By 1963, the French New Wave was already in full swing and Alain Resnais had already released two seminal films, and for all the attention the New Wave auteurs received for being experimental, even Godard’s film don’t seem to challenge the viewer as much as those from Resnais, who technically wasn’t even a member of the New Wave. Both Hiroshima and Marienbad stood out for being progressive and radical in an era where radical progress was pervasive. While the former anchored itself to a deceptively simple love story between a Japanese man who has just suffered through the Hiroshima bombing and a French woman who claims to understand and sympathizes, the latter had no such anchor and liberally played with temporal and spatial distortions to cinematically echo the workings of memory.
By comparison, Resnais’ third feature, Muriel, feels closer to Hiroshima in its focus on individuals rather than formalism, but is no less dense and challenging than its predecessors. Muriel, however, does support a plot synopsis; it’s about a middle-aged mother and antique saleswoman named Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) living in Boulogne who has invited an old love named Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) to her house to catch up. Meanwhile, Hélène’s son, Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée) is haunted by his experiences in the Algerian war. Alphonse arrives in the city with a young woman named Françoise (Nita Klein) whom he claims is his niece. Françoise takes a liking to Bernard, but Bernard is determined to remain distant as he focuses on his 8mm film-making and deals with his inner conflict regarding a woman he and some buddies tortured and killed during the war.
Unlike previous films, Muriel actually does tell a linear narrative that, on a superficial level, is easy to follow and understand. But Resnais, much like his characters, is more interested in the past, memories and how these things inform the present, rather than the present itself. The film itself opens with a non-sequitor montage of Hélène’s shop/apartment, and this seems to be Resnais telling us that despite the first act’s linear, plot/character-driven narrative that we shouldn’t expect any such consistent normalcy. This becomes apparent during the second and third acts where Resnais’ editing patterns kick into high-density mode. We’re no longer treated to full scenes, but patchwork snatches of scenes: perhaps a line, perhaps an exchange, perhaps a look. This ellipticism compresses time, making the present situations all but incomprehensible.
Resnais does this to make the obsession with memories stand out all the more vividly. One of the most powerful scenes in the film finds Bernard replaying an 8mm film reel of his days in the war for a friend as he narrates over it. Resnais cuts into this scene in media res so, at first, we’re not sure what we’re being shown. Is it stock war footage? Is it fictional? Is it film that Bernard has made? This distortion of fiction and reality marks one of the film’s idiosyncrasies that separates it from Resnais’ previous efforts. Unlike Marienbad, here Resnais doesn’t so ostensibly manipulate his visuals and formalism in order to be expressive, rather he allows elements like the inconspicuous art direction (which is ever changing as Hélène sells items and requires new ones) to suggest the parallel to memory.
This film is also similar to Hiroshima in the respect that it deals with individual memory in contrast with collective memory, especially as it centers around monolithic events like war. Here, the focus has shifted from the World War II of Hiroshima to the Algerian War. Resnais seems to stress that while people can be sympathetic they can never fully understand the psychological impact such events make on those who go through them. Bernard may be the film’s most interesting character precisely because of the multiple perspectives on his character; everyone sees him differently: his mother, Alphonse and Françoise. But he won’t allow anyone in, and it’s only in private moments that he reveals how traumatized he’s been. The title itself is, after all, an allusion to the woman he killed during the war.
If the war has paralyzed Bernard’s present, than it’s mere personal history that’s paralyzed Hélène and Alphonse. Both are characters who are simultaneously incapable of moving on from the past and equally incapable of recapturing the love they once had. This is a film that constantly seems to be questioning how people are supposed to move on from unforgettable events. This theme especially comes to a head during the motifs of dinner parties, and the final one proves to be the most potent as one guest sings a poignant song about the “already” refrain as it relates to the passage of time.
Muriel does fall short of its predecessors in two key areas: The first is in its cinematography. It was Resnais’ first film in color and he never seems comfortable; it has a drab color palette and it lacks the sensitive, visual poetry of Hiroshima and the baroque starkness of Marienbad. The second area is that Resnais ultimately fails to find a balance between the humanistic emotion of Hiroshima and the distant, formal invention of Marienbad; this isn’t as poignant as the former, and isn’t as impressive as the latter. But despite these failings, this is still a dense, intellectually challenging and substantial film. Resnais is cinema’s answer to Marcel Proust, and Muriel is a worthy entry into his career-long “In Search of Lost Time” which explores his ongoing obsession with time and memory.