Directed by Alain Resnais — 1963, France — 112 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
IN BRIEF, a widowed antiques seller, the lover she lost 20 years earlier — who has now returned, and her filmmaker stepson are all haunted, in different ways, by their connections to the Algerian War.
Muriel (1963), Alain Resnais’s third feature, is an extraordinary film on every level, masterfully combining a riveting drama – flawless performances, writing, and direction – with innovations in cinematic storytelling, editing and sound. Long hard to find, Muriel can now claim its place as one of the filmmaker’s greatest works, along with its landmark predecessors, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. It also contains perhaps the finest performance by its luminous star, Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad, Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), who won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her role here.
Muriel, or The Time of Return (its full title) is a haunting tale about the complicated effects of war on three people, each trying to reconcile the past and present. In the seaport town of Boulogne in 1962, the widowed antiques dealer Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) is trying to rekindle a romance with Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien – Carol Reed’s Trapeze), a man she loved and lost during World War II. Complicating their relationship, to say the least, is a young actress named Françoise (Nita Klein – Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse), whom Alphonse deceptively introduces as his “niece,” and Hélène’s sometime lover, the demolition contractor Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval – Renoir’s Grand Illusion). Hélène’s tormented stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée – Charlie Chaplin’s son-in-law), a filmmaker, has just returned from the Algerian War. There he participated in the torture and murder of an Algerian named Muriel, together with his handsome friend Robert (Philippe Laudenbach – Beineix’s 37°2 le Matin / Betty Blue), who’s also back in town, troubling Bernard’s relationship with his girlfriend Marie-Do (Martine Vatel – La Guerre est Finie)… whom he tells people is named Muriel. The plot not only thickens but comes a boil with the arrival of Ernest (Jean Champion – Truffaut’s Day for Night), who seeks justice for his sister Simone, whom Alphonse married and abandoned.
This film marks yet another defining accomplishment for Alain Resnais (born 1922 in Vannes, France). The son of a pharmacist, he early found escape from debilitating asthma in what would become his two lifelong passions, that he sees as closely related: comic strips and movies. While one of the essential French New Wave filmmakers, Resnais was about ten years older than Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), François Truffaut (The 400 Blows), Jacques Rivette (L’Amour Fou) and the others, most of whom had worked as critics at the influential journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. While their landmark films were jazzy and improvisational, Resnais’s were highly formal, reflecting his knowledge of modern art and his connections to the avant-garde 1950s New Novel literary movement, and polished, revealing his background as a professional documentary filmmaker on Van Gogh (1948), Gaugin (1948), Picasso’s Guernica (1950), and one of the most powerful films about the Holocaust, Night and Fog (1955), which used the haunting poetry of death camp survivior Jean Cayrol (who later wrote the original screenplay for Muriel) as narration. Resnais’s first two features remain among cinema’s most innovative, influential – and haunting – masterpieces: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, from an original screenplay by Marguerite Duras) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961, original screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet). Muriel should be added to that pantheon: despite the fact that it was Resnais’s first box office flop, it now seems his single greatest achievement, for reasons that we’ll look at below. Cayrol, Duras and Robbe-Grillet, all friends of Resnais, were leaders of the New Novel movement. Throughout his career, Resnais has often turned to leading experimental writers for original screenplays, always giving them the lion’s share of credit, saying that he merely directs what they wrote – although he works closely on each script. In these and his later films, even the comedies, Resnais returns to the same inexhaustible themes: time, history, the connections between objectivity and subjectivity – memory and desire. Two of his most important filmic innovations are: from Hiroshima Mon Amour, intercutting present and past action without an obvious flashback (no ‘watery dissolves’), and from Muriel – a device now universally employed on everything from art films to soap operas – the overlapping cut, in which the dialogue from one scene continues on for a second or two after cutting to the next, and different, scene. Since Muriel, Resnais has made only about a dozen features in 40 years: the political drama La Guerre est Finie (1966), in which he developed the so-called flash-forward; the science fiction film Je t’aime, Je t’aime (1969), a critical and commercial disaster that caused Resnais to ‘disappear’ for five years, until his experimental gangster/biographical film, Stavisky… (1974), scored by the great musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim (the Resnais-like Follies, Sweeney Todd); his first English-language feature, Providence (1977), about the ambiguous workings of a novelist’s mind; his first smash hit was the ‘scientific comedy’ Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980); three intertwined stories in La Vie Est un Roman (literally Life is a Novel, released in the US as Life is a Bed of Roses, 1982); the romance L’Amour à Mort (1984) was his tenth and last film with the great cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Mélo (1986) was based on a 1929 melodrama by one of his favorite dramatists, Henri Bernstein; I Want to Go Home (1989) is a comedy about a cartoonist; both of his next two films swept the French César awards: the two-part, five-hour comedy Smoking/No Smoking (1993) and the experimental musical Same Old Song (1997); a 1920s-set musical drawing-room farce, Not on the Lips (2003); and the drama Private Fears in Public Places (2006).
