Time is out of joint from the first moments of Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un retour (1963), which discharge a battery of jump-cuts that give equal weight to a kettle, a chandelier, a cigarette, a gloved hand grasping a door handle, a smiling face. The face belongs to Hélène (Delphine Seyrig), a middle-aged antique dealer working out of her apartment in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, which she shares with her son Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), who has recently returned from service in Algeria. Surveying his home’s revolving furnishings, Bernard complains, “You never know which period you’ll wake up to in this place.”
Likewise you may not always be certain which moment goes where in Muriel’s fragmented chronology. Yet its most disorienting elements—the arrangement of shots, the overlay of sound from one scene on another, Hans Werner Henze’s anxiogenic, atonal score—never obscure the essentials of story. Rather, these strategies heighten our understanding of what really matters. Muriel is a film I’ve seen many times and continue to discover things in. It’s one of Resnais’ crowning achievements, and it has now joined his Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) as part of the Criterion Collection.
So what does really matter in Muriel? While the film, unlike Marienbad, inhabits a highly concretized world of real places and things, it shares with its predecessor a pervasive confusion about the past. Hélène is visited by Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), a lover from 20 years ago determined to revive the long-dormant affair. Alphonse is joined by his niece Françoise (Nita Klein), who is inquisitive and thus frustrated by the cagey characters surrounding her. One of those characters is, of course, Bernard, who has a girlfriend he won’t introduce to his mother and spends a lot of time in his atelier, where he works on a film project using material he shot in Algeria. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Bernard is struggling to come to terms with an atrocity he participated in while there, an event which forms the film’s tenebrific center.
All these present-tense facts are rendered with perfect clarity. It’s the past which becomes increasingly obscured. Jean Cayrol’s screenplay imbues virtually everything with significance. Much of Boulogne was destroyed during WWII, and it is now a site of ongoing reconstruction. Hélène’s apartment is in the new part; Bernard’s atelier is in the old. Boulogne is a port city, which means that, like every item in Hélène’s apartment, including the dishes she eats off of, is transient.
Hélène and Alphonse have conflicting stories about their shared history, and we will eventually come to learn that the narrative Alphonse supplies about his life in the interim is false. Even the Algerian conflict’s status as a “war” is ambiguous, since France refused to label it such. The film’s full title can literally be translated as “the time of a return,” but to look backward in Muriel is to become only more confused regarding the path that led us to the present. Muriel evokes this dissonance of time and memory with techniques specific to cinema. It understands its movieness much more than most movies. And this is one reason why over 50 years later it continues to beguile, trouble and move us. V