Introduction of Alain Resnais’ 'Last Year at Marienbad'

Bloomington, IN

Monday, December 04, 2017

Thank you, Jon (Vickers).

As Jon mentioned, earlier this year, in recognition of my ten years as president of Indiana University, a number of IU colleagues and friends, led by Professor Emeritus Jim Sherman, endowed a fund in my name to support the President’s Choice film series. I was deeply honored to receive this recognition and much moved by the gift, not only because of my love of film and its power to inspire, but also because I am immensely proud of the success of the IU Cinema and its contributions to the presentation and study of film.

This success is due to all those who have supported the cinema through their patronage and through their generous philanthropic support—and it is also due to the dedicated efforts of Jon Vickers and the staff of the cinema. I want to once again commend the cinema staff for their commitment to highly innovative programming that has helped the cinema become one of the finest university cinemas in the nation, not just in the view of thousands of us who frequent it regularly, but also in the opinion of such legends of the cinema as Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.

I am delighted to be here tonight to say a few words about the films I have selected as part of this semester’s President’s Choice Series, "Cinema by Design: Art + Design On Screen," and to introduce the final film in the series—Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

In celebration of Indiana University’s recently established School of Art, Architecture + Design; the approval of a new Master of Architecture degree program which will launch next year in the school, and the move of the school’s design programs into a newly renovated Kirkwood Hall, I selected four highly acclaimed films that highlight the profound ability of art, architecture, and design to affect how we perceive and experience the world. These films also explore, in various ways, the influence and consequence of design and beauty in our lives, as well as the complexities of the creative process.

In August, the Cinema screened The Fountainhead, the film adaptation of the bestselling Ayn Rand novel. The film was directed by King Vidor, and starred Gary Cooper as modernist architect Howard Roark, a character inspired at least partly by Frank Lloyd Wright. A number of eminent architects have said that the novel or the film inspired them to go into the profession, and The Fountainhead certainly had an enormous impact on the public perception of architects and architecture.

In October, the Cinema screened the 1927 German silent film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, with live musical accompaniment. It is a prime example of the “city symphony” film genre, a series of avant-garde films of the 1920s and 30s that were heavily influenced by modern art, and were, in effect, both documentaries and avant-garde art films. The film is important today not only for its artistic value, but also as a record of the city of Berlin as it existed in the late 1920s.

Also in October, the Cinema screened Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 experimental historical drama, Russian Ark, which was filmed entirely in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in a single, 96-minute, unbroken Steadicam shot. The film not only gives us the opportunity to view the extraordinary treasures of the Hermitage, which has the largest collection of paintings in the world, it also presents an extended discussion of Russian history.

The film you are about to see tonight, Last Year at Marienbad, was directed Alain Resnais. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1961, where it won the Golden Lion. The screenplay was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, an avant-garde novelist associated with the Nouveau Roman, or "New Novel," movement of the 1960s.

Last Year at Marienbad is a milestone in the history of cinema and one of the defining works of the French New Wave, a movement that rebelled against the traditional path French cinema had followed. The auteur theory, in which the director is viewed as the major creative force in a film, was at the foundation of the movement.

Director Alain Resnais’ career actually began years before the French New Wave. He had achieved some renown as a director of short documentary films beginning in the mid-1940s. In fact, his short biography of Van Gogh won an Academy Award in 1950, and his 1955 short documentary, Night and Fog, which documented the unspeakable horrors of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, is still regarded as one of the finest documentaries of all time. When he directed Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais was fresh off his first feature, Hiroshima mon amour, which is also considered a masterpiece of the French New Wave.

In 1960, when Resnais made Last Year at Marienbad, the established Hollywood style of film construction—known in France as "découpage classique"—had been refined over many years to the point that it had become a highly effective and nearly inviolable set of rules.

As film critic and scholar James Monaco wrote, "What Resnais and Robbe-Grillet did in Marienbad that appeared so strikingly avant-garde in 1961 was, essentially, to simplify the mode of discourse. The rules of découpage classique were ignored," Monaco continues, "and the new object was to tell stories in images rather than words."1

Because of this radical departure from the classical narrative mode, Last Year at Marienbad is a film that defies a simple understanding of its enigmatic plot. Robbe-Grillet, its screenwriter, said that the film does not insist on the traditional relations of cause and effect, nor on an absolute time sequence in its narrative. Indeed, it is a film that blurs the lines between future and past, between dream and reality, between truth and fantasy.

As you will see, the imagery in the film is stunning. The film is set in a large European chateau, filled with mirrors, paintings, gilded ceilings, and ornate drawing rooms. Outside the chateau is a decorative, geometrical garden, which is the setting of one of the film’s most iconic images. In the image, the people standing in the garden cast long shadows, but the garden’s pyramid-shaped shrubs cast no shadows at all. The scene was actually filmed on an overcast day. Resnais had the people’s shadows painted onto the gravel.

German art historian Christoph Grunenberg writes that "there are very few films that have entered into such a complex and profound dialogue with art as Last Year in Marienbad. The film has repeatedly been compared to works by painters such as Piero della Francesca, and great artists such as Francois de Cuvillies, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Alberto Giacometti served as its inspiration." Grunenberg continues: "It is the way Marienbad absorbs elements from the past 500 years of art history that makes it an extraordinary work of art."2

The film also features an outstanding performance by Delphine Seyrig, who went on to appear in films by many of Europe’s foremost directors, including François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, and Jacques Demy.

While Bernard Evein is credited as the film’s costume designer, an uncredited Coco Chanel designed most of Seyrig’s costumes, some of which are now in England’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of decorative art and design.

The film, the costumes, and the production design have inspired generations of artists and film historians. David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are often cited as films that were heavily influenced by Last Year at Marienbad. The visual style of the film has also been imitated in many television commercials and in fashion photography.

Bosley Crowther, the longtime film critic for The New York Times, wrote in 1962 that the film "may grip you with a strange enchantment, it may twist your wits into a snarl, it may leave your mind and senses toddling vaguely in the regions in between. But this we can reasonably promise: when you stagger away from it, you will feel you have delighted in (or suffered) a unique and intense experience."3

With that, please enjoy Last Year at Marienbad.

Source Notes

1. James Monaco, Alain Resnais, (Oxford University Press, 1979), 55.

2. Christoph Grunenberg, Last Year in Marienbad: A Film as Art, (Art Stock Books, 2016), 11.

3. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: ‘Last Year at Marienbad’: Carnegie Hall Cinema Shows Resnais Film,” The New York Times, March 8, 1962.

Read about the IU Cinema endowment celebrating McRobbie's ten years as IU President