Nim in the Last Year at Marienbad screenplay

Thane Plambeck, in a message posted February 5, 2006 describes the appearances of the game of misère nim in Alain Renais's 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. I noticed the screenplay (or "Ciné-Novel") Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Robbe-Grillet, translated by Richard Howard (John Calder, London, 1962, reprinted 1971) in a used-book store that July, and decided to see if it shed more light on the game and the film. The contrast between the two is striking.

Similarities, differences, and their sources

In his introduction, Robbe-Grillet writes that after discussing the story with director Alain Resnais,

[...] I began to write, by myself, not a “story” but a direct shooting script, in other words a shot-by-shot description of the film as I saw it in my mind, with, of course, the corresponding dialogue and sound. Resnais came regularly to look at the text and make sure that everything was going as he imagined it himself. Once this writing was finished we had a long series of discussions, which again confirmed our complete agreement. Resnais understood so perfectly what I wanted to do that the few changes he suggested—at certain points in the dialogue, for instance—always followed my own intention, as if I made notations on my own text. (pp. 7-8)
Resnais shot the film without Robbe-Grillet, but Robbe-Grillet saw the film at the rough-cut stage, and writes
Resnais had kept as close as possible to the shots, the set-ups, the camera movements I suggested, not on principle but because he felt them in the same way I did; and it was also because he felt them in the same way that he had changed them when necessary. But of course he had in every case done much more than merely respect my suggestions: he had realised them, he had given everything in the film existence, weight, the power to impose itself on the spectator's senses. [...]
All that remained for me to do was complete a few transition passages in the text, while Henri Colpi added the finishing touches to the editing. And now I can point to no more than one or two places in the whole film where perhaps . . . here a caress I saw as less explicit, there a mad scene that could have been a little more spectacular . . . . But I mention these trifles only for conscience's sake, since we had even intended, at the end, to sign the completed film jointly, without separating scenario from direction in the credits. (pp. 8-9)

This suggests that the text matches the film very closely. However, Robbe-Grillet mentions that

The attentive spectator will naturally notice discrepancies between this account of a film and the actual film as seen. These slight changes have either been dictated by material considerations, such as the architectural arrangement of the settings used, even sometimes by a simple concern for economy, or else imposed on the director by his own sensibility. But it is not to dissociate myself from Alain Resnais' mediations that I present my initial text here, for on the contrary that text has only been reinforced, as I have indicated above; the only reason is one of probity: since the text is published under my signature alone. (pp. 13-14)
Robbe-Grillet does not mention seeing the film after the "finishing touches to the editing," which may have been drastic, and there may have been some post-production loss before the transfer to the DVD that Thane viewed. In particular, the text describes a fourth Nim game that Thane didn't mention.

Another source of difference is that both Thane and I are dealing with English translations, of a French soundtrack and a French screenplay, respectively. This has a tendency to add discrepancies. For example, the screenplay has a line

X: A few months, a few hours, a few minutes. (A pause.) A few seconds more . . . as if you were still hesitating before separating from him . . . from yourself . . . as if his silhouette . . .
X's last phrase is spoken in a voice that has grown a little remote, as though neutralised by distance and dreaming. As a matter of fact, it reproduces exactly the same phrase already heard offscreen at the beginning of the film (ideally, the same sound track would be used). (p. 142)
referring to a line
X's voice: A few seconds more, as if you yourself were still hesitating before separating from him—from yourself—as if his figure, though already gray, already paler, still threatened to reappear[....] (pp. 20-21).
that is sufficiently different that I suspect the translator or editor has accidentally differentiated the word choices in the two phrases that Robbe-Grillet implies are to be identical.

