In the convoluted 1963 film, Muriel ou le temps d’un retour (Muriel: The Time of Return), Alain Resnais mimics the New Novelists’ fragmented techniques to show us that the world we perceive is kaleidoscopic. As we live in the world, we try to fit the pieces together.
Muriel, a memory-piece, mostly takes place within two and a half weeks, from Saturday 29 September 1962 until Sunday 14 October 1962. The themes revolve around middle-class banality, reunion, revenge, and the juxtaposition of old and new. In Muriel, as in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jalousie, space and time gives an understanding of the work’s interior logic.
The script by Jean Cayrol, a novelist and former concentration camp inmate who worked with Resnais on his landmark Holocaust documentary, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), arranges an elliptical series of shots to convey the old and new cities of Boulogne. In an interview, he said:
I write and make films to ‘return’: it’s always the problem of memory regained. In 1943, in the train, I lost my memory and struggled for hours. I suffer from an extraordinary amnesia: I have, so to speak, no childhood reminiscences, something which drives my mother to despair. I have worked a lot in time and on the theme of recollection. (1)
Muriel moves closer to Night and Fog by sharing the same central concern. Both films ask, “How do you tell this story?” If this is a private story about individuals, it looses the magnitude of the social problem. If it emphasizes the cold numbers and statistics of the historical tragedy, how do you recognize that this story isn’t about facts and figures? It’s about human beings. In this way, Muriel surpasses Hiroshima and Marienbad, which dwelled on the personal experience of a tragedy. Muriel succeeds because the subjective point of view that was essential to Resnais’ earlier films is now synthesized into an objective narrative that is not locked into one particular person’s consciousness. Instead, it portrays the personal pain of several characters by focusing on exteriors: antique furniture crowding a dusty room, a half-smoked cigarette, an empty train station. Resnais has claimed:
A classic film cannot translate the real rhythm of modern life. In the same day, you do twenty-six things, you go to lectures, to the cinema, to your party meeting etc. Modern life is fragmented. Everybody feels that; painting, as well as literature bares witness to it, so why should the cinema not do likewise, instead of keeping to the traditional linear construction? (2)
His films bear comparison to both Robbe-Grillet, whose novels are mainly composed of recurring images, and Marguerite Duras, who focused on the inner life of her characters, favouring clipped, elliptical dialogue instead of action-packed description. The two authors examined themes of remembering, forgetting and alienation. In Muriel, we see a convergence of both writing styles. By collaborating with the French New Novelist, Jean Cayrol, the director has merged Robbe-Grillet’s dependence on objects and Duras’ spare, yet suggestive prose.
Cayrol appeared as a novelist immediately after World War II, before the New Novel was recognized as a literary movement. However, his technique, which stands apart from the realist tradition, and his philosophical themes embody the essence of the New Novel. His heroes, like Duras’, plod along, never knowing where they are going. Their world, like Robbe-Grillet’s, is filled with objects. Laurent Le Sage writes:
Setting and structure of Cayrol’s novels meet the specifications of the new novel; and his ‘Lazarian’ themes – man’s loneliness, his plight in the universe that fills him with awe and apprehension, his gropings to distinguish the true from the false, the real from the unreal – belong to the order of Existentialist and Phenomenonological preoocupations. Moreover, younger writers can find in Cayrol the approved fictional devices of monologue and the restricted point of view. Cayrol himself has never been dogmatic in novelistic theory, but has given his blessing to Robbe-Grillet and the new school, who quite rightly hail him as a master. (3)
The Cayrolian hero tries to justify his actions, but the author never does, except by implying an “existence manquée”, the author’s main theme. In the novel, Le Les Corps étrangers (Foreign Bodies), Cayrol writes:
But not everyone can do what he wants, and there’s always life to get in your way, to empty your pockets and your illusions. You don’t have the hands for nursing a violin. The instrument is like a beetle’s shell, it doesn’t hold up under your square fingers. Leave it for other people. Don’t dress yourself up with a violin like peacock feathers and try to wake up on time tomorrow to plant potatoes. The reaper’s valse triste, the petite suite for weevils and mildew … the music yellowing and cracking, the notes crumbling, faded. No lovelier song in the country than that of our crows and our magpies. The Unfinished Symphony for wind and owl-shit. (4)
