People either hate or love this hypnotic 1961 movie — there is no middle ground. It has long been regarded by some as the highest of high art, by others as the most pretentious p.o.s. ever made. Until now, there was little possibility of checking it out for yourself as it was only available on a badly-made VHS tape or the even worse DVD derived from that tape. BUT NOW (summer 2009) the good folks at Criterion have fully restored it on a stunning two-disc set with beautiful, haunting images composed with rich, silky blacks and luminous whites. Fans of black-and-white photography will thrill to the tonalities here, even if the plot escapes them. Reminiscent of 1930's fashion photography (think Chanel), it features exquisite lighting and careful compositions. All of the dialog is in French with English subtitles, and the original name of the film is L' Année dernière à Marienbad.
The story, such as it is, depends completely on the viewer's imagination and participation as a co-author. You only get out of it what you put in. If, like me, you are content with absorbing waves of gorgeous images enhanced by an appropriate musical score, you won't need a plot. Otherwise, it might go something like this: Character X, a handsome male member of Europe's idle rich, meets Character A, a stunning young lady at an unnamed aristocratic spa rich in baroque décor (photo, above). He tries to convince her that they met before, possibly last year, at another spa, perhaps Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázne), and they possibly had an affair. Enter Character M, who might be A's husband, or lover, or not. An allegorical game, at which M could lose but never does, may or may not play a pivotal role.
Past and present, memory and reality, fact and fiction are juxtaposed without transition or explanation. So, it's up to the viewer to make some sense out of it, or just lay back and let the haunting images wash all over you.
I saw this film at a small art house in Greenwich Village on, I believe, West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in 1961 or possibly '62. Soon after that I purchased a book (photo, left) of the text for the film for the princely sum of $1.95. Although quite battered, I still treasure it.
Finding myself in Munich a few years later, I visited Schloss Nymphenburg, where much of the 1960 filming was done, especially the famous scene in the gardens (photo, below) in which the trees, statues, and other fixtures cast no shadows while the people cast long ones. How this was done is quite simple; it was shot at high noon and the actor's shadows were painted on the walkways. Obviously, the actors could not move, and the scene is quite short. At the time I was playing with a new toy, a Fuji Single 8 movie camera loaded with grainy black-and-white film, attempting to capture some of the old magic.
The new (2009) Criterion set contains a second disc featuring recent interviews with director Alain Resnais and others, a half-hour "making of" documentary, a critical analysis, and two short earlier films by the same director.