The film is famous for its enigmatic narrative structure, in which truth and fiction are difficult to distinguish, and the temporal and spatial relationship of the events is open to question. Its dreamlike nature has both fascinated and baffled viewers; many have hailed the work as a masterpiece, while others consider it incomprehensible.
At a social gathering at a château or baroque hotel, a man approaches a woman. He claims they met the year before at Marienbad and is convinced that she is waiting there for him. The woman insists they have never met. A second man, who may be the woman's husband, repeatedly asserts his dominance over the first man, including beating him several times at a mathematical game (a version of Nim). Through ambiguous flashbacks and disorienting shifts of time and location, the film explores the relationships among the characters. Conversations and events are repeated in several places in the château and grounds, and there are numerous tracking shots of the château's corridors, with ambiguous voiceovers. The characters are unnamed in the film; in the published screenplay, the woman is referred to with the letter "A", the first man is "X", and the man who may be her husband is "M".Giorgio Albertazzi, as the man
Delphine Seyrig, as the woman
Sacha Pitoëff, as the second man, who may be the woman's husband
L'Année dernière à Marienbad was created out of an unusual collaboration between its writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and its director Alain Resnais. Robbe-Grillet described its basis:
Alain Resnais and I were able to collaborate only because we had seen the film in the same way from the start, and not just in the same general outlines but exactly, in the construction of the least detail as in its total architecture. What I wrote might have been what was already in [his] mind; what he added during the shooting was what I might have written. ...Paradoxically enough, and thanks to the perfect identity of our conceptions, we almost always worked separately.
Robbe-Grillet wrote a screenplay which was very detailed, specifying not only the décor and gestures but also the placement and movement of the camera and the sequencing of shots in the editing. Resnais filmed the script with great fidelity, making only limited alterations which seemed necessary. Robbe-Grillet was not present during the filming. When he saw the rough-cut, he said that he found the film just as he had intended it, while recognising how much Resnais had added to make it work on the screen and to fill out what was absent from the script. Robbe-Grillet then published his screenplay, illustrated by shots from the film, as a "ciné-roman" (ciné-novel).
Despite the close correspondence between the written and filmed works, numerous differences between them have been identified. Two notable examples are the choice of music in the film (Francis Seyrig's score introduces extensive use of a solo organ), and a scene near the end of the film in which the screenplay explicitly describes a rape, whereas the film substitutes a series of repeated bleached-out travelling shots moving towards the woman. In subsequent statements by the two authors of the film, it was partly acknowledged that they did not entirely share the same vision of it.
Filming took place over a period of ten weeks between September and November 1960. The locations used for most of the interiors and the gardens were the palaces of Schleissheim and Nymphenburg, including the Amalienburg hunting lodge, and the Antiquarium of the Residenz, all of them in and around Munich. Additional interior scenes were filmed in the Photosonore-Marignan-Simo studios in Paris. (No filming was done in the Czech spa town of Marienbad — and the film does not allow the viewer to know with certainty which, if any, scenes are supposed to be located there.) Filming was in black-and-white in Dyaliscope wide-screen.
The film continually creates an ambiguity in the spatial and temporal aspects of what it shows, and creates uncertainty in the mind of the spectator about the causal relationships between events. This may be achieved through the editing, giving apparently incompatible information in consecutive shots, or within a shot which seems to show impossible juxtapositions, or by means of repetitions of events in different settings and décor. These ambiguities are matched by contradictions in the narrator's voiceover commentary. Among the notable images in the film is a scene in which two characters (and the camera) rush out of the château and are faced with a tableau of figures arranged in a geometric garden; although the people cast long dramatic shadows (which were painted on the ground), the trees in the garden do not (not real trees but constructions).
The manner in which the film is edited challenged the established classical style of narrative construction. It allowed the themes of time and the mind and the interaction of past and present to be explored in an original way. As spatial and temporal continuity is destroyed by its methods of filming and editing, the film offers instead a "mental continuity", a continuity of thought.
In determining the visual appearance of the film, Resnais said that he wanted to recreate "a certain style of silent cinema", and his direction as well as the actors' make-up sought to produce this atmosphere. He even asked Eastman Kodak if they could supply an old-fashioned filmstock that would 'bloom' or 'halo' to create the look of a silent film (they could not). Resnais showed his costume designer photographs from L'Inhumaine and L'Argent, for which great fashion designers of the 1920s had created the costumes. He also asked members of his team to look at other silent films including Pabst's Pandora's Box: he wanted Delphine Seyrig's appearance and manner to resemble that of Louise Brooks but she had cut her hair which necessitated the smooth shaped hairstyle. Most of Seyrig's dresses in the film were designed by Chanel. The style of certain silent films is also suggested by the manner in which the characters who populate the hotel are mostly seen in artificial poses, as if frozen in time, rather than behaving naturalistically.