Resnais, who always gives full credit to his collaborators, would be happy to see highlighted these four extraordinary talents from Muriel:
- Writer Jean Cayrol (1911–2005), who as a Resistance fighter was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned at Gusen Concentration Camp, was an acclaimed poet (Poems of the Night and of the Fog, 1946 – which he adapted as the narration for Resnais’s 1955 film Night and Fog; a multi-volume Poetry-Journal, 1969–1980), novelist (All in a Night, 1954; Foreign Bodies, 1959), and essayist (“Lazarus Among Us,” 1950 – Cayrol sees this biblical character, raised from the dead, as an emblem of his alienated, drifting postwar characters).
- Producer Anatole Dauman (1925–1998), both individually and through his company Argos Films, brought out some of the greatest works by such pantheon filmmakers as Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, La Guerre est Finie), Jean-Luc Godard (Masculine-Feminine, Two or Three Things I Know About Her), Chris Marker (La Jetée), Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette), Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion), Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire), Volker Schlöndorff (Coup de Grâce, The Tin Drum), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (La Belle Captive).
- Cinematographer Sacha Vierny (1919–2001) combined deep focus photography and meticulous lighting patterns in over 65 pictures, working with avant-garde directors such as Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour), Chris Marker (Letter from Siberia), Raoul Ruiz (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting), and Sally Potter (The Man Who Cried – Vierny’s last film). He is closely associated with two filmmakers: Alain Resnais, for whom he shot ten films beween 1955 and 1984 (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Mon Oncle d’Amérique, L’Amour à Mort), and Peter Greenaway, for whom he shot all of his pictures from 1985 till 1999 (A Zed & Two Noughts, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, The Pillow Book, 8-1/2 Women).
- Composer Hans Werner Henze (born 1926 in Gütersloh, Germany) is perhaps the most distinguished, controversial (for his leftist activism), and prolific living European musician. His three hundred works, composed during six decades, encompass every musical form, revealing his eclectic mix of styles ranging from serialism and 12-tone technique, to neo-classicism, to jazz and pop-rock. He’s written a dozen operas (the masterpieces Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids, from original librettos by poet W.H. Auden, who like Henze is gay), a dozen large-scale choral works (The Raft of ‘The Medusa’, a requiem for Che Guevara that saw Henze arrested at its volatile 1968 premiere), two dozen works for solo voice (original commissions for such legendary talents as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears), over a dozen ballets (Undine), ten symphonies, four dozen concertos and non-symphonic orchestral works, four dozen chamber pieces (for solo guitar the Royal Winter Music: Sonatas on Shakespearean Characters), and a dozen film scores (three for Schlöndorff: Young Törless, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Swann in Love, and two for Resnais: Muriel and L’Amour à Mort), not to mention the use of his intense “Fantasia for Strings” under the closing credits of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
Now, let’s take a close look at Muriel, to find out what makes this tale of time and memory tick… waiting to explode.
In general, the film is about the pull between each character’s memory – or more accurately, fantasy – of their past and how it relates to the complex reality of the present. As Alphonse at one point tells Hélène, without understanding the implications, “Every person is a private world.” The conflicts, both psychological and moral, come from the gaps in understanding between each character – just as they so often do in our own life experiences. Each character has a different take on what happened, and what it means now emotionally. This, of course, ties them into knots. For some the result is like a sexual farce, but for others the pressure leads to violence. Truffaut offers an interesting perspective on the characters’ fatal self-involvement, in his 1975 book The Films in My Life: “Muriel is an archetypically simple film. It is the story of several people who start each sentence with “I….” In Muriel, Resnais treats the same subject that Renoir treated in Rules of the Game and Chabrol in Les Bonnes Femmes: we act out ‘Punch and Judy’ as we wait to die.” One of the reasons that this film is so powerful, and deeply moving, is that ultimately Resnais leaves it up to us to decide what to make of these characters, and the implications of their lives.
If you come to this film after the dazzling temporal displacements of Hiroshima Mon Amour or the metaphysical ambiguities of Last Year at Marienbad, you may be surprised by Muriel’s “easy” linear storyline and concrete setting. We are in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in northern France on the English Channel, and it is 1962. The action unfolds precisely between Saturday, September 29 (Act I) and Sunday, October 14 (Act V). In fact, Muriel was filmed just days later, from November 1962 through January 1963, on location in Boulogne and, when interior sets were needed, at Studios Du Mont, Epinay-sur-Seine. In terms of history, the action occurs just six months after the long Algerian War ended through the Évian Accords that gave Algeria independence but France its worst humiliation since the Nazis routed them in one month in 1940. These defeats, although rarely mentioned in the dialogue, form a crucial part of the film’s backstory. Acts II and IV each encompass one week, while the pivotal Act III dramatizes two days from the middle of the time span.
