Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour

(Muriel, France/Italy - 1963)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kerien, Jean-Baptiste Thierree, Nita Klein
Genre: Drama
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Jean Cayrol
Cinematography: Sacha Vierny
Composer: Hans Werner Henze
Runtime: 116 minutes

Helene: “You’ve changed, and I know who’s changed you.
Bernard: “Whereas you don’t change.”

Exploring the longstanding effects of memory has been the primary concern of Alain Resnais’ remarkable career. The lingering effects of war were the centerpiece of three of his early masterpieces. His holocaust documentary Night & Fog, probably the greatest documentary ever produced despite it being a short, mixes the past (liberation) with the present to, among other things, depict how atrocities are deliberately obscured and willfully suppressed due to the refusal to accept personal responsibility, and thus lost due to the unreliability of memory and the passage of time. His first feature film Hiroshima Mom Amour switched from a wide scale to an intimate more personal one, dealing with the emotional consequences on would be lovers, a French actress and Japanese architect. The atomic bomb creates an unbridgeable gap centered on the fact that she cannot possibly know what Hiroshima being bombed was like.

Though returning to Night and Fog script writer Jean Cayrol, a concentration camp survivor, Muriel more closely resembles Hiroshima Mon Amour due to the impossibility of connection. The unnamed man and woman actually found a temporary bond in Hiroshima Mon Amour, that the events of World War II made it impossible for them to return home, thus at least allowing for a fleeting relationship on some sad shameful level. In Muriel, Resnais deals with two wars, making it impossible for the characters to grasp one others suffering, and thus they cannot find even the mutual ground that allows any form of connection much less companionship. While many aspects of Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour are incorporated into Muriel, which in the hands of a lesser director might make it something of a rehash, this is Resnais, a man who even if hardly anyone in America realizes it may have done more to add to the cinematic language than any director. He approaches the issues in different highly distinctive ways, both thematically and cinematically, in the end arguably surpassing either previous landmark (though I still find Hiroshima to be the most affecting and moving of the three).

Unperturbed by the banning of colleague Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, Resnais went ahead with also incorporating the shameful taboo subject of torture during the most recent black spot on France, the Algerian War. There are no actual depictions of torture and aside from perhaps condescending and confrontational Bernard, his characters are apolitical. That excludes a dialogue, but their lives have been immeasurably effected by the decisions of their and other leaders. Resnais’ refusal to collude in sweeping the atrocities under the rug cost him at the box office and stirred the usual blind hatred, but in every way the film is on par with any late 1950’s early 1960’s masterpiece, especially when it comes to exploring the capabilities of the medium. Nearly 45 years later it’s still more modern than just about anything being produced, and certainly more daring and advanced.

The film consists of the brief time where Helene (Delphine Seyrig), Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree), & Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) occupy similar space. The severely traumatized characters actually inhabit their own world with their own sense of time and space. While that intersects the lives of others, they are always missing pieces and facts, some because the world goes on whether they are present or not, most because their past overwhelms the present. Their memories distract and disturb them to the point of making them absent minded, their loss and in some cases guilt walls them off from humanity, resulting in permanent detachment. As Alphonse says, “It’s amazing, you think you know someone you love, but you’re wrong. Every person is a private world.” But stating and explaining the plot is rare in Muriel, which instead chooses to purposely shroud the truth amidst many unreliable statements, some purposely so and others accidental due to the effects of memory on perception.

Films generally use dialogue to state the points in a fairly blunt manner. Resnais expresses it all through his choice of technique, camera shots and edits. He finds a way to relate the whole of human experience, which combines the physical with the mental. Normally we only get the physical, the characters are present and they talk about the plot. Usually you get the point of view, and sometimes the thoughts of the main character, but Resnais shows what’s going on inside and outside all of them, to the extent they know or comprehend it themselves.

Resnais explores memory from so many facets. It’s vague and virused, always fading and morphing. Fear and pain make you forget, or remember the basis but not the details because a snippet colored by how you feel about it now comes back to you rather than the entire account. His editing not only represents multiple points of view, but also aims to match the characters confused train of thought.

Memory is based on association, so Resnais brings this forth by replacing traditional continuity with fragments. Bologne was destroyed during WWII and is now like it’s inhabitants, at once living in the past and present. Parts are preexisting, summoning memories of the good old days while parts are rebuilt, erasing the past yet at the same time conjuring up memories of what used to be there for those old enough to remember. Parts attempt to honor the past but mean nothing to those who lived it beyond bringing their mind to a place where something really did happen. We are made to feel like the truth, or part of it, is trapped in the architecture. Unfortunately, it can’t talk, not that they'd be any more reliable than humans for the same reasons.

Consistency comes from time, but at a given moment many things are taking place in the world, so Resnais breaks the audio and visual synchronization, implicitly linking characters and events at the same time it shows the distance between them. The scenes playing over each other make us aware of many aspects including perception vs. reality and memory vs. truth, as well as the concurrence of life. The story is never limited, at most turns Resnais subtly expands it from the main characters to all of Bologne if not France. They are dealing with the same issues; we just aren’t spending enough time with them to unearth them.

The scenes where the characters are together are actually more startling because they act like they are still apart. Resnais depicts this by denying traditional point/counterpoint cutting methods, thus showing the “wrong” person or point of view during a discussion, implying none of them really know what’s going on as they are lost in their minds. Scenes are purposely shattered, giving us no sense of whole even in Helene’s tiny apartment. This gives the illusion of discontinuity, but that’s rarely actually the case. Time moves forwards, but thoughts interrupt and Resnais chooses concurrence over the traditional method of sticking to one character.

