"Last Year at Marienbad", certainly one of the most enigmatic motion pictures in all of cinema history, is an exhilarating piece of art whose main intent is not to tell a coherent story but to evoke a multitude of moods, feelings and states of mind. Its director, Alain Resnais, is not much concerned with narratives of any kind but on the utmost potential of film as an art form when there's little to none. His earlier film, "Hiroshima Mon Amour", has a slight semblance of a story but instead capitalizes on the emotional landscapes of the characters. This one on the other hand, a pure masterpiece of modern cinema, is a journey of shifting moods and of the ever-changing nature of memory wrapped in the poetic repetitiveness of a love story that may or may not have been.
Set within the confines of a lavish chateau populated by high society people luxuriating in certain stagnant joys (card games and endless drinks), "Last Year at Marienbad" is about two people, a man ('X') and a woman ('A'), and their struggle to remember a romantic affair that they, according to the man, might have had 'last year at Marienbad'. Oh, and there's also another character ('M'), the man that may or may not be the woman's husband/lover. Mysteriously code-named like parts of a mathematical equation, these three characters are involved in an emotionally treacherous attempt to make sense of events that are eye-deep in abstraction. Can they even arrive at something akin to certainty?
Through the use of exquisite editing, "Last Year at Marienbad" was able to channel a hauntingly cerebral texture, which makes the film even more mysterious than it already is. And by merging flashbacks (or are they?) with the inferred reality of the film (or is it?), the film was able to take on a very dream-like feel which ultimately speaks of the utter unreliability of memory and the consequences of not having remembered much.
As with all avant-garde films, "Last Year at Marienbad" is a highly divisive picture that may either be branded as a stunning masterpiece or merely as a highly-ornamented piece of pretentious gunk. For one, it is clearly understandable for some viewers to categorize the film in the latter, with the film's lack of narrative being one of the primary culprits why it can easily be labeled as nothing but a pseudo-profound waste of time. But still, no one can deny the film's powerful simulation of what goes on inside a person's mind when love (especially a forbidden one) is painfully involved.
But then again, "Last Year at Marienbad" may really not be about love just like how "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is not simply about a happenstance romance. At least for me, the film's lasting effect is not really about how memories twist reality but about how love twists life itself. And in this elliptical masterpiece that is "Last Year at Marienbad", the ultimate victim is the mind.
Alain Resnais, one of the seminal movers of the French New Wave (although indirectly at that), has created his ultimate masterpiece in the form of this film, a hauntingly nightmarish depiction of the fragility of memory, of a love affair that really wasn't, and of a reality that betrays. "Last Year at Marienbad" is, at least for me, a profoundly anomalous take on how the phrase 'last year' could have easily been 'last month', 'last week' or even 'last hour or so'; it plays a bitter puzzle game on its three main characters and, ultimately, on us, the viewers. How did we come to participate on it? I have the slightest bit of clue. Perhaps the game just ceased to be.