Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) is a puzzle, an enigma of a film. In an grand opulent hotel, the guests entertain themselves with card games, concerts, target shooting and walks in the garden. One man talks repeatedly to a woman, trying to persuade her that they have met there the previous year. She resists his advances and denies that anything has ever happened between them. But the film is elliptical, and it’s soon clear that the scenes cut between different years, though which sequence is the past, which one the future, and which one merely imagined is never clear. The man persistently narrates his version of how they met and the woman persistently rejects it. Sometimes it seems as though the man is narrating the film itself. He describes how she was standing with her arm half-outstretched on the balustrade, and on screen she complies, standing just so. But this is uncertain too: on another occasion he describes the way she walked around her room towards the closed door. But we see on screen the woman walking to look past an open door. “No, the door was closed!” his voice-over protests, to no avail.
[Image: Screen grab from TheReturnoftheSDQ’s YouTube channel, about 7min 25sec]
A one point he brings out a photograph, taken, he claims, the previous year in the gardens. She barely looks at it but later she seems to using it as a bookmark. He talks about how even this doesn’t convince her. It could have been taken by anyone, in any garden, she says. It proves nothing. We then see her sitting in the gardens, perhaps when the photograph was taken. But we never see a camera or a photographer. Later still she opens a drawer in her room to find it full of copies of the same picture. Perhaps the man has put them there in some grand and vain gesture (as if repeating oneself more and more loudly is a way of getting someone to understand something). Perhaps it’s an indication that the movie is a facade, and the character has stumbled upon the props department storage area. In any case, she lays out the photos in the same pattern as the game that some of the men play — putting objects on the table and removing them until the person left with one object loses. The photograph now is merely a prop in a game that can’t really be understood (at another point, with two men playing, the onlookers shout out a host of possibilities: one has to go first to win, or that it’s a logarithmic series, or some other obscure strategy, none of which apply).
Near the beginning of the film the characters chat in the salon and then pause, as if time has stood still. Perhaps the film hasn’t quite begun, the mechanism hasn’t quite warmed up yet. Perhaps the stagey and artificial-looking stillness is an indication that the photograph to come, the photograph that might anchor the man’s entreaties in something real, is itself fake (something the man has faked a connection to? an object about which the woman fakes ignorance? a fake prop in an elaborate pretense of a movie?) and not really proof that anything has actually happened.