There are also differences to be expected in the two media through which Thane and I experienced the story. The screenplay includes descriptions, such as the above, which point out subtle correspondences within the film that could easily be missed, or even passed off as coincidence. Robbe-Grillet's description indicates at least that these correspondences are intentional, and suggests that they have content important to the story he is telling. On the other hand, without the film's "existence, weight, the power to impose itself on the spectator's senses" I am left without a full grasp of the action. The book contains still photographs from the film, but I have had some trouble reconciling them with my internal image of the story. I am left with an even less distinct understanding of the timing of the film; Robbe-Grillet describes pauses and pacing, but the descriptions are ambiguous to me, and I am not perfectly attentive to them when they are clear.

Spoiler warnings, and a note on the main characters

In the following, I describe certain scenes within the screenplay and film that a spectator or reader might prefer to experience as a surprise. For those who are extremely sensitive, I may have already ruined the shock of hearing a line from the beginning of the film repeated near the end. However, avoid describing the actual dramatic sweep of events and outcomes.

However, those who wish to receive their first experience of the gradual and nuanced definition of the relationship between the major characters directly from the film or screenplay must do so before reading further, since I will quote some description of these matters from Robbe-Grillet's introduction, and I will not disguise the relationships in the scenes that pertain to Nim.

I will cite Thane's observations of the timing of certain events in the film, but there is at least one case where I fail to understand how the event could occurred at the time cited. For events that were omitted from Thane's description, I will attempt to identify their location in the film by mentioning other occurrences in the film. Again, I attempt to avoid occurrences that give away the plot, but their mere mention may disappoint the most ardent lovers of surprise.

In introducing the characters, Robbe-Grillet writes

Since none of these three characters has a name, they are represented in the script by simple initials, for the sake of convenience alone. The man who is perhaps the husband (Pitoëff) is designated by the letter M, the heroine (Seyrig) by an A, and the stranger (Albertazzi) by the letter X, of course. (p. 10)
The lack of names and ambiguity of relationships (M may be A's husband (mari?), or guardian, or lover; it is also never ascertained whether X's claim of a past relationship with A is true or false) is part of either the charm or the frustration of this film. At any rate, M is the main instigator of the Nim game in this film. M claims he always wins the game; he in fact wins all the Nim games described in the text, and his strategy is played flawlessly when he has a winning position, although there is no mention of actual strategy in the text save for (possibly) a general mention in §1 and some unreliable comments overheard in §9.

References to Nim in the screenplay

§1 (p. 29)

The first reference to Nim may occur quite early in the script. Shortly after the the stage-play scene, there is a salon scene introduced by the exclamation "Extraordinary!" uttered explosively. There is a man in this scene who responds

Actually, it wasn't so extraordinary after all. He had started the whole thing himself, so that he knew all the possibilities in advance.
It is not certain that this is referring to M and his command of Nim; I present it only as a possibility.

§2 (pp. 32,41)

Note that pp. 33-40 are still photographs from the film. Thane identifies this as "#1)" at an elapsed time of 15:11 (roughly). The game is played with cards arranged in a triangle according to the diagram

O   O   O   O   O   O   O
O   O   O   O   O
O   O   O

M lays out the cards in front of X and describes the rules. The screenplay describes the moves narratively; I will abbreviate these by simply listing the position left after each move, occasionally interspersed with excerpts of the narrative. I write these positions as four digits sfto, where s, f, t,. and o are the number of cards (or other counters) left in row that originally had seven, five, three, or one counter, respectively.

X: 6531 M: 6431
X: 0431 M: 0231
X: 0131 M: 0111
X thinks for a few seconds, smiles as if he realised he has lost.
X: 0011 M: 0001
A single card remains; since all of the cards have been laid out face down, it is not seen what card this one is. Yet the camera has moved closer to the table during the game and remains momentarily fixed on this remaining card, as if it had some meaning. The image is interrupted only at the moment of A's laughter.
offscreen. X is apparently not seen picking up the last card.