Resnais had Cayrol explicitly structure the screenplay into the five unified acts of a traditional play – introduction, rising action, climax, reversal, and resolution (here’s an overview of dramatic structure). Although Act I, covering the first day, is disproportionately lengthy at 48 minutes, the compelling story unfolds in a straightforward way. The one major exception is held until the end, when after we see Bernard in his climactic scene, we move back about three minutes to watch Hélène – at that same time – visiting, and reconciling with, two old friends: when she hears something off-screen, she hurries off, returning the film to linear time. Within this classical narrative framework, Resnais and Cayrol interweave multiple storylines that play off against each other both psychologically and thematically. As in most Resnais films, before and since, characters are arranged in interlocking triangles, as we see here in the main groupings of Hélène, de Smoke and Alphonse; Alphonse, Hélène and Françoise; Bernard, Marie-Do, and Robert. The film is also structured around the internal/psychological level: every major character also interacts with their own (false) memory of who they were; when those fantasies push against other character’s self-delusions, violence erupts. Unlike Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, whose narratives frequently double – or triple – back on themselves, Muriel’s external plot advances with a clarity in striking contrast to its characters’ confusion. But like those other two films, its ending doesn’t so much tie up loose ends, although it does make the plot feel whole, as it opens new possibilities for the characters, some likely more knotty than what we’ve already seen.
While that overarching structure is straightforward, and many scenes are as finely-wrought as any in say Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1904), some sequences, especially in Acts II and IV (with characters traipsing all over Boulogne), exist as dizzying montages in a rush of quick shots – all of which were fully detailed in Cayrol’s screenplay. Resnais carries the technique a step further, and occasionally uses Cubist-like compositions, with an isolated – and geometrically composed – face, arm, or just a hand representing the entire person. While there is never any confusion about the story, many of these abstracting effects also have poetic impact. And the fragmentation provides more than narrative momentum; it viscerally depicts the characters’ broken lives – it lets us feel how they experience their world.
What grounds the film is that, from the three leads to the half-dozen supporting parts, these are all richly drawn, flesh and blood people, whose lives clearly extend long before and after the two week period in which we see them here. Even with their psychological realism, there are ample symbolic layers for those who care to excavate them. Resnais knows exactly how little of a scene we need in order to understand its implications: sometimes the action of a mere second – the way one character glances at another – can be as meaningful as an entire chapter in a novel. Resnais uses this elliptical technique at various points to define each character, but he most consistently employs it for Bernard (more about him later). It’s no coincidence that Resnais chose screenwriters like Cayrol, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet, who were all key authors in the New Novel movement, which explored the ambiguous relationships between objectivity and subjectivity (‘memory and desire’) and its narrative dislocations (more about the New Novel’s relationship to cinema in my review of Robbe-Grillet’s La Belle Captive).
One of Muriel’s many paradoxes is that while its narrative structure is rigidly ‘conservative,’ its cinematic devices – from scene structure (as just noted) to composition, sound effects to avant-garde musical scoring – were, and to a large extent remain, revolutionary, which is exactly what Resnais intended. Of course, a paradox only seems to be contradiction, when in fact it points to deeper underlying connections. In that revelatory sense, paradox in Muriel is a unifying device on every level.
A major seeming disjunction in the film is between the blistering realism of the characters (it’s what makes them so involving) with the meticulous – and in many ways abstract – artistry of the construction, both narrative (as we’ve seen) and visual/aural. It’s as if the characters were so many fluttering butterflies and Resnais is trying to capture them in the fine mesh of his artistic net… before allowing each of us to try finally to pin them down. Resnais provides his analysis of the characters and themes – through his interplay of drama, image and sound – while opening the film up, expecting each of us to come to our own understanding of what, and how, it means.
Resnais’s use of space, both geographical and compositional, also pulls the film between realism and abstraction. His Boulogne is less like the symbolic urban Waste Land of Jarman’s The Last of England (1987) and more like the untouched but enigmatic landscapes in, say, Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). Resnais in fact presents two, or three, different Boulognes. There are the medieval parts of the city, which escaped destruction in the war, next to the soulless box-like buildings springing up everywhere – after contractors like de Smoke have demolished whatever stood there before. Perhaps the single most resonant image in the film, because it says so much about both the city and this film’s characters, is of the lone building on a vacant hillside. De Smoke remarks that it was built unawares on subsiding soil: now everyone is just waiting for the looming hulk to fall. Resnais includes about a dozen different shots of this edifice throughout the film, associating it at various times with most of the major characters – including Bernard who (typically) photographs it – which solidifies the metaphorical connection between the town and the characters.
The third view of Boulogne is from the book of postcards that Françoise flips through (its paralleled earlier by Alphonse showing Hélène postcards of Algeria – turns out that’s as close as he ever got to the country, despite his lies of having lived there for 15 years). Françoise’s fluttering de facto montage allows Resnais to provide a patently artificial gloss on the locale. Unlike Muriel, who never appears in any of Bernard’s visual memorabilia from Algeria, here we can compare the representation to the reality, or at least to cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Resnais’s take on it. Cayrol had to work hard to convince Resnais to use Boulogne as the setting, but as a coastal city – between land and sea, ancient and modern – it fits perfectly with the key theme of thresholds. Note how the imagery of doors suffuses this film, from its very first shot. Characters are forever going out, coming in, or hovering at doorways – and for good metaphorical reason. Doors are tight liminal spaces, connecting both inside and outside – just as this film is about the boundary between past and present, internal and external, subjective and objective, memory and desire… and the unsettling space in between, forever ill-defined, that generates anxiety.