Cayrol’s work is a combination of Duras’ spare, unobtrusive writing style, and Robbe-Grillet’s impersonally depicted physical objects. In working with Cayrol, Alain Resnais’ third feature and first colour film improves on Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour in terms of its complex construction and portrayal of painful recollections. Time, which turned circles in Marienbad, is now anchored in the destructive memories of war. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, a character’s perception of time was connected to the physical world. Just as Resnais’ characters assessed their memories through their senses, so we, the spectators, try to make sense of the information on the screen. More realistic on the surface than his earlier features, Muriel, with its lush greens and reds, is no less stylized. Delphine Seyrig plays Hélène Aughain, a lonely widow living with her sullen stepson, Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), recently returned from fighting in the Algerian War. He can’t escape the memory of a young girl he tortured and killed. When Hélène’s first love, Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kerien), turns up 23 years later with a much younger woman, Françoise (Nita Klein), who pretends to be his niece (but who is actually his mistress), the widow is plunged into an obsession with the past. These emotionally scarred survivors of war must come to terms with their painful memories. In Muriel, Resnais has created a powerful tour de force by conveying how much of the past intrudes on the present.
It opens with a peculiar array of fragmented images. By focusing on the seemingly random sights and sounds, the viewer can determine the film’s thematic structure. Resnais uses montage, sound construction, overlapping dialogue. The first sequence comprises 26 shots in just a minute and a half of screen time. It begins with a series of close-ups: a hand clutching a purse, a cigarette.
We see furniture in the room (a chair, a chandelier, a glass table). These shots are punctuated by the image of a hand on a doorknob. When the door closes, the sequence ends. The next sequence shows another pair of hands. They belong to Bernard. He puts a coffee cup on the table.
On the soundtrack, we hear fragmented dialogue about the home’s decoration. The images flash so quickly, the viewer barely has enough time to identify the objects. The disorienting images and sounds don’t allow us to see much of the characters or construct a complete picture of the place. The film’s creators reorganize time, as no adjacent shot in the opening display any temporal connection, other than the one imposed by the viewer.
These middle-class people live in a world of objects. In a way, their banal existence has allowed them to become objects as well. Their hopeless lives revolve around objects instead of communication with others. They can’t free themselves from their rigid patterns of existence. The characters’ wasted lives resemble dusty antiques.
This present-tense, highly objective film shares Robbe-Grillet’s technique of using recurring images and descriptions of physical objects to reveal character, rather than psychological analysis. Hélène is surrounded by antiques. Bernard is constantly documenting with tape-recorders, notebooks and cameras. Bernard’s faded, sun-flared 8mm films are the closest he can get to admitting his personal connection to the Algerian War. Alphonse’s photographs don’t reveal much about his involvement in World War II. He goes so far as to say it was a good life for him. Both men are dishonest in their memories about war and its relation to reality.
As with Marienbad and Hiroshima, the disjuncture in the spoken dialogue destroys any sense of space (whether real or on screen). In Muriel, Hélène announces that dinner will consist of chicken and mushrooms. Francoise smiles and says that Alphonse loves sausage and salami. The scene is further complicated during the meal, when Hélène encourages Alphonse to eat some more cabbage and fennel. The absence of any logical connection between the images has a similar effect. For example, while Alphonse speaks to Ernest (Jean Campion), the scene cuts to Bernard, who speaks to an off-screen Robert (Philippe Laudenbach). The camera cuts back to Ernest, talking to an off-screen Alphonse instead of Robert. In this way, Resnais forces the viewer to make psychological connections between Alphonse and Bernard.
The same is true of time. The evening walk from the train station is intercut with a montage of daylight images of the port town. The alternating day and night shots of the locations give glimpses of their significance before we understand them as a whole. There is no temporal or spatial unity because the film is concerned with consciousness.
The editing is associational. There is never a sense of the montage representing a singular point of view because the characters don’t have a unified sense of time.
The world is seen like a kaleidoscope, another of Resnais’ images in the film. At one point, Bernard’s girlfriend, Marie-Dominique (Martine Vatel), picks up a kaleidoscope and he says, “Look at me.” We see a multiple image of Bernard on the screen.
He is a man fractured by his inability to live in the present. He is scarred from his involvement in the torture and murder of the Algerian woman, Muriel. Whenever we see him, he seems totally absorbed in his own thoughts, as if external reality is an intruder on his consciousness. He wrestles with his guilt while trying to hide his shameful past. His cameras and notebooks, all tools of preserving the past, are used to help him forget his painful memory. At the end he kills Robert, his accomplice, in self-deceptive attempt to put his past behind him.
Throughout the film, Resnais gives the viewer little pieces in his puzzle of perception. Until the end, we are left to find their significance. A gun and the tape-recorder are introduced at the beginning of the film. Bernard uses this gun to shoot Robert. Near the film’s conclusion, the tape recorder, containing Muriel’s screams, is accidentally played at a party. These important props serve as foreshadowing, emphasizing that, in spite of the narrative’s irregular appearance, the film does contain a logical structure.
Resnais uses sound to disorient the viewer and produce feelings of instability. Sound often plays against image. We hear voices of characters who aren’t visible at that moment, such as Muriel’s tape-recorded screams. The passing of irrelevant time is articulated like a Russian montage, jumping from a lit cigar to a stub ground in an ash-tray. The night-time walk from the train station is intercut with a montage of daytime images of the sea town.
Resnais had asked Cayrol to write a few poetic phrases to convey the major themes of the film, especially those of memory and recollection. He tried sentences like “Time is torn like a letter one no longer dares to read again.” But these ideas were too explicit for Resnais, who found indirect sounds and images more suggestive than words. (5) He shared Duras’ sentiment that a realistic medium leaves little to the viewer’s imagination.
For example, the image of Bernard riding a white horse on a hilltop is laden with knight-in-shining-armor associations.
Instead of rescuing a damsel in distress or avenging wrongs, he talks to a farmer about a mate for his goat. Bernard is not a noble knight. His words and actions are duplicitous. More than anything he says, this reveals his true intentions. In The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais, Freddy Sweet writes,
Perhaps we might suspect that we should know a screen character, whom we see, better than one about whom we read in a novel. Yet, I believe the opposite to be true. Because we perceive visually all aspects of a character in the cinema, we may know the surface quality quite fully, but little is left to the viewer’s imagination – the faculty for rounding out a portrait during the active reading of a novel. (6)
But Muriel does more than render the “visual aspects” of its characters. It meticulously conveys their emotional states. The frenzied juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated sights and sounds only emphasize their sense of feeling lost in time. The shots at the opening show many different objects that seem to have no relation to each other: a painting of pillars, a chandelier, a brass clock reading 2:30. In spite of the clock’s objective notion of time, the shots have no temporal connection. We see one of Hélène’s clients from the front, then the side, then the head and shoulders. A medium-shot gives a glimpse of the client coming through the open front door, then walking left. Hélène stands on the right. The client walks out frame left and Hélène closes the door, ending the sequence.
We “read” Muriel the way we would a nonlinear work of the New Novelists, Robbe-Grillet or Duras. By leaving gaps in the narrative and disorienting the viewer’s sense of time and place, Resnais mimics the fragmented text of these novelists. One scene depicts the passage of time by cutting from a dessert cake to the platter with only one slice remaining. In another scene, Hélène is diligent in noting the arrival of Alphonse’s train, but when she arrives at the train station, she finds it empty. Later, Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval) arrives at the house to escort Hélène to the casino. Alphonse explains that Hélène has already left to meet Roland there.