§3 (pp. 52-54)

This game apparently did not appear on Thane's DVD. It occurs after a flashback to the garden, which occurs after the shooting scene. This is the beginning of the scene that contains §4, at elapsed time 20:56. The scene starts with a group of standing people in a salon, where an unseen man (probably sitting at a table on the other side of the group) is heard saying

one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . one, two, three, four, five . . . one, two, three . . . one
after which the scene changes to a shot of the same group seen from the other side.
[...] As well as the people seen more or less from behind a moment before, two or three persons sitting around a small round table are now seen. On the table there is only an ashtray, an almost empty box of matches with its lid lying beside it, and, finally, sixteen matches arranged according to the diagram shown above in front of one of the seated characters (a man).
I'll call that man S. M is standing opposite S, leaning over the table a little, and X is standing "almost between the two," which I understand to mean behind the table from this viewpoint. The game proceeds.
S: 7530 M: 7520
S: 6520 M: 6420
S: 6410 M: 5410
S: 5310 M: 2310
S: 2210 M: 2200
S: 1200 M: 1000
[...] one match remains in front of the seated player.
and again the last match is not picked up. Instead the scene changes at the sound of an electric bell.
Immediately: a new shot of the sixteen matches arranged in their proper order again. This image is absolutely the same as the one that begins the foregoing game.
But this time, after a few seconds' hesitation, the seated player's hand comes to rest, spread out, on the game, and with a circular gesture (not too quick a one) scrambles the arrangement of the matches. And he says in a more or less distinct fashion: No, it's impossible.

The crowd reacts to this,

The seated player stands up and walks away; others leave too; the group is diminished and scatters. During this time X, who is now standing next to the table, has stretched out his hand toward the scattered matches and has slowly, carefully replaced them in their initial order.
X looks at the matches for a while as M looks at X and the surrounding group makes crowd noises. This leads directly to the next section.

§4 (pp. 54-56)

Thane identifies this as "#2)" at an elapsed time of 20:56. The shot begins with the sound of the electric bell (heard earlier), ringing for three or four seconds.

And then a complete silence follows while X finishes arranging the matches and remains staring at them in their proper order. Now sound of conversation or movement can ber heard now. It is at this moment that X says, looking up:
X: And what if you were to play first?
M immediately unfoldes his arms, grimaces slightly and gestures to indicate his polite acquiescence, [...]
M: 7530 X: 7520
M: 7420 X: 7410 ?
M: 5410 X: 5400
M: 4400 X: 3400
M: 3300 X: 2300
M: 2200 X: 1200
M: 1000
As the scene ends,
X has one arm half extended toward the last match on the table.

§5 (p. 66)

This reference occurs after M interrupts X and A to explain that the statue represents Charles III and his wife, followed by a sequence of shots of corridors and salons.

The last image of the sequence shows A alone. She is near a table or some other low piece of furniture on which is placed a vase with a bouquet of flowers. One of the flowers (rose, peony, etc.) has shed its petals on the table. A picks up the fallen petals, one by one, slowly, and arranges them in front of her according to the diagram of the match game: a row of seven, a row of five, a row of three, a single petal. A must seem remote, and not sentimental.

§6 (p. 70)

Later, there is a reference to the scene in §3 and §4 occurred. This occurs in the scene where A seen walking in the garden carrying her shoes.

[...]The shot immediately changes.
Counter-shot, showing a group of persons in the same garden. A is seen from behind, in exactly the same place and the same position as in the preceding shot, but she has her shoes on her feet. She is closest to the camera; the others are located at varying distances, forming a rather loose group, distributed between her and a stone balustrade (as if this balustrade stood at the end of the long path[)]. The characters are precisely the ones who were watching the game with the 16 matches. M is part of the group, as is X.

§7 (p. 87)

It is possibly this scene that Thane describes at elapsed time 37:00, but Thane describes a setup with matchsticks and the text describes poker chips. Following the scene where the waiter is sweeping up fragments of a broken glass, the screenplay describes

Resembling this last shot of the broken glass on the floor, there is then a shot of a round table (the poker table) with the poker chips scattered across it, suggesting the pieces of glass in their arrangement. Selecting identical chips, M is arranging the series of his favourite game: 7, 5, 3, 1. There are two other men with him, around the table. They are standing, they have no doubt been playing poker, and M is about to suggest his game to them before they separate (but this is not certain).

