Judge Jesse Ataide laments existence, French style.
"Modern life is fragmented."—Alain Resnais
In his dual review of 85-year-old director Alain Resnais's 1963 film Muriel and his latest, internationally acclaimed festival hit Private Fears in Public Places, contentious film critic Armond White proclaims Resnais "the most influential yet least familiar filmmaker from that period Philip Lopate called 'the heroic age of moviegoing.'" Two of his films have been Criterion-approved (those would be Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour) and another has come to represent for some French cinema at its most pretentious (that, unfortunately, would be Last Year at Marienbad). But for whatever reason, his follow-up film Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (Muriel or the Time of the Return) has never developed much of a name for itself despite many considering it to be the equal of those more well-known films. Some even proclaim it Resnais's crowning achievement as a director, which is very high praise indeed.
The most obvious reason for Muriel's relative obscurity is undoubtedly its complexity. Despite Resnais's stated desire to anchor his film in realism, he inevitably filters it through his unique cinematic sensibility, complete with disorienting, lightning-flash montages and a fragmented approach to narrative. In short, it comes off as anything but realistic. And yet, despite its aesthetic and narrative intricacy, digging into Resnais's film reveals a rather dazzling attempt to depict the complexities of modern living.
Facts of the Case
Resnais has said that Muriel's narrative is "…a film in facets, a film made of mosaics" and as such, reviewers (most certainly including this one) has found summarizing the film a thankless, nearly impossible task. But some basic plot points: the film takes place in Boulogne-sur-Mer (a port city on the northern coast of France) and begins when, on a whim, an aging antiques dealer named Hélène (Delphine Seyrig, Last Year at Marienbad) asks an old flame, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) to come visit her for several days. Alphonse readily accepts the invitation, but much to Hélène's surprise, he shows up accompanied by his niece, a beautiful, enigmatic young actress named Françoise (Nita Klein, Total Eclipse) who is later reveled to be his mistress.
What is intended as a happy reunion quickly sets itself up as an extremely messy domestic situation, particularly in light of the increasingly erratic behavior of Hélène's stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), who has recently returned to France upon finishing his military service in Algiers. As this quartet begins to interact with each other it becomes clear that all are playing games, each attempting to mask a secret from their past. Most of the film revolves around unraveling these secrets over a two-week period, and how it prevents the characters from connecting with each other, and perhaps most importantly, stops them from moving on with their lives.
In an interview at the time of Muriel's release, Resnais admitted that the film came about as a change of direction after the delicate and diaphanous memory puzzles Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Wanting to deal directly with issues looming large in the French psyche in the early 1960's—namely, France's role in the Algerian war for independence and the lingering after-affects of World War II—Resnais began to develop a story with novelist Jean Cayrol, a concentration camp survivor who is probably best known today for the screenplay he wrote for Resnais's Night and Fog.
Despite beginning with the intention of realism, Resnais and Cayrol's film cannot be described as a "realistic" film in the traditional sense, and indeed, Muriel, at least on an aesthetic level, seems as far removed from "reality" as any of Resnais's early films. But this stems from Resnais and Cayrol's conviction that "a classic film cannot translate the real rhythm of modern life," which leads to what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of cubism, a painting technique that had revolutionized painting early in 20th century. Cubism was meant to depict an object from multiple perspectives simultaneously; Resnais attempts the same concept with his camera, most noticeably in the several rapid-fire montages found throughout the film. But this approach also plays itself out in more subtle manner, particularly in regards to how the narrative unfolds. For even though many critics and reviewers have noted how the film contains a distinct five-act structure, each act is broken up into the so-called little facets and mosaics, which manifest themselves in many different ways. These include shots of objects and locations that seem to have no direct bearing on what is being spoken about, conversations that bleed into the following scene long after actions have elapsed, conversations that begin before they show the characters who are actually speaking, and conversations that recall past events but are presented as if they are part of the present (needless to say, with all this talking the language barrier can give an English-speaking viewer an acute headache).
The purpose of all this movement, both with the camera and with the characters (who are depicted as constantly dashing about, whether it be throughout the town in general or in HélèneÂ's cramped apartment), is to demonstrate a group of people who are running circles around things that the things that they wish to leave unspoken. One of the main themes of the film is the clash of the past with the present, and how the disconnection creates a prison-like emotional wasteland for each of the characters. For Françoise, it is the inability to let go of her relationship with Alphonse, for Alphonse it his habit of inventing a fictional background for himself to give the impression of accomplishing great things in his life. Hélène, the most flighty and seemingly emotionally distraught of all the main characters, is dealing with issues from the past that remain the most mysterious (though it has something to do with her failed love affair with Alphonse many years before); most harrowing of all is the emotional breakdown Bernard suffers because of his involvement in the torture and death of a young Algerian girl—the mysterious Muriel of the title whose unseen ghost hangs over the film like a burial shroud.
What keeps Muriel grounded (and watchable) amid all of this intellectual and cinematic experimentation is the performances, namely the frazzled, distraught central performance of Hélène, played by the ever-magnificent Delphine Seyrig. Surely one of the least well-known of all great international actresses, an abridged list of the some of the visionary directors she worked with during the 1960s and 1970s boggles the mind: François Truffaut, Luis Buñuel, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Demy, Joseph Losey, Chantal Akerman, Fred Zinnemann, photographer Robert Frank and others. And anybody who has witnessed Seyrig's unexpectedly sensual, nearly wordless performance as the chic, Chanel-clad young woman in Last Year at Marienbad will be shocked by her dowdy, verbose and extremely hyperactive turn as the aging Hélène—she's virtually unrecognizable. The other actors also perform admirably, particularly Nita Klein's confident but conflicted performance—when she shrieks near the end of the film that she has "had enough of this dump that feeds on memories," its the closest the film ever comes from breaking out of its detached, attempted objectivity into a place of vulnerability and emotional devastation.
Koch Lorber has to be thanked for helping remedy what has been an awful dearth of Resnais titles available to Region 1 viewers. Considering that only about a half dozen of his films are currently available on DVD (and several of those, including Marienbad, have been long out of print and now fetching upwards of $100 per disc), any new opportunity to see one of his films is to be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, even if the image quality certainly superior to the muddy-looking VHS copy I watched years ago, it is still found wanting—very soft and vaguely hazy at times, it really emphasizes the very 1970s color palette of browns, tans and yellow, and not in a good way. As for the audio track, it's rather difficult to tell if the quality is lacking or if it is simply Resnais's complex use of sound and conversation that can make for a challenging aural experience (most likely it's a combination of both). But extremely appreciated are the yellow subtitles included in this release—I remember struggling with the VHS copy I watched as the white subtitles had a tendency to disappear into the image on an annoyingly frequent basis.
Extras include the original theatrical trailer, and more importantly, an insightful and all-too-brief interview with Resnais scholar François Thomas. And even if it's nitpicking, if there's a film screaming out for a scholarly booklet so often found in Criterion releases it's certainly Muriel. But when it comes down to it, Muriel is a film that demands (and requires) multiple viewings, and I'm just grateful there's finally an opportunity to do so.
While I personally respond more deeply and intensely to Resnais's earlier, more poetic masterpieces Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour (both are always included near the top of any favorite films list I ever compile), Muriel is yet another endlessly fascinating, relentlessly challenging film that I relish and it receives pride of place in my DVD collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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