Resnais combines spatial and temporal dislocation in Hélène’s large white apartment, which feels sterile despite its being stuffed with antique furniture and knick-knacks from several centuries. As Bernard grumbles early on, he never knows what (historical decorative) period he’s going to wake up in. Hélène is constantly – both literally and metaphorically – selling out their furnishings from under them, day after day (hopefully earning enough to pay her gambling debts and the rent, in that order), and replacing them with new old items. Also in that early scene, Hélène has a hissy fit when Bernard sets a glass down on a table without using a coaster, which “might leave a stain.”
That line brings us to another of the film’s central images – of water and, specifically, rain. Atypically this motif is presented most often in dialogue, with several references to leaky roofs (in Bernard’s childhood room, and now in his studio); likely for budgetary reasons we only hear about another major water-based symbol, in Françoise’s gushing account, of a huge ocean liner that she saw beached just off the coast, with people scrambling to get to shore. Still, there is one ‘water scene’ that we do see, and it inspired one of the film’s most striking effects. When Hélène leads Alphonse and his “niece,” fresh off the train, around Boulogne, it begins to rain, at which point Resnais has a montage of several rapid shots of the three, each of whom vertiginously dashes straight towards the camera, over and over, as if they were splashing up against the lens (or shooting for it). When we get to know the characters better, we realize the irony of the water imagery. These people are utterly parched; and if we ignore the word ‘spring’ in these early lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), we have a good epigraph for Resnais’s film: “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain…” – of course the autumnal rain in Muriel is much colder. On yet another level, we can connect this water imagery to the film itself, which flows like few others – sometimes gently but at other times in torrents of images and emotions. This can further be connected, in a larger cultural sense, to philosopher Henri Bergson, whose theories of the flow of human perception and memory – and the elasticity of time, with past and present bending around each other – gave rise to the stream of consciousness movement in literature (Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, 1913–1927, and Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922 – works that Resnais knows well) and, by extension, film. Muriel embodies Resnais’s concept of cinematic psychological time, with its roots in both philosophy and our everyday human experience, even as it is a work of poetic force and profound humanity.
Paradoxically, for a film with so much ‘flowing,’ this is the first time that Resnais – previously nicknamed “King of the Dolly Shots” for his trademark use of tracking movement – employs a static camera. A better visual parallel for the characters is unimaginable: a fixed point of view, but frames filled with endless motion, as characters come and go, sometimes at breakneck speed. Yet it’s really an illusion: they may be scurrying about, but the camera is bolted to the floor – as static as the character’s constricted inner lives – as we saw in the ‘rain scene.’ This visual strategy connects with Resnais’s depiction of the characters’ varied, and often self-deceptive, perceptions through nervous jump cuts and frantic montages, as we saw above. What’s more, Resnais frequently breaks the decades-old rule of seamless “classical editing” (découpage classique) that demands you preserve the sceen direction from one cut to the next; by contrast, Resnais goes from a shot with the action moving right to left with another going sharply left to right, or even vertically. He never employs a single omniscient point of view, as in traditional moviemaking or fiction writing, because the characters’ conflicted points of view are never unified. And although they may be in the same physical space, often they are not in the same psychological time. They are in a labyrinth of their own, and society’s and perhaps nature’s, making.
Muriel is also notable as Resnais’s first feature in color, an achievement comparable to Antonioni’s vaunted “discovery” of color in Red Desert (1964). On the most basic level, the muted earth tones that predominate reinforce the drabness of the characters’ lives. Those dull colors also make eye-popping the first time we see a bold primary: right outside Hélène’s flat is massive red elevator, that feels once seductive, frightening… and mocking. That conflicted effect is exactly right, since the elevator – yet another threshold image – represents both freedom and constriction. Doing justice to Resnais’s innovative use of color in Muriel would require an essay many times the length of this one; maybe it’s best to just let yourself feel how color works in this extraordinarily rich film, before beginning to analyze for yourself.
Resnais also uses sound, and especially music, in evocative ways. In the opening scene, of Hélène eagerly trying to close an antiques sale, Resnais underscores the visual fragmentation – of dozens of quick abstract shots of objects and parts of the characters bodies (tellingly, we never see them whole) – with an aural counterpoint, as we hear only isolated bits and pieces of Hélène’s sales pitch and the customer’s reactions. Paradoxically, what unifies this effect is the most unsettling element of all: Henze’s stridently avant-garde soprano aria. Yup, we know we’re in an Art Film now… even as, more importantly, Resnais introduces all of his major themes visually, aurally, and metaphorically – a sort of multimedia overture for all that is to come.
