Muriel, or The Time of Return: Ashes of Time

On Film / Essays — Jul 19, 2016

Designated merely as “he” and “she” in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and A, X, and M in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Resnais’s characters finally assume names in his third feature, Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), whose very title tellingly exchanges a place for a person. That the eponymous woman remains unseen in the film, conjured only by a recounted memory, suggests that the filmmaker’s inclination to enigma and abstraction—often too simply attributed to the scripts by Marguerite Duras (Hiroshima) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (Marienbad) in the previous two films—continues in Muriel. But what Resnais himself called the “dreamlike” aura of Marienbad is here replaced by a new tactility, a much vaunted materialism that can be ascribed to both his intensified political resolve, which had caused conflicts with Robbe-Grillet, and to the documentarist tendencies of Muriel’s scenarist, Jean Cayrol. This precision is immediately evident in the opening volley of shots, which inventories, in over twenty lightning-quick jump cuts, a gloved hand, a teakettle, a chandelier, a tapestry, a cigarette, a clock. Ironically, this catalog reflects vestiges of the chosisme, or “thingness,” that Robbe-Grillet developed in his novels, in which inanimate objects sometimes predominate over plot, setting, and character, and protagonists are defined by the items they own. In which case, antiques dealer Hélène, played with restive intensity by Delphine Seyrig, is by nature precarious, as everything she possesses is for sale; even the china on which she serves dinner has been sold. Her future has been mortgaged, and her past increasingly recedes into uncertainty. “Can’t we be done with the past?” Hélène cries in exasperation, but the time-trapped characters in Muriel, forever announcing their imminent departure but staying on in a kind of willed immobility, can never elude their histories, even as they fabricate new ones (Hélène’s old lover, Alphonse), conceal them with bidden amnesia (Hélène), or attempt to expiate them with violence (her stepson, Bernard).

Resnais’s greatest film, Muriel can seem impossibly dense and portentous, its every phrase, object, and setting subject to (over)interpretation. Connoisseurs of sartorial semiotics, for instance, will note Seyrig’s matronly dun suits, the grim opposite of her extravagant Chanel marabou-feather outfits in Marienbad; Bernard’s funereal mackintosh, soon to have a bullet hole in its pocket; the tweed overcoat that Alphonse obstinately clutches (he is literally covering up); the hats worn by the first client and by Simone, Alphonse’s abandoned wife, their forms echoing across the film; and the vibrant primaries of Alphonse’s faux niece Françoise’s frocks, a palette that chromatically connects her with Bernard in the Mondrian-red-and-blue composition near the end. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the tale recounted by demolition specialist Roland de Smoke—he of the cherubic forbearance and evanescent surname—about a new apartment building made uninhabitable because the ground underneath it is “slipping,” turns out to be crucial to the film’s meaning. Cayrol’s ever-implicative schema, charging every detail with significance, conjoins the threatened structure, repeatedly shown, with Hélène’s “auction room” of price-tagged belongings and Bernard’s unsafe atelier as sites of instability. Cayrol described the film’s characters as being “between two times . . . unstable,” and in the widening gyre of his fragmented narrative, the center will not hold. Little is secure or fixed in Muriel, certainly not Hélène’s existence, prone as she is to compulsive gambling and escalating anxiety, or Alphonse’s histoire, finally revealed, as the double meaning of that word indicates, as fiction. (The duplicitous roué checks the newspaper like a hunted criminal in a mystery, which Muriel unquestionably is, replete with many homages to Hitchcock.) As Alphonse, who lies even when he is alone, describes his exclusive club in Algiers, Resnais captures the glances that ricochet around the quartet of characters—Alphonse’s shifty, Hélène’s vague, Françoise’s piercing, Bernard’s absent—their looks concatenated by the latter’s slow crunching of potato chips on the soundtrack.

