Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour (1963) – Where Art Fits and Why
Historical narratives can sometimes be extraordinarily cruel. Consider, for example, the narrative that is frequently attached to the life of Jean-Luc Godard: An ambitious young film critic stepped behind the camera and began producing works of cinematic art that changed the way that people thought about film. Then, after several years of sustained brilliance, he delved too deeply and all of that brilliant extroversion changed into painfully self-absorbed introversion. Having recently watched and written about a number of Godard’s early films, I have some sympathy with this narrative and would certainly flag him as an artist who became so aware of the tools of artistic expression that he seemed to start finding it increasingly difficult to express himself with both honesty and spontaneity. Pretence, pretence… all is pretence.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino and buy into the idea that Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s, that narrative has followed the director for most of his career. Godard is not the only artist to become stuck in a particular historical moment but he has been more unlucky than most in that every film he produces winds up being seen as a painfully introspective work of cinematic deconstruction while every Woody Allen film is inevitably viewed as a heroic return to form.
Godard’s contemporary Alain Renais suffers from a different but not unrelated problem in that people tend to approach his work in terms of a narrative linking his first two features back to his early documentaries via the theme of memory. In fact, those are exactly the terms in which I wrote about both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. The weird thing about Resnais’ narrative is that it simply peters out after Marienbad. Godard is said to have disappeared up himself around the time of Pierrot le Fou but Resnais simply stopped being relevant.
One explanation for these narratives assuming the shape they did is that the New Wave ran its course and the critical consensus moved on. By the late 1960s, the collapse of the American studio system had allowed a generation of young filmmakers to seize the means of production and begin expressing themselves artistically and so people started writing about the American New Wave while the authors of the French New Wave were allowed to dip into semi-obscurity. While this back-of-a-fag-packet theory may or may not stand up to close scrutiny, it does raise an interesting question about why people lost interest in Godard when they did and why they seemed to lose interest in Resnais even sooner.
One explanation is that Resnais delved too far and too fast: Whereas most works of classical cinema contrive to offer their audiences a curated cultural experience in which the filmmakers introduce audiences to worlds and characters before telling them how to think and what to feel, art house directors like Resnais abandoned their curatorial role and encouraged audiences to articulate their own responses to the ideas and images placed on screen. Resnais took this deconstructive process a step further than most by stressing not only the artificiality of his characters and the pretence of plot but also the psychologically mediated nature of his settings. In effect, Resnais pushed the deconstructive process so far that he wound up offering his audiences a work of art that was just as unfathomable and unforgiving as the world itself, which can be viewed as a failure of the social contract linking audience to author.
This is an essay about Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour but it is also an essay about the relationship between artist and consumer.
Art is not just the result of one person’s artistic vision; it is also a product of a – largely unspoken – relationship between artist and audience: In commercial cinema, the social contract stresses the passivity of the audience and the creator’s role in providing them with a pleasurable and entertaining experience. In art house cinema, the social contract is less concerned with providing the audience with pleasure and more concerned with involving them in the act of creation by prompting them to draw their own conclusions and create their own interpretations. The difference in social contracts also explains why people who are used to watching commercial films often find art house film to be impenetrable and boring… they’re simply not used to making their own fun. While this might suggest that art house film is fundamentally different to commercial or classical film, in truth the difference is one of degree rather than kind. All films demand audiences to participate, it’s just that some films require more active participation than others.
Taken together, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad constitute a powerful critique not only of the links between memory and selfhood but also of cinema as an artistic project. Muriel’s crime is that while it continues to riff on many of the themes and ideas included in Resnais’ earlier works, the film offers audiences so little that you can forgive audiences for thinking that he failed to keep up his side of the deal. Art house audiences may not expect Age of Ultron but they do expect something and Resnais offered them nothing that they could not get from the day-to-day experience of their normal lives. Why should anyone pay to make sense of the ugly, conflicted inhabitants of Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour when they could try to make sense of the ugly, conflicted inhabitants of their own lives?
The film is set in the town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Reduced to rubble during World War II, the town was partially rebuilt in an unsympathetic modernist style meaning that your average residential street wound up featuring both brutalist tower blocks and decaying mansions complete with ancient wooden barns and cobbled courtyards. This sense of aesthetic discord is also evident from the way that traditional bars and restaurants are forced to operate out of shopfronts formed from glass and concrete. It’s something of a cliché to say that a film’s setting is a character in the film but the conflicted nature of Boulogne-Sur-Mer is an expression of the same aesthetic as the ugly and hypocritical human characters.
Muriel begins with an elegant older man named Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) arriving in town with a much younger woman named Françoise (Nita Klein). According to Alphonse, Françoise is his niece and why shouldn’t someone bring their niece to visit an old girlfriend?
Alphonse’s ex-girlfriend is named Helene (Delphine Seyrig), a middle-aged woman who operates an antiques business out of her starkly modernist apartment. The apartment itself is lovely and sunny but Helene’s decision to fill it with dark wood antique furniture makes it feel both cluttered and claustrophobic.
Despite Helene and Alphonse being former lovers, it is clear that they are intensely uncomfortable around each other and while Alphonse reacts to the discomfort by refusing to take off his overcoat, Helene responds by refusing to sit down and chat. Every chance she gets, she is up and in the kitchen or wandering about the apartment talking about her job selling antiques.
Helene’s evasiveness also serves to trap Françoise and Alphonse in the same room as her step-son Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree), an intensely introverted and troubled young man who has just returned from his military service in Algeria. Spying someone closer to her own age, Françoise tries quite hard to make friends with Bernard but he keeps shutting her down and keeping her at a distance. Even when he agrees to take her out for a walk, he winds up stranding her by the docks in the middle of the night while he runs off to meet with a girlfriend who may or may not exist.
Muriel is an unpleasant film to watch as all of the characters are deeply unpleasant. Their sense of unease is so palpable that you cannot help but shift in your seat and cringe at the social awkwardness of an opening dinner that drags on for close to forty-five minutes. It is one of those dinners where everyone tries too hard to perform their happiness whilst secretly longing to be somewhere else. The dinner is brutal, unpleasant, and perfectly appropriate to a film where every musical interlude seems to shriek, every shot seems to be poorly composed, and every sequence hops around to the point where it comes to resemble a collage of random images. And don’t get me started on the dialogue…
Even more so than with Hiroshima Mon Amour or Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel finds Resnais forcing his audience to make their own sense of the film. For example, while the events of the film clearly follow an internal chronology, Resnais follows the characters for a period of about fifteen days without ever making clear either the exact order in which things happen or the amount of time that passes between scenes. As a result, audiences have to work out not only what they know about the characters, but also what the characters know about each other. The result is an ugly, glorious, discordant mess but certain truths become apparent once you start latching onto the different characters and using their point-of-view as a means of extracting themes and ideas from the events depicted in the film.
Jean-Baptiste Thierree’s Bernard is a wonderfully unsettling presence. Thierree’s performance taps into the same wellspring of broken, introverted masculinity that continues to inspire the creation of on-screen sociopaths and pro-Gamer Gate YouTube channels. Polite, well-dressed, and yet strangely off-kilter, Bernard has returned from national service in Algeria only to wind-up living with his step-mother Helene. Right from the start, the pair’s relationship is almost impossible to parse as while Bernard’s financial dependence upon Helene might suggest some sort of mother/son relationship, Helene seems loathe to offer anything more than cautiously-worded advice even when Bernard visibly starts experiencing problems.
Bernard’s problems are a direct result of his time in Algeria. Like many young Frenchmen at the time, Bernard was forced to do military service in a French colony at a time when said colony was trying to gain independence. Despite a gentle demeanour and a thoughtful disposition, Bernard wound up getting involved in the abduction and torture of a young Muslim woman known only as Muriel. Traumatised by the things he did and saw, Bernard returns to France and finds himself unable to reconcile the person he was with the person he wants to be. Desperate to understand his feelings and explore his role in what happened to Muriel, Bernard tries his hand at filmmaking but every attempt to set something down on film ends in failure and so Bernard is left unable to either reconcile past and present, or articulate the nature of the tension between these two eras.
Helene is a widowed antiques dealer who moved to Boulogne after a youth spent in North Africa. While living in North Africa, she began an affair with the much older Alphonse only to wind up being inexplicably abandoned. Much like the female character in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Helene seems to have spent her life cultivating emotionally sterile relationships in an effort to protect herself from the memories associated with her first love.
Despite not having spoken with Alphonse for decades, Helene obsessively maintains a suite of memories relating to her first love. In hindsight, the woman’s reluctance to spend time with Alphonse at the beginning of the film can be read as a reluctance to indulge in any further acts of passionate remembrance. When the couple finally wind up alone together, they speak solely in fragments of memory as though no fresh emotions could possibly be created by a future spent together.
Just as Bernard obsesses over his involvement in the torture of a young woman, Helene obsesses over the time Alphonse left her. Her obsessive recollection is not fuelled by nostalgia but by a need to understand why that relationship came to an end and what she might possibly have done wrong. In truth, the relationship ended as a result of a misplaced message, suggesting that years of Helene’s life have been wasted in trying to extract sense from a simple piece of bad luck.
Despite disappearing from Helene’s side without much trace, Alphonse went on to spend most of his life in North Africa where he enjoyed the lifestyle of a colonial oppressor. Now returned to France, Alphonse is manifestly unhappy and this unhappiness is obvious from his frequent complaints about the cold and refusal to take off his overcoat.
Evidently a man of substance back in Algeria, Alphonse spends a large chunk of the film meeting with shopkeepers and researching businesses that he might want to take over. This results in his being taken seriously by the locals but his persona as a re-patriated entrepreneur is undermined when a relative turns up and lends him a small amount of money in order to keep himself afloat. The moment defining Alphonse’s life is the moment that forced him from North Africa and much of what he does in the film (including meeting up with Helene) can be seen as an attempt to reclaim an old identity and impose it on an uncertain present.