In fact, there are only a few minutes of Henze’s original score throughout the film, but its soaring yet haunting vocal lines, sung by the famous soprano Rita Streich, make an essential contribution… especially once our ears become accustomed to his distinctive style. At first, this modernist music may seem to clash with the prosaic reality of these characters and Boulogne, but it actually expresses their inner yearnings and frustrations better than they can themselves, even while it transcends its discordances with a strangely ethereal sense of beauty. Henze had originally set texts that specifically referred to the film’s action, but Resnais ultimately decided that this would have been too distracting, so he had those references replaced with neutral language, while leaving the music untouched. (Although I have not yet heard it, this score is said to be connected with one of Henze’s most acclaimed vocal works, the cantata Being Beauteous, which premiered the same year as Muriel.)
Henze’s other contribution is small in scale but also significant. Many times when a character lies, or is experiencing anxiety not reflected in their demeanor, we hear a couple of rapid chords on the guitar or harpsichord. The latter instrument reminds us that this technique had been around since Mozart’s time, in the recitative sections of operas (in between arias and choruses), when the text is declaimed in natural speech rhythm but with light musical accompaniment. Resnais has Henze write dozens of these ironic little chordal stabs, to pinpoint deceits and tensions. Their witty nature also connects them to Cayrol and Resnais’s use of humor, which ultimately reveals the film’s most disturbing paradox, as we move inexorably from laughs to, in the final act, violence.
Resnais is well known for the intellectual rigor of his films, but he’s also had a lifelong passion for popular entertainment, and frequently uses it, albeit subtly, in his films. This ‘lowly’ influence in an ambitious art film like Muriel will seem less surprising to us than to 1960s audiences who – like perhaps Resnais himself – did not know that he would later make experimental musical comedies like Not on the Lips. As we learn in critic François Thomas’s documentary included on this DVD, music hall songwriters Paul Colline and Paul Maye’s “Déja” (“Already”), from 1928, long had been one of Resnais’s favorite songs (it also anticipates the great singer/songwriter Jacques Brel by several decades). Its pop origins are unmistakable in its jaunty melody, but how Resnais uses it, at the third and final ‘meal scene’ near the film’s end, reflects on many aspects of Muriel. As sung a cappella by Ernest, Alphonse’s brother-in-law, this comic song begins as an endearing bit of nuttiness, but by the end, it’s unleashed something else. Here are some key stanzas:
Cars aren’t the only things that go fast.
Time flies in such a crazy hurry too.
Take it easy, Mr. Time.
Slow down, there is a turn.
My hair is gray, but only yesterday I was a child –
There’s happiness around,
But we can’t see it.
We like to fear the future,
Regret the past and say,
“Already, already, already…”
The song’s ideas – about time passing, and how our subjectivity keeps us from achieving happiness – are also the film’s. But it connects in even more ways, with the film as a whole. The lyric’s montage of quick, sharp verbal images (as seen in the full sung) also recalls Resnais’s fragmentary approach to some scenes. On an emotional level, Ernest’s rendition parallels Muriel’s dramatic arc, which is like a pressure cooker coming ever closer to exploding.
Still, the music hall origins of Ernest’s song remind us of the important role that humor plays throughout the film. Arguably, this film is so successful because, for all of its intense seriousness, it never forgets the leavening power of laughter to keep things hopping – and to enrich the themes. Some of the funny moments include broody Bernard unexpectedly donning whacky fake eyeglasses, or Marie-Do looking at a bizarrely multi-faceted Bernard through a kaleidoscope. Analysis is, of course, the kiss off death for humor, but… both of those gags suggest the key theme of distorted perception. What’s the first thing that Alphonse does when Hélène leaves him alone in her apartment? He snoops everywhere, of course, which is human and funny… but he also finds Bernard’s cryptic photos of his tour of duty in Algeria, which further opens up that essential plot strand. Another moment that gets a laugh from some audience members comes when Resnais tips his hat to the ‘well-made play’ aspect of this drama, by having Hélène, at the start of one of her trademark big dinners, draw back a large theatre-like curtain, revealing the players, um, guests. All the world’s a stage, sometimes even in experimental cinema. The world’s also, as any New Novel author will tell you, a maze: literature buffs will smile when they hear the name of the Aughains’ upstairs neighbors: Borges, reminding us of avant-garde fantasy author Jorge Luis Borges, of Labyrinths fame. Of course a nice modest character like Marc, the friend of Hélène’s friend and landlady Claudie, wouldn’t like Borges. Why? Because as he explains in a not so subtle in-joke, “I only like books that are turned into movies” (but does Last Year at Marienbad count as a Borges movie? Nah.)
Paradoxically, the moment when everyone is laughing and having the most fun in the entire film, at the third of the three major meal scenes, is a prelude to violence. At first Ernest’s performance of “Déja” is funny, because he’s a long-winded ham, but as we later realize he’s also a man who hates his one-time friend Alphonse for two-timing his sister, Alphonse’s wife. The fist fight that breaks out between these two old “war buddies” – threatening to demolish some of Hélène’s fragile antiques – sets the stage for even greater violence to come. When Françoise then turns on Bernard’s tape recorder, all we hear is men’s raucous laughter – ironically paralleling the chuckling that opened this scene – but it’s enough to send Bernard over the edge, and literally gunning for his “war buddy” Robert. Although it’s never explained, we can imagine that the recorded laughter was the sound of guards – including perhaps Robert and Bernard – torturing the captive Muriel (one could add: four decades before the humiliations inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison.) Music hall to mayhem to murder: how very Resnais, who reveals, throughout the course of the film, that conflict stems from the clashing subjectivities that first fracture each character’s internal integrity, then emerge as violence… played out over peals of recorded laughter.
The film’s slyest bit of humor isn’t all that funny, nor is it intended to be. In a film entitled Muriel, there are in fact three Muriels, all of whom are phantoms. There’s the murdered Algerian woman whom we never see; Bernard’s deceptive name for his girlfriend; and on the streets of Boulogne, Bernard hears an unseen Muriel called to by an off-screen woman. As Hélène tells Bernard, when he (lyingly) says his girlfriend is named Muriel, “That’s a strange name.” Although none of the characters tells us what it means, we can perhaps find some clues in its etymology. Used in England, Ireland and France, the name is the Anglicized form of the Gaelic muirgheal, meaning “bright (or shining) sea” – a combination of muir (sea) and gheal (bright). This connects, however slightly, with Boulogne as a seaport, across the Channel from England; and maybe there’s a hint of a beckoning, shining horizon. The name seems to have even less significance for the film in its connections to scriptural languages: in Latin, Muriel means “angel of June,” in Hebrew “fragrance of God,” and in Arabic “myrrh.” Perhaps what’s most important about Muriel, in thematic terms, is her absence(s). (Although it’s worth noting that the psychologically realistic characters of this film are distinct from the abstract, if fleshly, characters known only as He and She in Hiroshima Mon Amour, or in the screenplay to Last Year at Marienbad as A (played by Delphine Seyrig) and the two men, X and M; however, Resnais returns to the device of a never-seen pivotal character, named Juan, in his next film, La Guerre est Finie.) Muriel’s absence suggests the deeper gaps, or perhaps we should say chasms, that exist both between the characters, with their mutually exclusive fantasies of each other, and, worse, within themselves. Those splits, we come to realize, are like unhealed cuts, some decades old, bandaged over with wishful thinking. But as we see during the two week period of the action, those wounds have become infected – in some instances, fatally so.
Bernard’s use of his “girlfriend Muriel,” as an excuse to get out of the apartment (you suspect he’s used it many times before), brings to mind that most famous character of convenience, the imaginary Bunbury in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895 – perhaps the funniest play ever written), whose incessant nearly-fatal troubles are so compelling that they can be used to break any unwanted engagement. (Perhaps Muriel’s character Ernest has that name as a nod to Wilde’s Earnest?) We come to understand how unsettling is Bernard’s use of “Muriel” when he tells the stableman – to whom he shows the 8mm movies he shot in Algeria – that that “probably wasn’t her real name.” This scene is even creepier in its context – why would Bernard shown a mere acquaintance something so personal, and how many times has he done so? – than the footage itself, which is basically shots of French soldiers horsing around in Algeria juxtaposed with generic images of “exotic” mosques. What does this tell us about Bernard, and does his desperate choice of audience foreshadow his imminent emotional collapse?
SPOILER ALERT! The ending of the film, which many (including myself) find shocking on a first viewing, is divulged below as part of this analysis.