After two features Resnais was already known as “King of dolly shots”, but he’s never been one to rest on his laurels and sit still. Here he refuses to roll the camera, instead using the far more noticeable tactic of panoramics, even regularly violating the vaunted 180 degree rule, to avoid adopting a single point of view. They show the characters relation as well as detachment, both the literal and figurative distance between them. Resnais tactics grow increasingly more conscious throughout his body of work. Unlike Hollywood whose idea of a good edit is one you don’t notice, Resnais purposely draws your attention to the changes in image, thus making you consider their implications.

The characters are so remote they seem apart even while they are attempting to interact. They are too preoccupied to answer each other’s questions. Their trauma manifests in a sort of autism where they just say whatever comes to mind, completely disregarding what the other just asked or stated because it simply didn’t register. Bernard, a soldier who recently returned from Algeria, is the most traumatized. He never makes eye contact with anyone, and Helene tends to stare blankly as well. Alphonse appears more normal, but is dealing with his losses by attempting to deny their existence, and thus his responsibility and accountability the way France denies their collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation and their imperialism in Algeria. Alphonse regularly tells fantasy versions of his past that will make you believe he’s a big shot and thus keep him at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Helene is lost in the past. Her life ended when Alphonse left her on the eve of World War II. It’s more the lack of explanation, and to a lesser extent the suddenness, than the act itself. Her mind needs to fill in those missing pieces, to have a more complete version of the truth so she might be able to accept the past, but 22 years later so much has changed Alphonse probably couldn’t tell her his exact reasons if his life depended on it. Helene ironically has a gambling addiction, waging her present on hope for the future, neither of which are meaningful to her. She makes a living selling antiques from the apartment so she can be surrounded by them at all times. Alphonse says she invited him back after all these years because, “She needs to have her world around her.”

Bernard is using Marie-Do (Martine Vatel) to conduct a fantasy relationship with an Algerian girl named Muriel. It masks his guilt for torturing and killing Muriel by replacing that past. At the same time he’s gathering proof on the Muriel tragedy, though his facts seem to conveniently bypass his culpability and focus on instigator and partner in crime Robert (Philippe Laudenbach) and France as a whole for being mixed up in their affairs.

Resnais has the guts to name the film after a character we never see or hear. His aim, as with the holocaust in Night and Fog and the atomic bomb in Hiroshima Mon Amour is to represent the Algerian War in a morally honest manner. Honesty can come from showing real footage like he did in Night and Fog, but Muriel is a representative character. Mostly honesty it’s derived from your attitude toward the events. He’s not going to build stoke us up about whether Muriel will live or die, he’s going to ting every frame with his anger and disgust. He’s not going to give us a replication, which only serves to replace the truth in our minds, almost always with a much glossier and more superficial version that we are comfortable with rather than truly disgusted by. These replications evoke an acceptance, complacency, and especially dismissal. We decide we've learned from it so we won’t do it again, until we do.

As the Val Lewton horror films showed us, the imagined is far more terrifying than whatever you could put on screen. Resnais however uses irony and focuses more on fact vs. fiction. While Bernard is heard providing the blow by blow of one of the many hidden truths, Muriel’s torture and murder, Resnais shows a newsreel of French soldiers having fun in Algeria and helping the Algerian children. It’s the kind used to convince citizens of the noble intentions behind their countries compassionate and benign occupation. The scene shows how fact and fiction are so often and easily reversed. The newsreel is a form of truth, the one the oppressor keeps as the official version in our minds as long as they can get away with it. Of course, it really did happen and some good may have even come from those moments, but obviously the lie is it’s meant to represent all that went on there in our minds. The narration is much less believable in the sense it’s an unverified account provided by a person who has reason to hide from what he did. And Resnais has focused on ways the truth is deliberately concealed and suppressed behind lies, facades, and the passage of time to avoid responsibility and repercussions. However, we believe his version is at least a perspective of what happened because we’ve seen how the event has traumatized him.

If you don’t pay good attention Muriel won’t overwhelm you because Resnais approaches extraordinary war horror and trauma through mundane day to day postwar life. It looks amazingly simple, but is deceptively complex. We recognize the ritualistic and banal immediately, the surface, but it may take 10 viewings to unearth all that’s hidden beneath. Resnais is so subtle you don’t necessarily even notice major details like the object Bernard is putting in his desk while not registering Helene’s questions about Muriel at the outset is a disassembled handgun. Resnais doesn’t cue you to the fact his characters are lying. In fact, some of his point is that they aren’t always doing it on purpose. He gives you some things that are not too surprising such as Alphonse introducing his young lover, Francoise (Nita Klein), he brought to his old lover Helene’s as his niece and Helene giving a man the no more explanation needed excuse that they are relatives. But watch what they are eating at dinner compared to their comments on the food and you’ll start doubting everything that comes out of anyone’s mouth. Each time you watch Muriel it grows much deeper because you pick up more of the details, sort out the truth from the various remembrances.

The closing scene comes off as startling and devastating simply from the power of alternating technique. Alphonse’s past comes calling, but the three main characters have all left the area, thus bringing our end to the continuing story of their isolation. Helene’s apartment had constantly been denied time and space as a way of depicting the effects of the wars on the characters that inhabited it. Now that they may forever be truly separated, the all time great cinematographer Sacha Vierny dollies for the first time, going through all the rooms. We finally see the apartment without any edits to fragment it or panaramics to deny our sense of whole. We remember many objects, but our perception of them is entirely altered. We realize once and for all it’s not the architecture that can’t exist as a whole, but the people who inhabit it. Freed from the various obsessions and distractions that keep everyone engaged in their own hopeless solitary trajectories, a unity has finally been reached, one of profound melancholy that like Hiroshima Mon Amour excludes even the possibility of love. As Muriel was physically absent from her story even though ever present in the mind, so too are Helene, Bernard, & Alphonse from our ultimate, probably lasting memory of their story.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *