Alain Resnais’ deceptively conventional drama is really about interpersonal dynamics: lives lived in the here and now are really anchored in events and concerns from the past, that bleed into the present. Delphine Seyrig’s antique dealer invites an old beau to visit, but instead of clarity and direction finds just more personal confusion.
Muriel, ou Le temps d’un retour
The Criterion Collection 824
1963 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 116 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 19, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Nita Klein, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Claude Sainval, Laurence Badie, Jean Champion
Cinematography Sacha Vierny
Production Design Jacques Saulnier
Film Editor Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier, Eric Pluet
Original Music Paul Colline
Written by Jean Cayrol
Produced by Anatole Dauman
Directed by Alain Resnais
Back in film school we’d make pronouncements like, why do all movies have to have such structured plots, with organized conflicts and resolutions? Why can’t some be more like real life, with its doubts and unresolved issues? My idea was a theoretical show called Business as Usual where one would just observe people doing what people do, sort of a boring neo-neo realism. Douglas Haise mentally invented a TV show he called Heart Attack Theater: every week the audience would be plopped into some random situation. A ‘character’ might stay for the whole segment, or we might switch to someone else at any time. Things might be busy or slow. The one thing viewers knew would happen during the show is that someone, somewhere would have a heart attack. It might be a leading character or someone in the background. Or maybe someone would read a newspaper headline about somebody having a heart attack somewhere. But the ‘hook’ would be watching and waiting for the inevitable to happen. I later fantasized that TV would get into the habit of having one ‘business as usual’ episode every season, where the usual crises and plot engines would be given a rest. We’d just see Mary Tyler Moore going about her business, or we’d observe normal routines on the Starship Enterprise.
That’s what I think of when I now see Alain Resnais’ Muriel, ou Le temps d’un retour (or the Time of Return. The filmic master of time and memory said his moviemaking was more like gathering evidence than telling stories. All the Memory of the World sees the workings of a massive Paris library as an attempt to gather all of recorded human experience under one roof, to save it from mortality and forgetfulness. Night and Fog is a plea to not forget a human tragedy just ten years in the past, but already being denied and avoided. Hiroshima, Mon Amouris about lovers trying to reconcile horrible events of war. And Last Year at Marienbad sees people trying to reconstruct events in the past, as a puzzle of fragmented memories difficult to distinguish from reality.
1963’s Muriel is Alain Resnais’ most accessible and perhaps most subtle art film about time-shifting consciousness. The temporal, memory-based disturbances occur in ordinary life, and for the most part Resnais chooses to avoid abstract visuals and distancing devices such as repeating voiceovers and complex flashbacks.
But Muriel will be every bit as perplexing to some viewers, as it uses an eccentric anti-narrative editing style to emphasize the lack of progress in its characters’ lives. The sympathetic Hélène sends a letter asking an old beau to visit, and then wonders why she did it or what she could have expected to occur. All she finds are more people living in the past or hiding from painful memories.
It’s a gloomy season in Boulogne. Hélène Aughain (Delphine Seyrig) sells antiques out of her apartment, which she shares with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), whose father died years ago. Lonely and falling prey to a gambling habit, Hélène invites an old lover, Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kérien) to visit. He’s never given Hélène a good explanation why he left her back in the war years. Alphonse shows up with young Françoise (Nita Klein), who he claims is his niece. It soon becomes apparent that Alphonse tells a lot of tall tales, as Françoise is actually his mistress. Just back from the Algerian war, Bernard behaves oddly and sometimes rudely. He tells Hélène that he frequently visits someone named Muriel, when he’s really off brooding alone or passing the time with a casual girlfriend, the cheerful Marie-Dominique (Martine Vatel). Muriel is actually the name of an Algerian woman tortured and murdered by Bernard’s comrade Robert (Philippe Laudenbach). Bernard was complicit in the crime, which has left him haunted and unbalanced.
Muriel, ou Le temps d’un retour (Muriel, or the Time of Return) finds Alain Resnais and his screenwriter Jean Cayrol again probing the meaning of memory. Unlike art film directors that exercise personal visual styles while serving up the same old psychological underpinnings, most everything in Resnais’ films is subordinated to its theme. The meanings are all on the surface; there are no tricks or distractions. Time magazine called it a superb ‘exercise in style,’ when to me it seems an effort to get away from anything resembling a standard style.
Muriel is free of flashbacks and side-trips into other dimensions, and for the most part resembles a conventional drama. But we quickly note the director’s attempt to randomize many activities. The film begins with a series of details in Hélène’s kitchen as she goes through her morning rituals. But they’re presented in a jumbled order: A hand opening a doorknob to leave precedes a shot of tea-water being boiled. Scenes appear to follow a narrative logic, but the details are all wrong. People talk about events we’ve just seen happen, and change the particulars. A meal is described as one dish, cooked as another and then later complimented as yet a third different entrée. A nighttime walk through the city is inter-cut with daytime views of streets going by. All of these dislocations imply that the discordant material is actually happening at a different time — a different meal, a different walk. Or they may simply represent the inability of the characters to deal with the present tense: all are fixated on past events, and only the cynical, detached Françoise seems to have a specific idea for a personal future. The present is a jumble of ‘things happening,’ often with the dull spots erased. At one point the dinner guests ask, “Where’s Bernard?” and the show jump-cuts ahead to show Bernard already arrived and eating.