The film’s seaside setting signifies a vaster instability. Cayrol chose Boulogne-sur-Mer despite Resnais’s grave doubts, and elaborates the locale’s symbolic importance (as he does Hélène’s backstory) in his published script. Destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, Boulogne was haphazardly reconstructed, and the film emphasizes this architectural incoherence, the jumble of medieval and modern, of ancient battlements and Tati-looking casino, to capture the fragility of the city’s new self. (When Ernest delivers his denunciation of his brother-in-law Alphonse near film’s end, Resnais intercuts not reaction shots of the shocked onlookers, as any other director would, but the implacably blank stares of Boulogne’s sentinel-like apartment buildings.) Amid this flux and insecurity, only Bernard’s memory of the torture and murder of Muriel in Algeria remains ineradicable. The film associates Bernard, acted by wide-eyed Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, with unyielding sight—“I am searching, I am looking,” he says when Françoise asks his vocation, emphasizing that he is seeking out evidence, and he twice instructs his sometime girlfriend Marie-Do not to close her eyes—and with instruments of vision (projector, film, slides, camera, kaleidoscope, gag glasses), whereas his willfully unseeing stepmother says she looks “blind” in photographs, and when she turns on his projector, the image immediately burns in the gate. (Françoise, too, peers ravenously, but as a tourist, the postcards she flips through becoming a form of protocinema.)

Just as the word alone repeats throughout Eric Rohmer’s tale of abjection Le rayon vert, the words change and late form a refrain in Muriel. “There’s just time,” de Smoke assures Hélène, but it seems to have run out for her. Though Resnais, no doubt evading a thematic straitjacket, occasionally denied that time and memory were his primary concerns, Muriel concentrates on both, as Ernest’s rendering of the song “Déjà” perhaps too explicitly emphasizes. Like Hiroshima mon amour, the film intertwines historical and personal memory; here, the traumas of World War II and the recently ceased Algerian War are variously recollected and suppressed. Cayrol, whose poetic text serves as the basis for Resnais’s 1955 Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, had been betrayed to the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance and spent years in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, where he became suicidal. That ordeal and his subsequent bouts of amnesia inform Muriel’s sense of historical commemoration. Soon after Alphonse and Françoise arrive together in Boulogne, the former calls it “a martyr city,” an unusually empathic observation for the self-pitying impostor, his comment followed by a flurried montage of plaques and street signs, including one for a rue de Folkestone, that memorialize the war. Hélène’s grasp of that history is tenuous, personal, banal. She associates Folkestone with a hotel in which she and Alphonse once stayed, cannot remember if the number of Boulogne inhabitants killed in World War II was 200 or 3,000, and later confides that a local chef has been deported and that if he had died, his seafood recipe would have been lost forever. Her vagueness seems a matter not of mere imprecision but of intentional disregard: “My memory’s so awful. I forget everything!” she exclaims, cultivating her own absentmindedness. The film’s relics and ruins emphasize its interleaved themes of memory and reconstruction: as did A and X before them, Hélène and Alphonse attempt to reconstitute their past together; Boulogne rebuilds after the war; Bernard revives the story of Muriel’s torture despite his fellow soldier Robert’s admonition to quell it.

Like the man who asks where the center of the city is only to be told that he is already in it, Muriel’s viewer may be left grasping for narrative and temporal coordinates. The film’s anxious, shardlike editing—Resnais claimed that the cuts numbered close to a thousand, though others have subtracted a hundred or two from that total—detailed in Cayrol’s script and ostentatiously announced by that initial cubist fusillade, further confounds the sense of duration and chronology, despite the scenario’s linear, symmetrical five-act structure. With its disorienting ellipses, compressions, attenuations, and its obsessive repetitions, Muriel anticipates the “shattered time” of that other Resnais masterpiece 1968’s Je t’aime, je t’aime but, without the latter’s memory machine and use of flashbacks, can be all the more confounding. Muriel’s sound bridges—dialogue carried over an edit or imported from an unseen event—sometimes confuse more than they connect; several spatial displacements seem impossible; figures are introduced before their identities become clear—the sudden appearance of Ernest is treated with detective-story mysterioso; and the film keeps accumulating characters, some of whom seem redundant (e.g., the ex-Australian with the nanny goat, the croupier with marital troubles, Claudie’s friend Marc) or puzzlingly belated, such as the tailor Antoine and his wife Angèle, with whom Cayrol daringly initiates, in the film’s closing minutes, a subplot involving Hélène’s breach with the couple over a loan.