The films which immediately preceded and followed Marienbad in Resnais's career showed a political engagement with contemporary issues (the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the Occupation in France, and the then taboo subject of the war in Algeria); Marienbad however was seen to take a completely different direction and to focus principally on style. Commenting on this departure, Resnais said: "I was making this film at a time when I think, rightly, that one could not make a film, in France, without speaking about the Algerian war. Indeed I wonder whether the closed and stifling atmosphere of L'Année does not result from those contradictions."
Contemporary critics' responses to the film were polarized. Controversy was fuelled when Robbe-Grillet and Resnais appeared to give contradictory answers to the question whether the man and woman had actually met at Marienbad last year or not; this was used as a means of attacking the film by those who disliked it.
In 1963 the writer and film-maker Ado Kyrou declared the film a total triumph in his influential Le Surréalisme au cinéma, recognizing the ambiguous environment and obscure motives within the film as representing many of the concerns of surrealism in narrative cinema. Another early supporter, the actor and surrealist Jacques Brunius, declared that "Marienbad is the greatest film ever made".
Less reverently, Marienbad received an entry in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, by Harry Medved, with Randy Dreyfuss and Michael Medved. The authors lampooned the film's surrealistic style and quoted numerous critics who found it to be pretentious and/or incomprehensible. The film critic Pauline Kael called it "the high-fashion experimental film, the snow job at the ice palace... back at the no-fun party for non-people".
The movie inspired a brief craze for the Nim variation played by the characters.
Although the film remains disparaged by some critics, Last Year at Marienbad has come to be regarded by many as one of Resnais' greatest works. Review aggregation site They Shoot Pictures, Don't They has found it to be the 83rd most acclaimed movie in history, and it received 23 total votes in the British Film Institute's decennial Sight & Sound polls.
Numerous explanations of the film's events have been put forward: that it is a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; that it represents the relationship between patient and psychoanalyst; that it all takes place in the woman's mind; that it all takes place in the man's mind, and depicts his refusal to acknowledge that he has killed the woman he loved; that the characters are ghosts or dead souls in limbo; etc.
Some have noted that the film has the atmosphere and the form of a dream, that the structure of the film may be understood by the analogy of a recurring dream, or even that the man's meeting with the woman is the memory (or dream) of a dream.
Others have heeded, at least as a starting point, the indications given by Robbe-Grillet in the introduction to his screenplay: "Two attitudes are then possible: either the spectator will try to reconstitute some 'Cartesian' scheme – the most linear, the most rational he can devise – and this spectator will certainly find the film difficult if not incomprehensible; or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him [...] and to this spectator, the film will seem the easiest he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling."
Robbe-Grillet offered a further suggestion of how one might view the work: "The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a persuading ["une persuasion"]: it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words."
Resnais for his part gave a more abstract explanation of the film's purpose: "For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes."
The film won the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice Film Festival. In 1962 it won the critics' award in the category Best Film of the Syndicat Français de la Critique de cinéma in France. The film was selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 34th Academy Awards in 1962, but was not accepted as a nominee. However, it was nominated for the 1963 Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (Alain Robbe-Grillet) and it was also nominated for a Hugo Award as Best Dramatic Presentation.
The film was refused entry to the Cannes Film Festival because the director, Alain Resnais, had signed Jean-Paul Sartre's Manifesto of the 121 against the Algerian War.
The impact of L'Année dernière à Marienbad upon other film-makers has been widely recognised and variously illustrated, extending from French directors such as Agnès Varda, Marguerite Duras, and Jacques Rivette to international figures like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and David Lynch's Inland Empire are two films which are cited with particular frequency as showing the influence of Marienbad.
Terence Young related he styled the pre-credits sequence of From Russia with Love on L'Année dernière à Marienbad.
Peter Greenaway said that Marienbad had been the most important influence upon his own filmmaking (and he himself established a close working relationship with its cinematographer Sacha Vierny).
The film's visual style has also been imitated in many TV commercials and fashion photography.
The music video for "To the End", a 1994 single by British rock group Blur, is based on the film.
This film was the main inspiration for Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel Spring–Summer 2011 collection. Lagerfeld's show was complete with a fountain and a modern replica of the film's famous garden. Since costumes for this film were done by Coco Chanel, Lagerfeld drew his inspiration from the film and combined the film's gardens with those at Versailles.
On 23 June 2009, the Criterion Collection released L'Année dernière à Marienbad in the United States as a Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray. This edition went out of print in March 2013. It is available on DVD from Netflix.