Hélène appears to have written to Alphonse in search of a way out of her doldrums. The antiques business is weak and she still wonders why he dropped her almost twenty years before. But Alphonse shows himself to be an almost completely false friend. A bad guest, he’s resentful when Hélène leaves him alone and takes to searching through Bernard’s private papers. His ‘niece’ Françoise is a pert little smartie. She amuses herself by laughing at the provincials as they eat in cafés. But she’s baffled when Bernard simply leaves her in an unfamiliar part of town in the middle of the night, saying that he’ll be back for her in an hour. By the logic of this movie, nobody keeps even the most basic of promises.
Muriel may be confusing but it is never arbitrary. Everything that occurs feeds back into the main theme. Hélène’s ruinous gambling and Bernard’s horse-riding are weak attempts to evade real problems. Crowded with unsold antiques, Hélène’s house is a repository for clutter from the past that mirrors her confused state. Like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Bernard obsesses over films and tape recordings of his guilty secret from Algeria, unable to put it behind him. Alphonse’s lies about past businesses, foreign adventures and glories are cover for his personal failures and betrayals. Friendly with shopkeepers, he soon becomes the most popular man in town.
The seaport town of Boulogne is equally haunted. Described by Hélène’s friend Roland (Claude Sainval) as a ‘martyr town’, much of it is still in ruins. Plaques denote where massacres took place during the war — so people can forget about them? Roland wants to reinvigorate the city but a modern building project sticks out like an eyesore among the more traditional buildings. Worse, its foundation is no good, and it cannot be occupied. The building languishes in a state of limbo, just like Hélène, Bernard and even Alphonse.
Muriel turns out to be another Resnais puzzle picture but one that remains committed to its characters. Alphonse’s lies are uncovered when a man named Ernest (Jean Champion) shows up to fetch him back to a domestic responsibility he’s skipped out on. Hélène is too dazed to summon a coherent response, and Alphonse goes on behaving as if nothing has changed. Bernard’s obsession hits the breaking point when Robert returns to town, unrepentant for the murder of Muriel. The memory of the unseen woman takes on the entire weight of colonial oppression. Françoise has only to accidentally play a couple of seconds of the tape recording from Algeria for Bernard to break down emotionally.
Some details have the painful sting of real life. A squatter expects Bernard to find a mate for his goat, another case of a one person’s idle promise becoming someone else’s betrayal. A friendly croupier in the casino seems happily married, but admits that he’s only staying with his wife because it’s convenient to their work. Hélène rushes to a train station hoping to head off Alphonse with a desperate plea of love. The station has stopped handling passenger traffic; her plans for a romantic solution are scotched. And just to show us that the “Time of Return” is an unending cycle, Alphonse’s previously unseen wife Simone (Françoise Bertin) walks into the empty apartment, too late to find anyone or confront her personal problem.
This time around, Alain Resnais’ characters are not cogs in an intellectual schematic. Writer Jean Cayrol was himself a concentration camp survivor, with profound feelings of grief and self doubt about those years; it’s generally assumed that the vivid Bernard character is autobiographical. Young Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée plays him as a caring man eaten up by his own conscience, another person hiding secrets from those around him. Delphine Seyrig is exceptionally good as the emotionally vulnerable antiques dealer. Hélène spends most of the film maintaining her poise while in a state of social confusion. Ms. Seyrig never allows her to be a simple victim. Jean-Pierre Kérien is equally good as the charming cad who uses her as an escape from his own sentimental crimes.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Muriel does well by Alain Resnais often overlooked, emotionally provocative film. In widescreen, with a perfect encoding to bring out the subtleties in Sacha Vierny’s cinematography, it rewards close attention. The color images feel neither decorative nor stylized, nor hampered in any way by budget concerns, as seen in an early scene where Hélène, Alphonse and Françoise stroll through town — entire blocks have been lit up for the ‘unimportant’ scene, that another director might have just skipped.
Disc producer Jason Altman’s extras reach back to older docu and interview excerpts. A piece from a 1980 documentary analyzes Resnais’ approach to filmmaking, starting when he used 8mm and 9.5mm home movie cameras as a teenager. Delphine Seyrig appears in a candid 1969 interview. The composer gets his say in an interview from 1963. And a new interview with Resnais biographer and critic François Thomas contains further analysis. A trailer is included, and the insert fold-out carries an essay by James Quandt.
Want a real film viewing challenge, one that’s not boring, but intriguing? I wish I could say that I fully appreciated the meaning and depth of Muriel on a first viewing, but nothing like that has happened with my first viewings of most of Resnais films. They aren’t all that complicated, so the answer must be that I’m not different than anyone else, that I look for the standard filmic-narrative road signs to tell me the meaning of what I’m watching. My review is mostly inspired by François Thomas’ thoughts, which I remember from his interview on Koch Lorber’s 2007 DVD.
Muriel, ou Le temps d’un retour
Supplements: Excerpt from the 1980 documentary Une approche d’Alain Resnais, révolutionnaire discret; Excerpt from a 1969 interview with actor Delphine Seyrig; Interview with composer Hans Werner Henze from 1963; New interview with film scholar François Thomas, author of L’atelier d’Alain Resnais; trailer; essay by film scholar James Quandt.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson