When Coco Chanel Designed the Costumes for 1961 Film Last Year in Marienbad

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Last Year in Marienbad, 1961(Film still)

As Chanel’s S/S19 show takes place in Paris, we look back at Mademoiselle Chanel’s painfully chic costumes for one of the most celebrated feats of French New Wave cinema

In 1961, French filmmaker Alain Resnais paired up with leading French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet for what would be his second feature, Last Year in Marienbad. The result is an extraordinary, dizzying feat of cinema, which was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year, and has since been widely hailed as one of the greatest offerings of the French New Wave. At its centre are three guests at an opulent Baroque hotel in Germany. They are cryptically referred to in the (equally cryptic) script as X, A and M. X is our narrator, a brooding Italian, who is bent on persuading the impossibly elegant A (Delphine Seyrig) that they have met at the hotel a year previously, when, he claims, she promised to leave her sinister husband, M, for him should he only wait until the following year. A seemingly has no recollection of the myriad encounters X describes, and is torn between fear, confusion and desire.

There are many magical elements at play in Marienbad – from Robbe-Grillet’s mysterious, incantatory script, to the labyrinthine, wide-angle shots that pull us into the film’s elaborate setting, punctuated as it is by glamorous, rigidly formal guests. Not to mention the surreal leaps back and forth in time, from fantasy to reality, that leave your head spinning. But perhaps best of all, for the sartorially minded film fanatic, are A’s fabulous costumes, designed by Coco Chanel. Now, a deft digital restoration, supported by Chanel and realised as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage World Cinema series, offers viewers the chance to revisit this wonderfully beguiling and philosophical investigation into the subjectivity of truth, while appreciating both Resnais’ and Chanel’s handiwork with greater clarity than ever before. 

Marienbad marked a cinematic homecoming for Chanel, who had designed costumes for a number of Hollywood films in the 1930s, thanks to a million-dollar contract she secured with movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s production company. The film’s visual tone was set by Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay, which was extremely detailed and described everything from the décor and the characters’ gestures, right down to where the camera should be placed and the sequencing of the shots. Resnais, known for his artful precision as an auteur, followed these specifications with remarkable fidelity, making only what he deemed small, necessary changes. But the costume design, for A at least, was left entirely up to Chanel.

With her unmatched eye for refined detail and craftsmanship, the designer proved an invaluable collaborator, realising a variety of pared-back yet sensuously textured ensembles that serve as a chic contrast to the excessive spa resort with its vast mirrored walls, intricate carvings, chequered marble hallways and magnificent gardens. Chanel described the covetable garments as comprising “a wardrobe tethered to everyday life but [evoking] the allure of 1920s cinema stars, as well as a modern and timeless elegance”. This was perfectly aligned with Resnais’ vision, which drew influence from the sophisticated aesthetic of 1920s silent movies – most notably, when it came to A, Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), starring flapper icon Louise Brooks, whose look he asked the hair and make-up artists to channel.

Chanel employs a variety of fabrics to bring A’s costumes to life, from the sheer, square-necked chiffon dress that billows behind our heroine as she seemingly floats down gilded corridors and garden paths, to the lace and tiered tulle that accent her little black dresses (the Chanel signature). Feathers are used to fabulously theatrical effect on both a black floor-length cape, its plumage framing A’s face as she lurks in the dark hotel grounds, and a white silk peignoir, replete with magnificently feathered collar and cuffs, that gives A the appearance of a resplendent swan as she lounges on her bed awaiting what may or may not be a dreadful fate. A classic Chanel two-piece also features, comprising a boxy round-neck jacket and shift dress in an eye-catching metallic jacquard. Accessories are similarly quintessential, spanning two-toned kitten heels and an abundance of costume jewellery, including plenty of pearls.

The costumes, flitting as they do between black and white, soft and shimmering, dark and ruffled, are integral to the sense that we are constantly in a state of flux – between dream and reality, past and present – and serve as visual clues within the story’s complex chronology. Both the hypnotising film and its distinct aesthetic have proved enduring in their legacy, with Karl Lagerfeld aptly drawing on on Marienbad for Chanel S/S11 in a suitably dramatic, feather-filled collection paying homage to his predecessor and her most memorable foray into film.

Last Year in Marienbad is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.