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Strategy in French New Wave Cinema

A few nights ago, I watched Last Year at Marienbad. I enjoyed it, but I became morbidly fascinated by the game that keeps coming up. It consists of taking objects such as cards and laying them out in four rows, with 1, 3, 5, and 7 objects, respectively. Players alternate picking up objects; they can take as many as they want, as long as they take them all from the same row. Whoever picks up the last one loses.

What makes it so interesting to me is that the character who introduces the game never loses. He says it’s possible for him to lose, but he just never does. When people start to suspect that whoever goes first automatically wins, he lets the other person go first and still wins. I suspect that he wins every time because his opponents are always distracted by extrinsic things, like the suspicion that he must be running some kind of scam, and don’t really think about the strategy. That’s a major advantage, but he still must have some particular strategy, right? What am I missing (other than the point of the movie)?

UPDATE: Minimal research indicates that they’re playing a version of Nim.


July 1, 2009 - Posted by | film


  1. It is possible for him to lose, but the game is solved. (As the wikipedia article discusses.)

    Apparently parts of Last Year at Marienbad were based on The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. It is a good book. I can say without qualification that I enjoyed it far more than I did the movie.

    Comment by ben | July 2, 2009

  2. So this post is basically redundant now that I found that Wikipedia article, huh?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | July 2, 2009

  3. We can discuss the remarkable fact that you enjoyed LYaM.

    I walked out.

    Comment by ben | July 2, 2009

  4. enjoyed is a strange verb to apply to Last Year at Marienbad – “fascinated”, “absorbed”,
    “astonished”, “puzzled”, etc. seem applicable but not enjoyed.

    Comment by burritoboy | July 2, 2009

  5. I was in a strange mood where I was relieved to watch something with ambiguously overlapping images and repetitive dialogue.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | July 2, 2009

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