There are three protagonists, all unnamed: a handsome man, X, who speaks with a slight Italian accent (Giorgio Albertazzi); a beautiful woman, a brunette, A (Delphine Seyrig); and M, a man with a gaunt face (Sacha Pitoeff), who could be A's husband.
The location is a palace or luxurious European baroque hotel (or perhaps a hotel in such a palace), with glittering mirrored salons and geometric gardens featuring shrubs and statues, everything elegantly shot in black-and-white widescreen by Sacha Vierny.
The film starts with a justly famous, long tracking shot in which X wanders through the hotel's corridors cataloging in a voice-over items he sees, accompanied by discordant organ music: "Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other."
Both voice and organ music have an intoxicating quality, like a many times repeated incantation, and they will be with us for the whole duration of the film. Increasingly, the voice tells us shards of a story that took place the year before, and these story fragments, too, are repeated with slight variations.
The narrator X approaches A, claiming to have met her the year before at Marienbad. He asserts she must be waiting for him now, as she has agreed to leave with him if only X would be willing to wait one year, but she insists that they have never met.
The narrator stalks the reticent woman through the corridors and salons of the palace and tells her more and more details about their (supposed) previous meeting. Their conversations are repeated with slight variations in several places in the palace and gardens, as if we are caught in an endless loop.
But the more he tells her, the more his story shows internal discrepancies - made clear by the director by having different images accompany identical parts of the man's narration. Gradually, we feel that the atmosphere of uncertainty contains a threat, as if some danger lurks in the background.
The man with the gaunt face who may be the woman's husband, repeatedly plays a mathematical game called Nim with the narrator, and by beating him each time at the game, he as it were asserts some sort of dominance.
The nightmarish quality is enhanced by the fact that the other glamorously looking characters, presumably guests to the hotel, mostly sit or stand frozen, in mannerist poses and with a glazed look on their faces.
At the end of the film, the stranger leaves with the woman, but we do not know if that is happening now, or last year, or whether it is just wishful thinking.
With is ambiguous flashbacks and shifts of time and locations, the film is a conscious enigma. Is this an investigation into the nature of memory, does everything take place in the head of the narrator, even as a dream or the memory of a dream? As Resnais said, "For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes." Or in the words of Robe-Grillet: "The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a "persuading": it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words."
I agree with the interpretation that everything takes place in the head of the narrator, but there are other explanations possible: for example, a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; everything takes place in the woman's mind; everything takes place in the man's mind, and depicts his refusal to acknowledge that he has killed the woman he loved; or the characters could be dead souls in limbo.
Take your pick! This great film deserves repeated viewings.
P.S. The film was shot in various palaces around Munich, and not in the actual Czech spa town of Marienbad.
P.S.2 Inland Empire (2006) by David Lynch was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad.
Note: I have learned recently (2014) that the film was in fact inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel, written in 1940 by the Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. See my post on The Invention of Morel. What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common is that characters in both repeat their actions and conversations. In my review of the novella I suggest that they are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which are indistinguishable from reality. This would indeed mean that the characters are dead (although no "dead souls in limbo"), for in Bioy's tale the recording of part of their lives also transfers their souls to the "hologram." I now believe this is the best solution to the enigma of the film.
Last Year at Marienbad is available in the Criterion Collection.(Revised August 2014)