(If you’ll allow this highly speculative – and lengthy – ‘parenthetical paragraph,’ I’ll suggest some things that my “gaydar” tells me: namely, that there may be more to Bernard and Robert’s relationship than meets the eye; and that as with the elusive Muriel, we may have to peer between the frames to find more… if there is anything more. To borrow a line from Bernard, “I’m looking for proofs [evidence].” I know nothing about the private lives of the actors mentioned here (except that the Bernard actor Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée married Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Victoria), let alone Resnais or Cayrol; and I’m confining my comments to what I see, or may be seeing, on the screen. For a strapping young man just back from all-male army duty, Bernard shows a surprising lack of interest in his declared girlfriend, the attractive Marie-Do (short for Marie-Dominique), especially when they’re in bed. It’s only after she tells him that she’s leaving the country for three years that he even begins to warm, a little, to her. In fact, Marie-Do’s decision to ‘get out of town’ makes her perhaps the film’s most admirable character, along with her apparent qualities of kindness and being comfortable in her own skin. Likewise Bernard’s attitude towards the pertly pretty actress Françoise is at best distant, although she is clearly hot for him (it must be his broody handsomeness combined with a certain Existential pixie quality). Even when she “accidentally” falls against him and tries to hold onto his arm, after inviting herself along on his walk, he remains inured to her charms – in striking contrast to Alphonse. Speaking of striking contrasts, the only times in the film when you sense Bernard, although always intense, smoldering are when he’s together with his “army buddy.” Robert’s model-perfect good looks – with meticulously groomed hair that will never blow in the wind – suggest his narcissism even as they conceal his membership in the militant right-wing OAS, that used violence to try to keep Algeria under French control even after the Évian Accords; and he subtly tries to get Bernard to follow suit. But is that all Robert wants from Bernard? When Alphonse, come clandestinely to meet his own “war buddy” Ernest in a cafe, sees Bernard and Robert, he looks at them and says to Bernard, first thing, “Shouldn’t you be in bed?” – some imaginative viewers, realizing that Alphonse is something of a man of the world, might wonder if he meant to speak in the plural: “Shouldn’t you TWO be in bed?” No line in a Resnais film is ever accidental; and multiple meanings are often de rigeur. Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, in her landmark 1985 study, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, explores how some “straight” male-male couples use a woman to “route” their own same-sex desires for each other. Could that be part of the case with the Bernard/Robert/Muriel triangle? What do we see in Bernard’s silent Algeria footage, besides no Muriel? There are only two kinds of images: touristy shots of mosques and minarets, whose, dare I say, phallic shapes are emphasized by Bernard – especially in a series of three consecutive shots – slowly tilting his camera up from the base to the top. We then cut to an extended bit with two soldiers dancing lovebird-close together, to the delight of their comrades in arms. In fact, most of Bernard’s footage is of male soldiers horsing around, recalling Alphonse’s earlier (lying) comment that Algeria provided “the best years of my life” (echoing William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives: the title is an ironic comment on the emotional chaos awaiting returning soldiers, whose “best years” were spent in the trenches with their pals). So, what went on with Bernard and Robert in Algeria, besides the torturing? No one was asking, and no one – least of all Bernard – is telling. Remember, we’re watching these buddy-buddy shots while Bernard is reminiscing to a mere acquaintance, the stableman, about the murder, although apparently not the rape (which is never mentioned or hinted at), of Muriel by Robert. In Muriel, Bernard implies that he hasn’t been seeing Robert, although he admits that he knows he’s “around” in Boulogne. Let’s look at the only act of extreme, and possibly fatal, violence in the film. Bernard shoots Robert standing in his apartment building’s doorway (that fraught liminal space), but we never actually see Bernard take out his gun; it’s as if he were “hiding.” We only hear the shot and see Robert crumple – mimicking the stylized death of Belmondo’s boyish gangster in Godard’s Breathless, notable as the only “fake” performing anywhere in the film. This is obviously intentional to highlight this climax(es) – both dramatic and possibly sexual. Does Bernard really shoot Robert solely because of masochistic guilt over Muriel’s death? That explanation has satisifed countless audiences and critics, but does a sexual, even if latent, intrepretation explain even more? Watch their handful of scenes together, especially noting their eye contact (a major source of character revelation in this and all Resnais films): their smoldering passion seems much more intense than friendly male bonding, even when it involved the “patriotic” torture/murder of someone. Since Bernard’s possible passion for Robert – and perhaps vice versa – may have been unrequited, or perhaps only briefly engaged in, does he finally come to embody Oscar Wilde’s (im)mortal line, “Each man kills the thing he loves” (from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”)? On some level, did Bernard feel that a bullet was the only way he could ‘get into’ Robert? If so, does this mark Bernard as the most extreme example of self-deception (did he tell himself, ‘I was just avenging Muriel’?), and perhaps false memories, in the film? Paradoxically, with Robert shot and possibly killed, Bernard can now take his first positive step – by throwing his life-sucking camera into the ocean; but although he may have “liberated” himself in that way, he’s now a fugitive who will certainly be captured and imprisoned (even if Robert is only wounded, and even though he is a member of a de facto terrorist organization, the OAS). Bernard’s late scene at the cliff side – again with threshold imagery, as he hurtles his 8mm camera from the land into the sea – has another aspect that could be read as an ironic joke on “arranged” heterosexuality. The grizzled old Goat Man – played by Jean Dasté, star of perhaps the greatest romantic film ever made, Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) – cluelessly asks Bernard, “Have you found a mate for my goat yet?” That would be a No…. but how different things might have been for Bernard, if he had only been able to say Yes, at least to himself. And now, the end of this extremely speculative, but I hope provocative, parenthetical.)
In closing – although one can never “close” a film as immensely rich and full as Muriel – let’s look at the subtitle, one of the few ever used on a film (although such ‘double titles’ were a common practice in 18th and 19th century novels). What is “The Time of Return”?