“What time is it? What time is it?” the ex-Australian calls to Bernard, and Marie-Do asks the same in the middle of the night. Manipulating the hands on one of the film’s many clocks, Alphonse attempts to arrest “le temps qui file,” as Ernest’s song characterizes it. Time is out of joint in Muriel, abetted by Resnais’s intentional anachronisms. The film is set in early autumn but was shot in November–January, which accounts for the hard winter light (precisely captured by Sacha Vierny’s cinematography); Hélène and Alphonse are supposed to be in their forties but appear much older; night and day coincide, and duration proves ambiguous or contestable, such as in Hélène’s perplexing accusation that Bernard has not been home in eight months. Hélène twice tells Alphonse that it is 1:00 a.m., and their conversations are intercut with Françoise’s nocturnal perambulations. But in the film’s fractured montage, the shots of Françoise are not necessarily concurrent with Hélène’s time-telling, though the two disengaged temporalities seem strangely coincident.

Resnais’s love of the variety hall and the stage perhaps explains Muriel’s histrionic theatricality. Its frantic entrances and exits—the perpetually harried Hélène more than once needlessly announces that she will “go first”—prefigure those in Resnais’s several late adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedies, which the British playwright greatly admires, once commenting that the director “works in a very theatrical way.” Bernard tells Françoise, an actress, that she talks as if she is auditioning, and when Hélène suddenly pulls back the red-patterned drape in her apartment to reveal one of the film’s many crucial meal scenes, the startling effect is of a stage curtain revealing a set. But it is Muriel’s deft combination of high modernism and leftist critique—bearing out Gilles Deleuze’s comment that Resnais and Straub-Huillet are the most political filmmakers—that has influenced so many subsequent films, including Michael Haneke’s Caché and, most extensively, Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which JLG called a “partner” to the Resnais, and which features a poster of Muriel as homage, also condemns a criminal war (Vietnam), and similarly parallels a portrait of a woman with that of a city under urban renovation. (Godard, however, prefers a Beethoven string quartet to anything akin to Hans Werner Henze’s nerve-flaying music for this film, eerily rendered by the great coloratura Rita Streich.)

One may not agree with François Truffaut’s appraisal of Muriel as “an archetypically simple film,” but the work does in the end retain a kind of hallucinatory clarity of place and structure, despite its radical obscurities. Its fragmentation is countervailed by many symmetries, including the strategically placed meals and the dualities with which the film abounds—for example, Cayrol’s contention that Roland de Smoke is Alphonse’s double, Ernest both his shadow and prey. More obviously, Robert embodies the sinister possibilities for Bernard, as the former attempts to lure his younger lookalike into the OAS, the fascist secret army determined to maintain a French Algeria. The film repeats events as paired variants, such as Alphonse’s rummaging through the apartment and reading Bernard’s Algerian diary with the late skirmish between Bernard and Françoise over who rifled through whose belongings. A midpoint montage in a restaurant repeats, in its quick index of fruit, menu, cutlery, glasses, plates, condiments, the “thingness” of the opening inventory. Muriel’s subtitle—The Time of Return—points to another symmetry. The temps d’un retour, as Alphonse returns to Hélène (and Muriel returns to reality in Bernard’s telling), becomes a temps d’un départ at film’s end, as the characters flee, decamp, and scatter—save for Hélène, who runs dazedly through the streets, arriving too late at the now disused train station. “Ça change,” the stationmaster comments, but for all her frenzied motion, Hélène remains entombed by the past, unable to change or escape. The film’s finale, which answers the initial montage with a Resnaisian tracking shot that explores Hélène’s apartment with a spatial continuity that the splintering jump cuts strenuously denied, introduces another arrival, that of Simone, who navigates the nest of portals, dramatically throwing open doors as if to disclose the untoward, but finding only detritus.

Another of the film’s twice-told tales concerns Hélène’s and Bernard’s shared but contrary recall of a bombing during the war that left a hole in the roof through which rain (her version) or snow (his) fell. What they most remember is the white ash left by the fire. Just as Hélène’s tormented “Do I look my age?” recalls Emmanuelle Riva’s cri de coeur “I was so young once!” in Hiroshima mon amour, the ash evokes the glimmering cinders that settle on intertwined flesh in Hiroshima’s opening images. In Muriel, the incinerated remains become for the forgetful Hélène and the obsessively remembering Bernard nothing less than the ashes of time.