Muriel, or the Time of Return

Alain Resnais has had difficulty winning an American audience, partly due to the unavailability of much of his work here, and partly due to the avant-garde nature of his first two features (Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad), which caused many US critics to dismiss him as a filmmaker interested in “form over content.” James Monaco offers a fine riposte to one such critic, Pauline Kael, in his book on Resnais:

“Really, Alain Resnais’s films, far from being the complicated and tortuous intellectual puzzles they are reputed to be, are rather simple, elegant, easily understood–and felt–investigations of the pervasive process of imagination. It doesn’t even take much imagination to enjoy them. All that is necessary is an understanding that we are watching not stories, but the telling of stories. Far from being a forcible, new intellectual twist, this is simply a little refreshing honesty. In life, we watch stories, in film we always, perforce, must watch the telling. There is no other way, so why not admit it within the limits of the movie?”

Resnais’ third feature, widely considered to be one of his best films (perhaps even his masterpiece), Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963), has finally been released on DVD, and its colorful, character-based immediacy might surprise those only familiar with his ethereal, black-and-white tone poems. Not that Muriel isn’t adventurous in its formal construction, visually and aurally skipping through its characters’ everyday lives as if on intermittent play, but it tells a straightforward story with fully-formed characters. Although it can take several viewings to grasp the details of the narrative (it took me three), the film’s staccato, elliptical construction ultimately seems completely natural and deeply compelling.

The script was written by Jean Cayrol (who died in 2005), the French poet and concentration camp survivor who wrote the narration for Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955). Muriel is set in a specific place, Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, and it takes advantage of the city’s contrasting architecture in the early ’60s, when new high rises and cafes stood next to streets and ruins still bearing the scars of World War II. Resnais has offered architectural metaphors at least since he envisioned the BibliothËque nationale as a giant brain in All the Memories of the World (1956), and here he utilizes Boulogne to underscore the tension between France’s troubled past and present makeover.

Muriel was one of the first French films to address atrocities committed during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-’62); aggressive censors ensured that previous and future films–Resnais’ Statues Also Die (’53), Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (’60), The Battle of Algiers (’66), and many others–had difficulty being released. The film is without a doubt timely today in the US as the nation alternates between coming to grips or flat-out ignoring its own war of occupation and reports of human rights abuses. “Algeria is all over for us,” a shady ex-soldier named Robert (probably a member of the OAS) says regarding such reports. “The loudspeaker cars, the speeches, the leaflets, all gone. We’re in France. The main thing is for every Frenchman to feel alone, scared. He’ll erect barbed wire around his little ego. He doesn’t want trouble, so let’s keep him guessing [about what happened].”

The story is simple, but there are so many characters–some only briefly glimpsed–that making sense of their connections can be daunting. There are two primary romantic triangles that mirror one another in various ways, but each character seems to have at least two potential suitors. One triangle centers on HÈlËne (Delphine Seyrig), an attractive, middle-aged woman who re-initiates contact with her ex-lover, Alphonse, an ex-WWII soldier who arrives with his actress girlfriend (ostensibly his niece), FranÁoise. HÈlËne sells antiques and is a compulsive gambler; she also has a casual boyfriend, Roland, who demolishes buildings in Boulogne and salvages the parts.

The other major triangle centers on HÈlËne’s stepson, Bernard, an ex-soldier just back from Algeria, who agonizes over his participation in the torture of a woman named Muriel (whom he bizarrely claims he’s dating but is never seen). He also has a girlfriend named Marie-Do, who is vaguely connected to Robert, the shady ex-soldier quoted above.

The narrative has been described as “pure soap opera,” but the treatment and execution–Monaco’s “telling of the story”–is rife with complex associations and a multitude of details, not the least of which is a character whose importance emerges near the end of the film and helps clarify (partially reformulating) the narrative. The plot is structured around five acts and three pivotal dinner scenes; the first introduces the characters, the second highlights the theme of building a new society on a troubled past (more on this in a bit), and the third ignites the climactic confrontation. In between, the film skips through the lives of the characters, offering teasing moments and particles of events.

Throughout, however, the theme of how each character relates to his or her sense of time and memory remains paramount. (Critic John Ward’s Bergsonian analysis of the film is particularly illuminating in this regard.) The duplicitous Alphonse exploits the past to manipulate the present; HÈlËne clings to the past by selling antiques and escapes the present (she’s always forgetting things) by living for the future (gambling); Bernard is confined to the past entirely; etc. Only FranÁoise seems to live in the present from moment to moment, and at one point, she shrieks, “I’ve had enough of this dump that feeds on memories!” The characters in the film–like the town of Boulogne–are in constant motion, psychologically shifting between past, present, and future, and moving about town from one end to the other, never achieving stasis.

Resnais once described Muriel as “recording the anger of a so-called happy civilization,” and the central dinner scene may be the most pertinent in this regard. Roland amuses the other characters by describing a tall, modern house (seen throughout the film and pictured at the top of this review) built on a subsiding cliff. Despite extensive planning for the house itself, “it’s new, it’s empty, and we wait for it to collapse,” he grins. A metaphor for these characters, postwar(s) French society in general, or both? Bernard certainly seems to think the latter, at least; he randomly films places and events on his 8mm camera in an effort to indict French society for its crimes. “I don’t want to be a filmmaker,” he says, “I’m gathering proofs, that’s all.” But in one crucial moment, he panics when his tape recorder plays his audio instead of records it, revealing his own past and disintegrating his moral authority.

The climax provokes a moment of truth for nearly all the major characters, shattering their illusions and forcing them to confront the present realities many of them have so studiously avoided; by the same token, Cayrol and Resnais’ brilliant formal structure ensures that the film’s style preserves the audience in a state of perceptual limbo so that the solidification of the narrative proves equally provocative for them. It’s a beautiful construction, as contemporary and incisive in its gaze as Resnais’ previous features were memorializing and poetic.

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