I’ll stop there as none of these readings is complete and each character’s attempt to resolve the tension between past and present requires them to negotiate a fresh identity with other members of the group. However, every time a stable identity is negotiated between two people, a piece of information will surface that undermines the moment of stability and sends the characters spiralling off into a world of tension and discord. Sometimes the information will be abstract (such as the fact that Alphonse has no money or the fact that Françoise is not Alphonse’s niece but a lover trying to find an excuse to leave him) and at other times it comes in the form of someone from a character’s past who forces his way into the characters’ lives in order to point out the lies they have told and the misbegotten fictions under which they have chosen to labour.
Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour is a film that makes Last Year at Marienbad seem like an accessible crowd-pleaser. Even before you start to think about characters and themes, Resnais forces you to deal with the fact that while the film is shot out of strict chronological order, details about themes, character, and plot emerge in a regular linear fashion. Also problematic is that while Marienbad was beautiful to look at and filled with characters expressing themselves in elegant poetic language, Muriel is an ugly film full of ugly characters expressing themselves in normal spoken French. As complex and conflicted as these characters may be, I can completely understand why audiences would throw up their hands and demand to know why they should bother engaging with a particular work of art. Is there a point at which audiences can say that navigating the maze was not worth the cheese? I am genuinely not sure.
Capitalism is a hegemonic enterprise and this hegemony makes it difficult to realise not only the arbitrariness of our cultural values but also the extent to which those values are harmful to us as individuals. When judged according to the values of classical cinema, Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour is a failure as it does not provide audiences with levels of entertainment/beauty consistent with the price of a cinema ticket or DVD. When judged according to the values of art house film, Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour is only a partial success as while it deviates from conventional aesthetic formulations, the thematic payload struggles to justify the extent of the deviation when compared to Resnais’ earlier and more widely-acclaimed works. The thing is that these are not and should not be the only yardsticks by which one can measure a work of art.
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to review Pat Collins’ film Silence for FilmJuice. If you’ll excuse the pun, the film made very little noise and my review was quick to point out the ways in which it failed. However, regardless of whether or not Silence worked as a piece of cinematic art, I loved the way that Collins tried to reconnect with an attempt to forge a new relationship between author and audience. Silence was not a film that set out the entertain you, it set out to provoke reflection:
The film’s central idea is that our lives are filled with frivolous nonsense that serves only to disconnect us from the world. Those (like the sound-recordist) who choose to rid themselves of this frivolous nonsense are confronted by a deafening silence. This is the deeper silence alluded to throughout the film… a silence so deep that it encourages you to fill it with thoughts and feelings about who you are and where you have been. According to the film, the thoughts and feelings you choose to project into the silence are what really matters.
This attempt to create a cinematic experience founded on reflection rather than entertainment is deeply reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker where similar combinations of beautiful images, peaceful sounds and ambiguous imagery served to emulate a spiritual experience. Unfortunately, this is precisely where Silence falls down as while Tarkovsky perfectly captures the combination of profound understanding and acute alienation that accompanies life-changing experiences, Collins is rather unclear on what it is that his protagonist actually finds at the end of his journey: Is it a sense of community? Is it the understanding that he should never have left his home? All we see is a wind-swept derelict.
Muriel ou Le Temps d’un Retour is a film in the same tradition as Silence, Stalker and even Pasolini’s Salo in so far as it abandons conventional ideas about cinematic aesthetics and tries to forge something entirely new. Not everyone is going to enjoy being disgusted by images of child abuse, inspired by images of things at the bottom of rivers, or harassed by the ugly stories of ugly people living ugly lives and yet these are all feelings that can be born of the cinematic viewing experience.
One of the most depressing things about the current cinematic landscape is the limited range of experiences offered by films that make it onto cinema screens. During the summer, we are subjected to waves of audio-visual brutality by franchises whose films are designed to pummel us into a state of consumerist bliss. During the winter, we are encouraged to elevate our gaze and contemplate prestige productions where brilliant actors and brilliant directors do brilliant work in brilliantly middle-brow, middle-of-the-road films designed to win Oscars. Film may have been the defining artistic form of the 20th Century but its growing irrelevance to the 21st Century can only be understood in terms of the medium’s wholesale flight from the richness of ordinary human experience. Contrary to what 21st Capitalism may be trying to tell us, we are more than consumers who seek escape and workers who aspire to success… we are complex beings with complex emotional lives that can interact with art in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels.
Muriel is a film that reminded me that it is possible to relate to art in ways other than either chin-stroking admiration or slack-jawed drooling. It’s a film that provokes, questions and deconstructs in a way that might slot into our lives when we are feeling alienated from the people around us or the art we choose to consume. Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour is barely less complex than the real world but that difference of degrees and density is enough to provide us with a set of tools that we could easily deploy the next time we find ourselves surrounded by horrible, conflicted people. Muriel is not just an invitation to reflect upon the artificiality of public personas and the ways in which ideas about the present need to be reconciles with memories of the past, it is also an invitation to empathise with horrible people and to realise that while people may do horrible things, they genuinely have their own private reasons for doing so… and so do you.