Resnais leaves the viewer to locate thematic patterns in the work as a whole. This is only possible when we see the last long tracking shot of the building, which echoes the mosaic of rooms in Robbe-Grillet’s Jalousie or the flurry of photographs in Duras’ L’Amant (The Lover). The full æsthetic power of this film is felt cumulatively at its conclusion. The final tracking shot is the only one that illustrates the spatial arrangement of the apartment. It also echoes the narrative confusion felt at the start of the film. Muriel‘s “resolution” is more like something imposed on the film by its viewers than the result of anything in the final montage. We see a new character, Simone (Françoise Bertin), exploring the setting along with the viewer. We finally figure out the spatial relation of the rooms two hours later in the presence of a stranger. This only emphasizes the lonely, isolated lives we have been watching throughout the film. Simone is searching for her husband. Instead, she finds nothing. These last shots suggest a beginning to another story rather than a conclusion.
John Ward describes the film’s fragmented montage in relation to Henri Bergson’s theory of memory (as pure duration) and notion of a whole ego (a person’s being growing out of his/her entire personality). He quotes Time and Free Will, where Bergson states, “We are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one sometimes finds between the artist and his work.” In Muriel, the characters dwell on one particular event in their past which dominates everything in their present. Hélène is obsessed with her old relationship with Alphonse. She prefers to believe that he loved her, even when his actions state otherwise. In a similar way, her son, Bernard, has constructed an imaginary girlfriend named Muriel to replace the real person who has died. The mythical Muriel is a symbol of his guilt. Until Hélène and Bernard put their painful pasts into the context of their lives as a whole, they will never break free of it.
Hélène is waiting for her past love, Alphonse, whom she had not seen since the war. They disagree about who was responsible for its end. He tweaks the past to suit his needs, saying, “I resent you, Hélène, for all those memories”, when she reminds him of his dishonesty. Her memories are a threat because they undermine his plan to deceive her in the present.
Hélène holds onto the past, pretending it was a beautiful love affair, despite the man’s obvious faults. When her son shows no interest in Alphonse, Hélène announces that Alphonse could be Bernard’s father. However, Bernard later explains that Hélène is his stepmother. Like Alphonse, he takes advantage of his mother (in this case, financially) and removes himself from emotional connections with others. He uses his camera as a violent tool, not unlike the handsome rogue in Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), and can only view reality through the distance of its lens.
Hélène’s illusions are shattered with the arrival of Alphonse’s brother-in-law, Ernest. He has come to drag Alphonse back home. Until then, Hélène did not know that Alphonse was married. But she cannot cope with this tear in the fabric of her fantasy world. When their love affair had just begun, Hélène had been jilted by a “useless braggart”. She clung to the illusion of Alphonse’s love as a form of salvation. When he left, she continued to believe that he loved her, although his actions indicated otherwise. Her emotional development, like that of the French woman in Hiroshima, has been frozen in a past that eclipses the present. She can’t live in harmony with her present because the prior relationship, larger than myth, has dominated everything else in her existence. As with Hiroshima, public and personal trauma are intimately connected.
Like the lovers in Marienbad, trapped in time, the pair argue over the circumstances of their affair. Alphonse says that he wrote and arranged to meet in the Globe d’Or. He kept the appointment and she didn’t show up. Hélène says that she never received his letter. Later, Ernest says that he wrote the letter and dreamed of proposing to Hélène, but Alphonse never mailed it.
Years after the war, Hélène is still clinging to the past and the illusion of Alphonse’s fidelity. When Alphonse arrives, she is more interested in the past than their possible future together. A figure of the present, her current lover, Roland de Smoke, arrives to escort Hélène to a casino, but Alphonse says that Hélène already left the house by herself. Alphonse seems eager to rekindle his relationship with Hélène, but he brings his girlfriend on the trip. He seems to believe that his affair with Hélène ended decades ago.
