.
It is this blending that makes the film so confusing, as its impossible to tell the difference between any of X’s fantasies and what might have actually occurred in the real world, as he does not stop to differentiate for us. But thought never stops either, an effect that Renais recreates not only in the blurred plot but also in elongated scenes shot in one take. Since it does seem to so neatly reflect thought, the nature of Marienbad should be more accessible to us, but as noted by Shapiro: “the narrative and temporal conventions of standard ‘Hollywood’ films are so fundamental to the prescribed consciousness and ideology of advanced industrial society that the ‘speculative eye’ necessary for a film such as Marienbad is not easily to be found.” While we are used to the irrational nature of our own thoughts, we are ingrained with a different set of rules in deciphering what is presented to us onscreen.
Surely Renais knew Marienbad would be confusing; he made it that way to emphasize the discrepancy between our thoughts and reality we tend to not notice. If our thoughts do not match one to one with reality, which is more important? The audience’s search for truth in Marienbad seems to show how desperately we need to know what actually happened, but its elusiveness is a purposeful direction taken by Renais in order to offer his own opinion, that perhaps we often care too much about an authentic reality instead of the reality we can create for ourselves. Though the film ends with what should be viewed as a happy ending, we as an audience are unsatisfied, because it is unclear if the ending actually occurred in reality or merely in X’s head. But to Renais, it does not matter what really happened at the hotel that night. Much more importantly is our intimate journey with X through his thoughts. And what should it matter if the thoughts aren’t real? If we can’t tell the difference (and it seems we can’t), then perhaps- as Renais seems to be arguing -reality ceasing to matter when we believe in something else. Interestingly, this means his movie is critiquing a feeling that it itself creates in us: the feeling of disappoint, of discontentment, of dissatisfaction; the feeling of not knowing what really happened. But we’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. And Renais would say that’s alright.