Alain Resnais' 1961 "Last Year at Marienbad" remains one of cinema's glorious enigmas, endlessly compelling and intriguing. It is a beautiful film, shot in superb black-and-white and set primarily in Munich's extravagant Nymphenburg Palace, which, along with several other locales, stands in for an ornate resort hotel.
Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in collaboration with Resnais, the film is an exploration of the power of memory and the persistence of romantic longing. Amid the splendor of a bygone era, a large number of formally dressed guests while away evenings playing games, attending balls and, one night, a production of Ibsen's "Rosmersholm." The men's tuxedos and the women's evening gowns are the height of contemporary elegance, but their behavior and activities belong to the past -- so much so that a freeze frame can make these people seem as lifeless as statuary in the hotel gardens. The fanciful gilt plasterwork, the soaring columns, the glittering expanses of mirrors in the vast salons create an oppressive atmosphere.
Among the guests at the resort is a handsome man (Giorgio Albertazzi) who encounters a beautiful woman (Delphine Seyrig, dressed in timeless Chanel elegance) and reminds her of their meeting a year before -- perhaps at the elite resort, Marienbad. He even shows her a snapshot of her sitting on a garden bench as proof.
She insists, though, that she doesn't know the man, but there is an undeniable attraction between them. The woman already has a male companion (Sacha Pitoeff), who may, in fact, be her husband.
"Last Year at Marienbad," which has a dreamlike quality, flows between the present and a past that may well be imaginary. It is entirely possible that the characters did meet before and fell in love with such disastrous consequences that the woman has suffered a loss of memory or is in profound denial. She could be the wife or mistress of such a fabulously wealthy and possessive man that she lacks he courage to leave him. (At one point she asks her ardent pursuer, "What other kind of life could you offer me?")
It has been suggested that the film is a reworking of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend -- that the woman's pursuer is, in fact, Death. Yet "Last Year at Marienbad" seems an affirmation of life -- of the importance of living in the moment and risking all for love.
"Last Year at Marienbad." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.