In a similar way, Bernard is scarred by memories of the atrocities he committed while serving in Algeria. His torture and murder of Muriel, an Algerian girl, during the war is a painful, inescapable memory that crushes him with guilt. His remorse prevents him from growing close to people in his present life. Ward says this is also similar to the French woman’s plight in Hiroshima. But his suffering is not all directed towards himself. He conjures an imaginary girlfriend named Muriel to replace the actual person. He tries to convince himself that the real Muriel is still alive. This allows him to retreat into an isolated world of his own invention and prevents him from dealing with the past.
Alphonse eventually leaves Hélène, as he did before. Bernard kills Robert, the man he blames for leading him to commit violence. His brutality is an attempt to liberate himself from the past. Still, Bernard’s single assertive act doesn’t allow him to break away from his dominating memories. He tries to face the past and atone for his guilt, but by putting all the blame on Robert, he has not accepted his responsibility or placed it within the whole context of his life, and therefore, cannot escape it. Hélène says, “You don’t blame yourself for anything.”
Both Hélène and Bernard are “visited” (Hélène in reality, Bernard in memory) by the past (Alphonse and Muriel). But they remain trapped by their past experiences. Bernard’s memory of the young girl he tortured during the war is more real to him than day-to-day life.
Resnais’ labyrinthine puzzle on memory and altered perception uses jarring jump cuts and frenzied montage sequences to convey the tragedy of survival. The opening shots are exemplary of the film’s style as a whole. In these shots of cluttered old furniture and close-ups of hands, ending with Bernard placing a coffee cup on a table, the images move too quickly for the viewer to identify them. We can’t see enough of the characters or the apartment to create a complete picture of this world. Later, we can recognize Hélène and the rest of the rooms where the scenes occur. Resnais sets the desperate mood of a film filled with material objects but devoid of human communication. The disjointed shots of door knobs and hands at the beginning sets the tone for the entire story, which revolves around instability. The characters are trapped in a rigid pattern that doesn’t allow them to break free. Although they have survived through the war, they remain tragic figures because they are still dwelling on their traumatic pasts.
Hélène is surrounded by ancient artifacts, the physical reminders of the past. She uses her apartment to sell antique furniture, which constantly changes décor from one time period to another. Her business is crumbling under debt by her compulsive gambling habits. Alphonse, who has tried to rebuild his life after the war, can’t reconcile their old love. Bernard, haunted by the past, sits in a dilapidated studio endlessly replaying home-movie footage of his war experiences. Unlike Hiroshima and Marienbad, who allow us to get inside the characters and work things out through their interior monologues, Muriel does not explain the interactions of its characters by referencing their mental lives. What they say and do seems isolated in this highly objective work. According to Ward, it shows a more generalized notion of time – one that is created by other people’s pasts and presents. In Muriel, the characters are trapped by their pasts. Hélène and Alphonse are ensnared in the wavering details of their old affair. Bernard cannot escape the memory of the girl he tortured and killed. We do not see the actual murder. This forces the viewer to fill in the gap, stitch themselves into the narrative and participate in recreating Bernard’s crime. (7) He says:
We dragged her out. Robert kicked her. He pointed the torch at her … Her lips were swollen, foaming … tore off her clothes … tried to sit her up. She fell … one arm twisted. Couldn’t stop. She couldn’t have talked if she’d wanted. I started. She groaned when I slapped her. My palms burned like fire. Her hair was moist. Robert lit a cigarette … approached.
At this point, Bernard’s monologue switches to present tense. This brings to mind Duras’ fragmented depiction of time in The Lover. “She screams”, Bernard says. “She stares at me. Why me?” He is still living in this painful moment, as if it were the present. Then he falls back into past tense.
She closed her eyes and vomited … Robert backed away. I left them. I came back to see her that night, raised the cover … Like she’d been long in water… a ripped-open sack of potatoes … blood all over her, in her hair … burns on her breasts … Her eyes were not shut … I didn’t feel much, nothing at all perhaps. I went to bed … slept well. Next day before Reveille …
The old movies dissolve into present day. Bernard’s face materializes in the darkness.
