Muriel ou le temps d'un retour (1963)

MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (Muriel, ou le Temps d’un Retour)

(director: Alain Resnais; screenwriter: Jean Cayrol/based on the story by Cayrol; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editors: Kenout Petier/Eric Pluet; music: Hans Werner Henze; cast: Delphine Seyrig (Helene), Jean-Pierre Kerien (Alphonse), Nita Klein (Francoise), Jean Baptiste Thierre (Bernard), Claude Sainval (de Smoke), Laurence Badie (Claudie), Jean Champion (Ernest), Martine Vatel (Marie-Dominique); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Anatole Dauman; Lopert; 1963-France-in French with English subtitles)

“An innovative, original film that is always fascinating and challenging.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An intricate film that probably needs more than one viewing to decifer all its mysteries, that is if they can be resolved. This is French New Wave director Alain Resnais’ third film after Hiroshima Mon Amor and Last Year At Marienbad, and is one of his wittiest. Its theme follows in Resnais’ long-standing preoccupation with the vagaries of memory. Muriel is set in Boulogne, ironically a city largely lost under post-war urban developments. The haunting drama was shown at the Venice Film Festival in August of 1963, where Delphine Seyrig was named Best Actress.

Seyrig is a fortyish widow dealing antique furniture from her apartment, who invites an old flame she hasn’t seen since the Algerian war to visit her and her troubled eccentric filmmaker stepson (Thierre), whom she shares an apartment with in Boulogne (a city in the provinces). The stepson is a recent veteran of the Algerian war who can’t escape the memory of a young girl named Muriel he tortured and killed during the war, as he watches grainy 8mm film clips of newsreels which remind him of the Arab girl. The fiftysomething lover Jean-Pierre Kerien, who is also a veteran of the war, arrives with his mistress, the 20-year-old Nita Klein, whom he passes off as his niece. Why he comes for this reunion and why he brings his mistress remains a mystery. We know that Seyrig tries to rekindle her ordinary life by renewing memories of her first love, but finds that it’s to someone who has turned out to be an aging Romeo with white hair–not exactly how she remembered him.

It’s a subtle, spellbinding mosaic of images testifying and destroying the past in a heart-wrenching manner. Seyrig and Thierre fail to realize that things change, that memory is altered with time and new realities. If her precious love is now viewed as disappointing and removed from actuality, the stepson’s reality can only be reinforced by a haunting film he must see because he’s overcome and tortured with guilt.

Resnais’ use of bleached colors and his subtle filmmaking style of introducing mood changes is enhanced by the penetrating jump cuts of cinematographer Sacha Vierny, as Resnais makes this intellectual film a playful tease on one’s sensibilities and dream-like reality. In one surrealistic scene, Seyrig’s present lover Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval) arrives in the evening at Seyrig’s house to escort her to the casino, but Kerien later infers that Seyrig left the house alone to meet Roland at the casino. Resnais teases us with his confounding use of montage, that brilliantly plays into his aim to keep us off guard as to what’s real or fiction.

Alain Resnais’ puzzling thematic psychological drama focuses on the effects of war on the lives of the three emotionally scarred survivors, and points out how obsessed they are with the past and how deep the past wounds still cut into them so that the present can’t be fully enjoyed. Muriel is an innovative, original film that is always fascinating and challenging.