The American Society of Cinematographers

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Mad Men
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Gaumont Treasures
Last Year at
St. Elmos Fire
ASC Close-Up
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (1080p High Definition)
Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

“I walked again along these corridors, through these salons and galleries, in this edifice of a bygone era, this sprawling, sumptuous, baroque, gloomy hotel where one endless corridor follows another. Rooms silent and deserted...where one’s footsteps are absorbed by carpets so thick, so heavy it’s as if one’s very ear were far away.” This mysterious, narrated invitation echoes repeatedly over the hypnotic tracking shots that sumptuously reveal the grand hotel setting at the start of director Alain Resnais mythic French New Wave classic Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

The young director’s second feature film paired him with one of France’s most celebrated writers and radical practitioners of the “New Novel” style, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Following a narrative lead suggested by Resnais, Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad, a film that remains one of cinema’s most argued about and treasured mysteries, begins ominously. After being shown the captivating interiors of the hotel, one meets the aristocratic patrons who are watching the end of a play being performed in the salon. From this coiffed cabal, the brooding X (Giorgio Albertazzi) emerges. After playing parlor games in the lounge, X spots a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), and asks her to dance. As the flirtatious beauty, A glides in the arms of X; she pines away about the hotel’s many secrets, and he confronts her with “you hardly remember me.” Visibly shaken, A denies she has ever met him before. X follows her throughout the hotel and its vast grounds, reminding her of the time they spent together the previous year and the fact she was prepared to run away with him but at the last minute could not leave the man she was with. Time passes with no clear boundaries as days dissolve into nights, and X continuously presses a seemingly confused A about their romantic history. As X becomes more persistent, it appears the mysterious beauty may not be telling the truth about her lack of previous knowledge of her would be suitor.

Mounting this dark cinematic puzzle required deft collaborations with numerous creative players, particularly that of the cinematographer. To bring this carefully crafted piece to the screen, Resnais wisely relied on his trusted collaborator, Sacha Vierny (The Pillow Book, Belle De Jour) who had acted as cinematographer on his first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and some of his short subjects, including the groundbreaking Night and Fog (1955). Using the anamorphic Dyaliscope process, Vierny helped to design the film’s elegant style with steady camera movement that famously glides through the opulent interiors of the two ornate German locations used to create the mysterious hotel. Vierny’s sumptuous, monochrome scale has both a rich sharpness and a haunting, shadowy texture that manages to invoke the locations’ baroque qualities from the many rooms full of mirrors to the vast, byzantine gardens that surround them.  

The Criterion Collection has recently debuted Last Year at Marienbad on Blu-ray. The image quality of this 1080p high-definition transfer replicates the precise, darkly elegant tone of Vierny’s visual compositions. Film grain is mildly evident, as it should be, and the image is clear of any age related debris. The contrast shown here is extraordinary, with many different shades of black on display. The striking image flows with true film-like quality, with nearly equal density on both a 50" screen and on a projected 30' screen. The audio also is very good and presented here in both the original monaural track and the preferable, newly restored track that cleans up some minor, age-related noise. It is hard to imagine this film appearing on home screens looking any better than this nearly flawless transfer, which, as the liner notes point out, was supervised and approved by Resnais himself.   

The supplements begin with a group of essays in a 46-page booklet. On screen presented in H.D., there is a terrific, new 33-minute documentary charting the making of the film, including an interview with assistant director Volker Schlondorff, a 23-minute interview with French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, two theatrical trailers and two lyrical documentaries by Resnais — the 21-minute Toute la memoire du monde (1956) and the 14-minute Le chat du styrene (1958), the latter also shot by Vierny. Finally, there is a 30-minute audio interview with Resnais.

Praised by many who thought it a masterpiece and those who reviled it as monotonous pretension, Last Year at Marienbad is perhaps the most controversial film of the otherwise-admired French New Wave because of the polarized response it drew from international audiences. While arguments will continue, that hardly matters as the film has inspired numerous filmmakers, including Peter Greenaway and, most obviously, Stanley Kubrick, among others. This unusual and haunting tale of love and obsession continues to radiate its dark appeal into the digital age with this exquisite new Blu-ray presentation.

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