He says, “Robert had gotten rid of her”, placing the responsibility on the other man. Bernard has failed to give this traumatic experience a context. Unlike Hélène, his mother, Marienbad‘s nameless narrator, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), and the French girl from Nevers, he has moved ahead, but in a way that doesn’t acknowledge his own responsibilities to the episode and its place in his own development. He puts the blame on Robert and makes himself the avenger.
Muriel‘s claustrophobic mood, where the middle-class characters are imprisoned by their emotional ties to the past, is emphasized with pans and tilts, shots of limited movement. “I’ll buy a chest of drawers”, says the client in the antique shop. A few shots later, the client says, “I’ll buy a Swedish table.” Shots of two different chandeliers are mixed between shots of someone (who we later identify as Hélène) unlocking the door. The antiques serve as metaphors of the past. Once the objects are removed from their specific time and purpose, they lose their original context. The film’s characters have also lost their sense of purpose after living so long in the past.
At the beginning of the film, the main characters walk through the city streets. Though they seem to move together with purpose, the editing cuts each character off from the others in a series of alternating close-ups. Each person appears to advance toward the camera, solitary and silent.
One of Muriel‘s most remarkable features is its restraint from using flashbacks. In the opening of Hiroshima Mon Amour, we see faceless bodies laced with grisly footage of the atomic bomb’s consequences on the city. A woman’s voice says that she has seen museums and movies, and she knows what happened in Hiroshima. A soft-spoken male voice contradicts everything she says, claiming, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” After this sequence, we meet the two characters. This is followed by one of Resnais’ most important contributions to cinema. As the Japanese man lounges in bed, the woman stares at him. Her eyes travel down his arm and stop at his hand. Suddenly, the background shifts. We see another hand and another arm. Seconds later, everything has returned to normal. This sequence is important because it reveals a metaphor unique to cinema – the subliminal flashback, which highlights the rest of the film.
Last Year at Marienbad is peppered with subliminal flashbacks. In one shot, a flashback might show X’s account of the night he had seduced A (Delphine Seyrig). At first the images give weight to his past-tense narration. But discrepancies creep in. He says that she went to the bed, yet in the flashback she stands by a wall made of mirrors beside the door. He says, “It’s true, there was a large mirror by the door … a huge mirror which you avoided.” Yet we see A moving along the mirror, pressing close to it.
Sometimes X claims that the flashbacks are false. We see the husband shoot A, apparently in jealousy over her affair with X. In the present, X describes the scene to A, trying to get her to remember. Then he says, “That’s not the right ending. It’s you alive I must have.” His descriptions of last year’s events are unreliable, since the flashbacks give incompatible versions of scenes.
Muriel also refrains from using tracking shots, a visual correlative of a wordless emotion and another Resnais trademark. In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the tracking shots of the hospital corridors move at a walking pace, pausing near the patients, as if to scrutinize them. “This, the hospital”, says the French woman’s voice-over. “I have seen it. I am sure.” This indicates that the images she has absorbed in her mind are being remembered. When she mentions she war museum, images of exhibits and the visitors’ feet appear like a memory and the same type of sequence happens again. The camera mimics where she moves her gaze and attention during the visit.
In Last Year at Marienbad, the absurd tracking movements often show two different settings as a single continuous shot. New pieces of furniture pop up, the gilded molding on the walls grows more ornate, and the decoration over the mantle alternates between a mirror and a painting. X’s descriptions of the “vast hotel … baroque, dismal” and the “hallways crossing hallways” emphasize these ridiculous changes. His words cannot pin down the surface of things, always changing with the descriptions themselves, which X repeats several times in various combinations.