Virginia Woolf made a telling comment on time in her fantasy novel Orlando (1927), saying that there is an “extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind.” Resnais, along with the New Novelists, would certainly agree. Memory, of course, is what makes all of us time travelers, but the equipment is never up to code. This film is, in effect, about the folly of trying to “return” to an earlier time in a life to bring it into the present. What makes trying to bring back the past so destructive is the role that subjective fantasy plays in distorting how we see the present. (Cayrol and Resnais would also understand the larger historical implications for social conservatives, perhaps like Robert in the radical-right OAS, who want to turn back the clock on cultural progress but, happily, can’t.) Some forces are so strong – like the murder of Muriel for Bernard, or the desperate hope of Hélène for rekindled passion with Alphonse (despite having de Smoke wrapped up) – that they blind the characters to the fact that they can never go back again. And as we – if not the characters – can see, no war, whether World War II or Algeria, can be blamed for the failure of Hélène’s adolescent love to return, any more than Alphonse’s long-ago undelivered letter to her would have changed their relationship. Time only moves in one direction – as Ernest sings, it “flies in such a crazy hurry” – and never allows for a genuine return.
By contrast, there is one happy “return,” involving Hélène and her old friends, the tailor Antoine and his wife Angèle. They don’t appear until the final minutes when Hélène calls on them (at the same time that Bernard shoots Robert, a couple of blocks away). The sincere Angèle tells Hélène, “Let’s bury the past” – we never learn what came between them – and invites her in. This scene of reconciliation provides a moment of graceful reconnection between people, during the violent Act V, but note that it’s predicated on an easygoing warmth between all of them and, perhaps most importantly from the film’s thematic point of view, forgetting about, not trying to distort or bring back, the past. Between the affirmative solitary acts of Marie-Do’s leaving Bernard and Boulogne (albeit for reasons of work, not just breaking paralysis) and Bernard’s tossing his camera into the sea (although his future is utterly bleak), we have this healing moment of renewed connection between three old friends.
The film’s final scene is one of the most subtle and astonishing in cinema. After all of the fireworks of the final act – with Ernest and Alphonse’s fight, Bernard’s shooting Robert, and several characters scurrying off like rats fleeing a sinking (or beached) ship – we end with stillness. For a few moments, we follow Alphonse’s long-suffering, but until now unseen, wife Simone as she enters Hélène’s deserted apartment. For the first time in the film we have a long, continuous shot – spatial integration after nothing but a static camera with people flitting about it, let alone vertiginous montages – as Simone moves about the place, going from one room to another to another. But unlike her snooping husband, earlier in the film, all she finds is… nothing. We can only hope that this “time” her deceitful husband will not “return.” The film ends with Simone walking out of the frame – a long shot with complete depth of focus – leaving us to gaze at no more than the transient things in Hélène’s deserted apartment. Like Henze’s soprano vocal lines that weave throughout the film, the image is at once chilling and serene.
Muriel has employed a small domestic canvas to suggest far-reaching implications. Using every resource of cinematic art, including some he invented, Resnais comes as close as any filmmaker to expressing the inexpressible, both of our inner psychological turmoil and of vast external forces like history and time. All of those phenomena are mixed together in this film as in lived experience, which is why it is so powerful… and, for all of its tensions, so beautiful too.
Four decades after its premiere, and long after the end of the Algerian War, this film remains so alive because it’s at once precise in its artistry yet suggestively elusive. The characters’ unrecognized gaps within themselves – between memory and fantasy – destroy them, whether in small ways or through violence. But paradoxically, Cayrol and Resnais’s purposeful gaps within the film itself – in the exhilarating counterpoint between psychology, drama, rhythm, image and sound – allow us, with our individual imaginations, to open up these complex and intensely real characters, to make of them what we will – and to use them, if we dare, as a dark mirror into ourselves and our society. The past is the present is the future, inevitably – unless we break that self-devouring circle through our compassionate understanding, first for ourselves, and then for each other.
- Directed by Alain Resnais
- Written by Jean Cayrol
- Produced by Anatole Dauman
- Cinematography by Sacha Vierny
- Production Design by Jacques Saulnier
- Costume Design by Lucilla Mussini
- Edited by Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier, and Eric Pluet
- Sound by Antoine Bonfanti
- Music by Hans Werner Henze
- Singer: Rita Streich
- Delphine Seyrig as Hélène Aughain
- Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée as Bernard Aughain
- Jean-Pierre Kérien as Alphonse
- Nita Klein as Françoise
- Claude Sainval as Roland de Smoke
- Martine Vatel as Marie-Dominique (“Marie-Do”)
- Laurence Badie as Claudie, Hélène’s Friend
- Jean Champion as Ernest, Alphonse’s Brother-in-Law
- Jean Dasté as the Goat Man
- Julien Verdier as the Stableman
- Gaston Joly as Antoine the Tailor
- Catherine de Seynes as Angèle, the Tailor’s Wife
- Gérard Lorin as Marc, Claudie’s Friend
- Françoise Bertin as Simone, Alphonse’s Wifz
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Koch Lorber Films has restored Muriel for its long-awaited DVD release, which offers very good image and sound quality, plus an informative 15-minute documentary that analyzes the film.
- From restored film and sound elements
- In the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Dolby Digital sound
- Documentary “Ink Stains,” an informative brief history and analysis of the film by critic François Thomas, author of L’Atelier D’Alain Resnais.
- Original French theatrical trailer
- $29.98 suggested retail
Reviewed March 20, 2007 / Revised October 26, 2020