A film that launched a thousand dissertations, and one of the most visually beautiful films ever shot, Delphine Seyrig’s feature-film debut was Last Year At Marienbad (L’Année Dernière À Marienbad) (France, 1961). Directed by the great Alain Resnais from a script by Nouveau Roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film follows an unnamed trio of characters: “A” (Delphine), an elegantly beautiful but inscrutable guest at a palatial hotel, “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), a handsome Italian suitor who claims to have met A a year or so ago under similar circumstances, and “M” (Sacha Pitoëff), who may be A’s husband, or another suitor, or a self-appointed guardian. The film primarily explores themes and variations on this romantic triangle; X insists that he and A met last year, were intimate, and agreed to meet again in a year’s time per her wishes. A has no recollection of this arrangement, or meeting him, but is nonetheless content to spend time with him during each other’s stay now. M amuses himself with the other guests in the pistol range, playing cards in the elegant game rooms and stumping his fellow guests by consistently winning at Nim, a game where you remove objects from a simple arrangement on a table until you force your opponent to pick up the last remaining object. M hovers in the background but is never far away.
Resnais’ first film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, presented a pretty straightforward scenario – a couple meets and falls in love, knowing that their time together is tragically but necessarily short. But screenwriter Marguerite Duras doesn’t tell their story in linear, strictly chronological fashion. We learn about them, and their feelings towards each other, through their very different experiences (he’s Japanese, and his family lived with Hiroshima and its aftermath; she’s a French actress in Japan filming an anti-war film), and the piecing together and blending of their personal details and memories, even as we come to understand how unreliable and/or inadequate they may be.
Last Year At Marienbad is far more of a puzzle, a metaphysical mystery to be solved. X starts to relate examples of their courtship from the previous year – how often they ran into each other, unplanned; their conversations about statues, dreams and a possible future together. The assumption is that they met elsewhere – ‘Marienbad’ is basically his best guess, if they’re not already still there right now. Where they are now, like themselves, is unnamed, but it’s one of those immensely ornate chateau / palace resort hotels in central Europe that attracts the Crème de la Crème of elegantly indulgent travelers and businesspeople. X’s recollections with A, as he narrates them, are acted out here, where they are, in our present, which obscures our understanding of present occurrences and past memories. Are most of these flashbacks? Is all of it? None of it?
X is our narrator throughout the film, starting out with a description of the interior of the hotel – its baroque furnishings, its ornate chandeliers, plush carpeting, paintings, artworks and maps, its seemingly endless long halls of doorways. The hotel has numerous other guests, but they are relegated to almost pure background functionality – Resnais stages and positions them in a variety of contrived tableaux – motionless while the camera pans or rotates around them, or while other figures in the same shot move contrapuntally at normal speed. And their dialogue is almost purely non sequitur, with a few quite notable exceptions. Early in the film, the guests view a play in the small hotel theater. (It’s titled Rosmer, but doesn’t seem to relate to any actual known work.) At its seeming conclusion, the lead actor implores the woman to leave another man and run off with him. He clearly convinces her – as the clock strikes a particular hour, she declares “Voila… maintenant… je suis à vous.” (“There… now… I am yours.”) This is a condensed version, a foreshadowing, of what we may witness as the actual story of the film. A few minutes later, X regards another couple in one of the common rooms – she implores her partner to be discreet, to not raise his voice, while he brusquely chides her for her reticence towards him. Another couple converses with each other flirtatiously – “I’m the same as ever” – “you’re the same as ever” they tell each other, laughing. Most of these asides are witnessed or overheard by A or X, and if you pay close attention you’ll find some tricks being played by Resnais – these two quite often end up somewhere they couldn’t possibly have moved to in the course of the scene. Resnais throws us off balance often with these two-places-at-once strategies, or changing backgrounds behind characters moving in a consistent path. None of it is obvious, at first, but it definitely affects our own perceptions of what’s what.
Sacha Vierny is a legendary French cinematographer, and this film is one of his masterworks. Shooting in black & white Dyaliscope, a wide-format French version of CinemaScope, Vierny must have both celebrated and resented the splendidly complex locations he was given to work with – three immense baroque castles in Munich (with studio work in Courbevoie, France). Delphine Seyrig’s brother Francis created the singular musical score – orchestral fanfares at the start and end bookend a pretty elaborate church organ score, veering from sinister to pastoral to romantic to circus-music, sometimes pretty abruptly. I was fine with it, but some feel it’s the film’s weakest aspect.
Back in the David Niven – Sean Connery – Steve McQueen 60’s, the film was well-regarded as an artful study of elaborate seduction; regardless of its non-linear stylization, it was easy to root for these good-looking kids to get together. X was the aspiring romantic hoping to sweep A off of her hard-to-get coquettish feet, besting her brooding erstwhile male companion. There’s also the other extreme, where the whole film can be regarded as a “Twilight Zone” episode – the play characters, the angry lover, the young flirts, X, A and M, perhaps they’re all trapped in a world of futile romantic fatalism, where everything simply cycles relentlessly. It could all be a dream of his, or perhaps he’s as trapped as everyone else. Sacha Vierny’s spectacular visuals, on my own early viewings, led me to believe the hotel itself was an omnipotent character, like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or Edgar Allen Poe’s House Of Usher, with its eternally longing customers reliving their fates on and on again. In the #metoo present day, one can make a solid case for a predatory X striving to gaslight A, while a conflicted M passively stands on the sidelines; they may very well have been together a year ago, and there may be dark and powerful reasons for her not remembering. X makes references to “not by force,” and Robbe-Grillet’s later film and writing work explores questions of dominance and submission more explicitly as he goes. The film clearly moves towards a climactic crisis of sorts – whether it’s rapture or rape is purposefully ambiguous. Resnais wants you to decide.
As for Delphine, the credited costumer for the film is the veteran Bernard Evein, but all of A’s gowns were exclusive designs from Coco Chanel, and they are rightfully legendary. Resnais wanted most of his actors here to study silent films, especially Theda Bara and Louise Brooks. Seyrig’s own hair didn’t lend itself to the Pandora’s Box modified pageboy, but Delphine’s brunette hard-lined band across her forehead is arguably just as iconic in the film world as her predecessors. Every character choice Delphine makes here with A is confident and committed – physically, vocally, pragmatically and emotionally – without sacrificing Resnais’ and Robbe-Grillet’s own inclinations to keep things interpretively open. And Vierny obviously lavished rigorous visual attention towards her.
Alain Resnais would use Delphine Seyrig in his next film as well, another French Cinema classic that initially wasn’t received well, but has grown in regard as time has passed.