A Cult Classic Is Reborn

The behind-the-scenes film about the making of Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad was lost for 50 years. Bernard-Henri Lévy on its rediscovery and restoration—and its upcoming first screening in New York.

Everett Collection

Fifty years ago, it happened that a young actress named Françoise Spira was on the set during the shooting of Alain Resnais’ cult film Last Year at Marienbad.

She didn’t play the lead role, which was assigned the formidable Delphine Seyrig. She didn’t even have one of these real “supporting roles” that leave you with the memory of a few unforgettable scenes. But she was there, from the beginning of the shoot to its end, with her soundless Super 8, filming the film and capturing its most magical moments—Resnais’ youthful laughter, Seyrig’s delightful caprice, the somber and childlike charm of actor Giorgio Albertazzi.

From this little corner, unnoticed, she recorded the making of contemporary cinema’s most formal, glacial, and, actually, definite film. However, when a few years later, Françoise Spira committed suicide, the “making of” was lost with her.

For almost half a century, the few who knew of the film’s existence secretly searched for it, like Harrison Ford searching for the lost ark.

For almost half a century, the few who knew of the film’s existence secretly searched for it, like Harrison Ford searching for the lost ark. And then suddenly in 2008, it surfaced again, as though by a miracle. Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, Spira’s last companion, found the lost work hidden in the back of a basement and gave it to Alain Robbe-Grillet, who had written Marienbad’s original screenplay. A few weeks before he died, Robbe-Grillet passed it on to Olivier Corpet’s Institut Mémoires de l’édition Contemporaine, with the rest of his archives, and Corpet, in turn, gave it to me to broadcast on the website of my review, La Règle du Jeu.

Damaged by too long a stay in cinematic purgatory, the images had to be restored and, most important, an editor had to be chosen to make sense of the jumble of images on these six, silent, unintelligible reels. Volker Schlöndorff, then at the very beginning of his career, had been Resnais’ second assistant on the film, and so we went to see him to ask him to decrypt these images and bring them back to life. We wanted him tell their story and, finally, write a commentary that would serve as the voice-over for the various sequences.

The result is a film of utter singularity, a longer and touching reflection of Last Year at Marienbad, a truly new film, a behind-the-scenes tale of a masterpiece refracted in hallways and mirrors, hieratic and unwavering dialogues.

The film has been shown just once, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, but arrives in New York for a unique screening, sponsored by Diane von Furstenberg and benefiting the Maison Française of New York University. We shall all be there to share this moment of memory and emotion with the film buffs of New York. Join us Thursday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m., at NYU’s Cantor Film Center.

—Translated by Janet Lisop

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Bernard-Henri Levy is one of France's most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His most recent book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, discusses political and cultural affairs as an ongoing battle against the inhumane.