Here’s another film of exploration – fictional as well – this one intent on mapping out the space of dreams and memory, and wherever the twain shall meet. Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Mariendbad is a beautiful puzzle that thrives on the myriad interpretations only further obscuring any possible solution. Events unfold in a sprawling European chateau where an enigmatic man attempts to convince an austere beauty that she had an affair with him the previous summer, possibly at Marienbad. Whether or not this is true remains uncertain, but under such persistence the woman eventually seems to buy into his suggestions. That much seems clear. The rest, well, it’s the kind of formalistic mind-fuckery that Memento and Primer wish they were capable of.
Unlike Playtime, there’s no reference point to cling to. Our narrator is unreliable at best, deceiving the viewer as much as the woman he pursues. Images on screen often fall at odds with the voice-over. We could at any given point be observing present reality, an actual past, or the space of dreams, something more than hinted at by the ghostly presence of background figures around the chateau, or the haunting garden vista where people inexplicably cast shadows in the high noon sun. Resnais collaborated on the film with screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the story goes that even their interpretations of events clashed, with Robbe-Grillet pushing for an experience that completely severed the viewer from reality. As director though, Resnais had the final say, inserting easily overlooked clues to separating dreams from reality – for instance mentions of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm that provide the only visual referent for something exterior to the film. These intricacies beg for interpretation, and Marienbad’s fascination surely owes a lot to such analysis, but as a riddle designed without an answer, it would be foolish to expect satisfaction from it. The shadows projected in the cave are more compelling than the logic behind them.