Muriel contains not a single flashback and only one tracking shot: the last image of Simone coming to Helen’s empty apartment in search of her husband, Alphonse. For a minute, she waits in the hall, then pushes the open door and investigates the apartment. The camera follows her through the rooms until she realizes that nobody is home. Then she leaves. The camera stops in the dining room, hinting at future stories that might take place there. This ties into the notion of time, the great destroyer, reducer and repeater. The city itself will rise and fall again. New wars will take place. People will continue to make mistakes and not learn from the past.
Resnais achieves what his characters cannot do: he transcends time, as though he were freeing himself by coming to terms with his own cinematic past. Muriel‘s style represents such a positive development in the way that it differs from his previous films. There is no stream-of-consciousness filtered through one particular character, such as the subjective viewpoint of the heartbroken French girl in Hiroshima or the nameless protagonist in Marienbad, who continuously restructures the past to suit his tastes. There is nothing in Muriel‘s narrative that reflects a single character’s perceptions. Resnais has made his own associations by choosing which scenes and seemingly trivial details to place together. This is what makes Muriel seem so complex. Without a main character’s consciousness to serve as the viewer’s co-explorer in the story (as we experience in a realist novel), we must rely on objects (as we experience in a work by a New Novelist, such as Robbe-Grillet) to grasp the film. John Ward compares the script to Husserl’s phenomenology and the theory of intentionality:
Consciousness is characteristically conscious of something. It points beyond itself. Consciousness is therefore revealed through its directedness to objects; its intentionality. And the physical world discloses its significance to us through the intentions we have towards it. Things have no intrinsic meaning. A hill, for instance, is only steep because we want to climb it. (8)
Physical objects in Muriel reveal more about the characters than anything they say or do in the film. For example, antiques surround Hélène because she is still living in the past. In a way, she has become a kind of antique:
I started selling antiques … at home, a friend’s idea. None of the stores were suitable for showing furniture. Selling at home seemed better. They think they’re getting bargains, that it’s my furniture. The families I deal with have all become my friends.
Hélène dwells on the past, creating a fantasy about a love affair that wasn’t as beautiful as she pretends. Like the girl in Hiroshima, she is not free. By living in the present moment, she could overcome her wistfulness. Ernest’s revelation about the love letter (which he, not Alphonse, claims to have written) frees Hélène. Her past has no power over her entire life. But like the French woman in Hiroshima, she has not healed. Neither Hélène nor Alphonse will follow Ernest’s advice, although they are not content. They resist change, although everything around them is changing. The new city of Boulogne is no better than the old. As in Hiroshima, the city is like a living thing. It suffers the effects of time, as do the people who inhabit it. Like the confused memories of Hélène and Bernard, the city of Boulogne, under reconstruction after wartime assault, is a place where the past and present exist side-by-side.
Resnais uses 813 separate shots in 177 minutes of screen time. Only one tracking shot occurs at the end of the film: a single tracking shot that summarizes the relationship of the rooms in the apartment. When the camera begins to move, the viewer feels a sense of escape.
The last shot of the film shows Simone looking for her husband, Alphonse. She lingers in the hallway for a while, then pushes the door open and searches the apartment.
Sometimes the camera follows. Sometimes it leads. Simone discovers that nobody is home. She leaves and the camera stops in the living room, ready, as Sweet says, to begin another story. This makes it seem as if the story does not belong to one character. It does not stem from one consciousness, but a collective reaction of this town, which has suffered during the war. In Hiroshima and Marienbad, the personal tragedies of the main characters needed to be forgotten as isolated events and remembered as part of their life process. Muriel seems more concerned with the effect of a tragic event on an entire community versus the personal memories of those who lived through it. When we concentrate on our own personal insults, we lose the greater context of the event as a whole. In this way, the relationship between Resnais’ films and the work of the New Novelists depicts how people need to remember and need to forget. The memory of the war should play a role in the characters’ growth. But when Muriel‘s characters isolate their personal problems, they assume magnified proportions.
