Director: Alain Resnais
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Alain Resnais can rightly be called the grandmaster of French cinema. At 91, he continues to work and create films of bold experimentation and a deep feeling for the joys and suffering of being alive. Deeply marked by the traumas of war, his films have examined the psychic meaning of both World War II and the Algerian War for independence, conflicts that drove a wedge into France’s self-image, reawakening the fissures within the country that had led to the French Revolution of 1789. Royalists, sometimes eugenic in their belief in the hereditary superiority of the aristocracy, pitted against the common folk in France and its colonies belie the myth of a united country fostered by Charles De Gaulle and the Popular Front during the 20th century. The myth may have been necessary to prevent France from plunging into another bloody civil war over the betrayals of Vichy, but the roiling undercurrent of rage and animosity would not be quelled, particularly among France’s filmmakers. The “quality” films against which the French New Wave rebelled were a meager attempt to calm nerves and ease suffering through a headlong plunge into nostalgia. The New Wave would have none of it, though the appropriation of another country’s reaction to postwar malaise—what the critics of the French New Wave dubbed “film noir”—was still another form of avoidance for a country that had not found a language to speak the unspeakable.
As artists often do, Resnais tuned into the cultural zeitgeist and his own unease as a witness to the outrages of Vichy and Algeria and crafted a series of films that offered both a visual catharsis and a pointed critique of attempts to erase the past by confusing reality with a less precise and damning narrative: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year in Marienbad (1961), and the film under consideration here, Muriel, or The Time of Return. The first film was explicit, if not graphic, about the human cost to life and love of World War II, and the second an examination of memory and the fracturing of the simplicity of love that was a hallmark of pre-WWII life and a symbol of France to the world. With Muriel, Resnais develops and marries those themes in a film that commands one’s interest through the urgency of its emotion.
The story is simple. The widowed Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée) await the arrival of Hélène’s old flame Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), whom Hélène has asked to come to see her at her home in Boulogne Sur Mer. Hélène and Alphonse were lovers in 1939, just before the Nazis invaded France, and Bernard has recently returned from military service in Algeria. While Hélène perhaps hopes that she and Alphonse can return to a time before conflict tore them apart, Bernard is haunted by what he has witnessed and participated in while serving in Algeria. The film chronicles the attempts of Hélène and Bernard to assuage their pain by coming to terms with the past.
The strategies Resnais uses to expose the psychological traumas his characters have suffered reflect the fractured nature of their reality. Bernard has given Hélène the impression that he is engaged to a woman named Muriel and is forever disappearing from the flat he and Hélène share to visit her. In fact, Muriel is a horrific memory that he feels compelled to revisit time and again by watching some film he shot while in Algeria in his ramshackle studio above a stable. Wracked by guilt over what he and the men in his unit did to her, he tries to amass evidence of the incident, though it is unclear what he intends to do with it. It seems more important for him to keep the memory alive, to avoid the trap of forgetfulness or putting the war behind him, as his comrade Robert (Philippe Laudenbach) has. Thus, Bernard constellates the France that cannot forgive and forget the Vichy collaborators and the horrors they visited on their brothers and sisters, as well as the France that condemns the widespread colonial torments of a “noble” France against the Algerian people.
Hélène, too, is haunted by the past, and the perhaps too obvious metaphor for her nostalgia is the antique store she runs out of her home, living with and using furniture and decorative items she intends to sell in the careful, provisional manner one holds memories in one’s mind. (Indeed, Boulogne is a similarly provisional abode, a town bombed near to flat, with pockets of the old world juxtaposed with modern architecture.) Hélène’s reunion with Alphonse has an odd tenor to it, with Alphonse wanting to embrace and kiss her, but Hélène avoiding both, still stung by Alphonse’s abandonment of her. Like Bernard, she wants to find out what happened, to get her facts straight so that she can move forward without the nagging doubt that something important was missed. Like Robert, Alphonse has seen fit to paper over the truth to mooch off whatever marks are near at hand, including the attentions of his mistress Françoise (Nita Klein), who accompanies him as his “niece,” and approbation for his service to his country during the Second World War and Algeria. In fact, Alphonse is a bigot who never went to Algeria, and he fails to note his real relationship with Françoise or his marital status to Hélène.
Françoise is an interesting character to ponder. More than 20 years younger than Alphonse, Françoise is a Parisienne, instantly recognizable as such to the provincial residents of Boulogne, a sophisticate who thinks it would be, to use today’s parlance, “funny” to meet her lover’s old girlfriend. She tells Bernard, who has seen through her ruse, that there was just something about Alphonse that she responded to, and the fact that he was married seemed little more than a detail. The French tradition of men having a wife and a mistress is a long one, but in this instance, the illicit relationship seems a conjoining of habitual liars. When faced with the pain and earnest questioning of Hélène, Françoise comes to loathe the day they met. It’s hard to face the past, even when it’s not your own.
Resnais uses quick cuts at the start of the film to confound the usual establishing shot—we may eventually figure out where we are, but what Resnais seems more interested in establishing is a subjective point of view, our location, the monkey mind that records and randomly rolls through images and thoughts both immediate and distant. Similarly, the passage of time is imprecise, and the melancholy Hélène may display in one scene immediately cuts to a festive dinner, as though to show her state of mind while in the midst of everyday activities. Seyrig expertly balances her character’s various depths, making the abrupt cutting more coherent than it might have been, and her haunted compulsion to visit the town’s casino seems a physical need as strong as a junkie’s for heroin. Beside the callous obviousness of such characters as Alphonse, Robert, and Françoise, she ably shows what becomes of a broken heart. While less skilled than Seyrig, Thiérrée’s conscience provides another touchpoint of truth in a film filled with mendacity. Further, Resnais’ use of the elements, particularly when Bernard goes horseback riding on the bluffs looking across the water toward England, grounds the film in a reassuring timelessness that helps stabilize the audience in this highly unstable scenario.
While Muriel is the work of a developing filmmaker and has a certain obviousness in some places, for example, a view of Bernard through a kaleidoscope that shows him fractured, it is nonetheless an honest film that accomplishes its mission to bear witness to some uncomfortable truths by helping its audience share the emotions of its vulnerable and sensitive protagonists. Better than a talking cure, Muriel offers a symbolic release. It’s a beautiful and still urgently needed film.