Last Year at Marienbad (1961)- Playing on Discreteness : Aditya Tripathi

Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) [“L’année dernière à Marienbad” (original title) ]: Playing on Discreteness

BY Aditya Tripathi

(Prologue: Inter alia, the principal human characters in the film will be referred as ‘A’ and ‘B’ while the principal-ancillary character will be referred as ‘C’, henceforth. A is supposedly reminiscing of a meeting with B in certain state of ‘Time’ which he proposes to B, reminding her of the meeting and related incidents, its promises etc. constantly all over the film, of which B is oblivious or in a state of jamais vu, as it may appear. ‘C’ is the ‘present’ companion/husband of ‘B’ and is element of eminent perturbation of the cinematic mood/ plot-schemata.)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

The film opens up with a gluing sequence of finitely many connected shots of interiors of a compact space, i.e. a ‘dismal’ Baroque hotel inside which, later on,  ‘A’ confides to ‘B’ of a meeting which took place ‘last year in Frederiksbad …or Marienbad’, ‘B’ being completely oblivious of which. Strip remembrance, to be precise ontologically, anamnesis, of temporality and what remains of it is undecidable. Prima facie, the premise of the film is this ‘tenselessness’ of events. The two events of the so-called ‘past’ (supposedly reminiscing of which ‘A’ is) and ‘present’ are shown intermittently occurring inside the compact space of the Baroque hotel and its complement (the sparsely ‘vegetated’ avenue and the hedge-maze). Time in the film has spatial properties thus forming a four-dimensional ambient space of the state of events. Events are nearer or far away instead of ‘happened’ or happening. The ‘odd’ geometry of space is exploited to blur the kinesthetic sense of time.

The verbal and the pure cinematic narratives both follow a binary operation (the assertions by ‘A’ and complete different/opposite perspectives held by ‘B’, camera movements inside the hotel and alternatively in its complementary space). This feature of the film’s narrative is extremely important in what follows. The character ‘C’ constantly poses a game to ‘A’, a game of Nim, throughout the film. There are four rows of heaps of sticks/cards arranged in cardinalities of 1,3,5, and 7. A single move consists of taking as many sticks as the player may from a single row. The player to take the last stick loses. Throughout the film ‘A’ loses the game to ‘C’; ‘A’ happens to pick the last stick no matter what strategy he chooses against ‘C’ (or maybe he is playing wild).

Digression: Understanding winning strategies of Nim Games are part of Combinatorial Game theoretic analysis (Caveat! It is not similar to the theory of games one encounters in mathematical economics). Combinatorial games are of two kinds, Normal play and Misère plays. The kind of Nim game appearing in the film where the last movement corresponds to losing are called Misère plays/ games. Despite the simple looking structure of rules of combinatorial games, finding winning strategy for them is complicated in case of Normal play and ranging from extremely complicated to hitherto unaccomplished in case of Misère plays. For Normal play, due to The Sprague–Grundy Theorem it is established that to any combinatorial game say G there ‘corresponds’ a  Nim heap of finite length. Further, there is a winning strategy to Normal play Nim game. One has to put the cardinality of each strip (heap) in binary representation ( two digit system consisting of 0 and 1) and then run a bitwise XOR operation (i.e. the logical operation of Exclusive disjunction) on them. If the result of this direct sum is identically 0 the previous player’s strategy is winning (Game is in ‘P-position). Therefore the problem gets solved in Normal play Nim. The difficulty with Misère plays is that Sprague–Grundy Theorem does not hold (to a Misère game there does not correspond no Nim heap of any length). The structure theory of Misère games and its winning strategies is being approximated through the concept of Misère quotients which are  commutative monoids  formed by  certain equivalence classes modulo set of certain  Misère games/ positions (see any text on Abstract Algebra to understand these Group theoretic concepts), an area of current advanced research in the realm of combinatorial game theory. Certain Misère games are solved through computer simulations but a whole bunch of them are still lying as open problems, besides a complete general theory of them is still to be framed.

Recurrence of the game throughout the film is not only incidental or for the sake of sensation, the film plays on the idea of binary bitwise exclusive disjunction either inadvertently or surreptitiously so. Wherever there is a coincidence of the similar instances from the two states of referred time, that is to say the space is contracted to a point, the cinematic and verbal narrative gets the incremental impetus to move forward and remain inertial  till further such ‘fixed point’. The difference of remembrance and oblivion, space and its complement pave the way for the cinematic flux while the blurring of such differences represents the origin, the singularity.

The film’s ‘story’, if any is immaterial. Viewer’s presence is sought in the film and his engagement with the narrative would further complicate the affairs.

Influence of the Film: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is heavily influenced of the film, though not idea-wise. The influence is mostly on the cinematic side. The elaborated shots of a Baroque styled labyrinthine Hotel, camera tracking through its corridors and walls, the hedge-maze outside the hotel, the ballroom and resting area as centre of key incidents, the constant playing of organ music in the background etc.  are a few examples. Even Kubrick attempted a mental impasse by showing Jack Nicholson’s picture among others in that portrait hanging in that hotel lobby.

Aditya Tripathi

Aditya Tripathi

Aditya is a post graduate in Economics from Delhi School of Economics and an emerging film critic. He can be contacted at

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