§8 (p. 134)

It is possibly this scene that Thane describes at an elapsed time of 37:00, but that seems too early; the text places this shortly before §9, 36 minutes later. Not long after A is seen lying on the floor in a provocative pose, there is a salon scene in which A walks away from X, after saying

A: You're raving!. . .I'm tired. . .let me alone!
[...]Another shot of X, still in the same place, from a little farther away. Neutral face, eyes staring into space. He is resting one elbow on a low, round table that is close beside his chair. In his hand he has a box of matches, which he mechanically opens, watching the contents fall out onto the table. Little Italian matches; X watches them; begins to arrange them in the prescribed order: 7, 5, 3, 1, methodically but absently.

§9 (pp.137-139)

Thane identifies this as "#4)" at elapsed time 1hr 13:00. He describes it as a game with matchsticks, but the text describes playing with face-down dominos.

View of a game room in the hotel: the domino table as before, with almost all the players around it. But they are no longer playing dominos. It is M's favourite game which is arranged on the table, this time with face-down dominos set out in proper order: 7, 5, 3, 1. It is M and X who are about to play together, sitting opposite each other across the width of the oblong table (so that they have changed position). It is the table that is seen best, photographed from slightly above, as in the first images of the domino game.
After the sound of the photograph being manipulated, which marks the beginning of the scene, the commentaries made by the observers are immediately audible.
I think this game's silly
There's a trick you have to know.
All you have to do is take an uneven number.
There must be rules.
It's the one who goes first who loses.
I remember how Frank used to play this last year . . . Yes, yes he did, I'm sure of it.
What you have to do is take the complement of seven each time.
In which row?
Having considered the table a long time, X signals that he is going to begin; the others all stop talking and X speaks, addressing M.
X: I'd like you to begin.
M: With pleasure . . . Which would you like me to take?
X looks at M as though to see if he is being serious, then looks again at the table and points to the last domino in the row of seven....
M: 6531 X: 6331 ?
M: 1331 X: 1311
M: 1011
There remain three isolated dominoes. X stretches out his hand toward one of them and draws it back after a few seconds, without taking any, realising that he has lost. The game has been rapid and silent.
M: Well, I've lost.
He slowly begins setting out the pieces for a new game, thinking about what he should have done.
[...]Against the confused background of mingled conversations, snatches of distinct phrases stand out here and there:
It's the one who starts who wins.
You have to take an even number.
The lowest whole uneven number.
It's a logarithmic series.
You have to pick a different row each time.
Divided by three.
Seven times seven forty-nine.

§10 (p. 149)

In the final scene, A is seen sitting on a couch in a salon.

A looks for something in her bag, finds a letter she begins reading (perhaps she has written it); then she tears it into sixteen pieces (four times) and drops the pieces on the table (a long, low table in front of the couch), mechanically. Mechanically, too, she begins arranging the bits of paper according to the classical figure of M's favourite game: 7, 5 . . . but before she has finished, she stirs up all the bits with a sudden gesture. Then she gathers up the bits of paper, tears them across again, looks for a place to put them and finally abandons them in an ashtray.

Relevance of Nim to the story

The actual game of Nim is probably most appropriate to the action because it is simple, but with a non-obvious strategy, and the games are short.

The choice of a triangular array of rows is clearly symbolic of the dramatic triangle of the three main characters. In fact, the singleton token in the last row seems to be associated with A, as in the end of section 2.

The analogy can be extended to the character of the moves—taking away objects being like eloping with M's wife, or simply escape from the prison-like hotel.

I have tried to find all the Nim references in this screenplay, but I would welcome further observations from readers of this note.

Dan Hoey

2006 August 5