When the film’s catalyst, Alphonse’s elderly brother-in-law, Ernest, comes to Helen’s house to bring Alphonse back to his wife, Ernest sings the ironic song, “Déjà”, which encapsulates the film’s main theme:
Not only autos go a hundred
Time too rushes on
Take it easy, Mr. Time
Slow down on the curve
Yesterday a kid, today white hair
It’s at 25-30 we talk of
How old we are “already”
At 30-40 we say it less;
Even less at 50, “already”
When very old, we don’t say it at all
We look at the old photos
See ourselves in mama’s arms
Full of joy
She says … He’s six months,
Man always 30; woman 20 – a dream
No hope: we must age and die
As a man grows older, he becomes increasingly aware of time. Ernest suggests a means of counteracting this effect.
There is happiness down here
But since we don’t see it
We prefer to fear the future,
Regret the past, and say
“Already, already …”
Not long ago, Lindbergh
Dropped from heaven
How long ago,
Longer ago the cartel
Longer still Deschanel
And Ico Cecile Sorel
In spite of our tears
In spite of our tricks
Fate has her fun with us
It will pass.
The song explains how time moves so fast; we grow old before we know it. As he sings, we see shots of the new Boulogne rising from the old ruined city. Someday, the new city will be destroyed by a new war. The young will make the same mistakes as the old. And new generations of lovers will be tainted by time. Bernard and his mother share a similar problem, yet they do not learn from each other. They remain isolated in their problematic pasts, unable to communicate.
If the modern world is constantly changing, the petty bourgeois life remains the same. Hélène’s wealthy lover, de Smoke, made his living from change. He scored a fortune by dealing in the ruins of old Boulogne after World War II. During a dinner scene, he tells a story about a building on a hillside, abandoned after its completion. He brags about waiting for it to collapse so he can collect the scraps.
The two wars – World War II and the Algerian War – have left these dismal characters irrevocably scarred. Bernard is tormented by the memory of killing a young girl, Muriel. This leads him to kill his partner in crime, Robert, in an attempt to remedy the guilty act. When Hélène and Alphonse try to reconcile after the war. Alphonse tells the story of a woman he once loved. “But that’s our story”, says Hélène. This scene recalls the French woman in Hiroshima, who says “I told our story”, into the mirror. The women aren’t just reminded of their old loves, but an entire painful experience from the past.
The title of the film solidifies these themes. Muriel’s death represents a loss of innocence. She is a constant reminder of the past. Although we never see Muriel, her ghost transcends time and space in the film. Bernard narrates the home-movie footage of Algeria in the present tense. If history can’t be remembered or recorded, Resnais forces us to confront images from our past as self-exploration.
Muriel is laced with recollections of Resnais’ earlier films. When Hélène says, “But that’s our story”, we know that the story is one that the director has told before. In that sense, it becomes his – and our story – as well. Resnais not only forces us to confront images from our past as self-exploration, he forces himself to face images from his own past as a kind of psychological investigation. In Muriel, Resnais’ cinematic past comes full circle, proving the impossibility of remembering, and of forgetting. This is neither an optimistic or pessimistic conclusion. It is simply another way of questioning how human beings imperfectly interpret images of the past. Can we ever really see the “real” past in these images? Is this a failing of the image or of memory itself? How do our memories compete with events that are not captured or recorded? And how do these recordings compete with our personal memories? In Muriel, the past has come full circle, only to prove the impossibility of remembering, and of forgetting.
- Roy Armes, The Cinema of Alain Resnais (London: A. Zwemmer, 1968), p. 120.
- Laurent LeSage, The French New Novel (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), p. 81.
- Jean Cayrol, Les Corps étrangers (Dijon: Planete Livres, 1987), pp. 67-8.
- See Roy Armes, op. cit.
- Freddy Sweet, The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1981), p. 82.
- See Alyssa J. O’Brien. “Manipulating Visual Pleasure in Muriel”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 17(1), 2000, pp. 49-61, 53.
- John Ward, Alain Resnais or the Theme of Time (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc. 1968), p. 65.