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.

 

Resnais

 

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.

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La Rupture (1970) – The Tragic Demise of a Picaroon

Chabrol is a director whose best work is done in the margins of broad moral argument.  The films of his so-called ‘Golden Period’ from the late 60s to the early 70s are a series of incendiary attacks upon an upper middle class morally corrupt enough to murder for the sake of social standing.  In films such as Les Noces Rouges (1973), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La  Bete Meure (1969) and Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) wealthy people murder their way out of bad relationships and awkward situations.  They do this, more often than not, because they simply lack the imagination to solve their problems any other way.  And therein lies the strength of Chabrol’s vision.

Chabrol presents the bourgeoisie as morally corrupt but also deeply tragic figures.  For all of their wealth and privilege, they are trapped inside a system that forces them to care about the wrong things.  For example, in Les Noces Rouges, a couple find illicit love but when they are uncovered by the woman’s husband, they are shocked to discover that he does not mind their affair.  If anything, he sees it as a positive development as it will keep his wife happy and ensure her lover’s loyalty to him.  Incapable of understanding his cunning rejection and manipulation of bourgeois moral codes, the lovers murder him thereby sealing their fates.  Similarly, in Que La Bete Meure, a man tracks down the killer of his child only to discover that the man’s entire family want him dead.  They want him dead but they lack the courage to simply leave him or to denounce his many cruelties.  As cowardly and morally corrupt these characters might appear, they are also the tragic victims of a twisted social order.  An order that uses money and privilege to trap them in a situation whereby the characters are forced to deny their own feelings of unhappiness and claustrophobia.

La Rupture (a.k.a. the Break-up, based upon Charlotte Armstrong’s 1968 novel The Balloon Man) is, at first glance, not Chabrol’s most subtle film.  It summons up Chabrol’s typically louche and corrupt bourgeoisie but makes it appear all the more monstrous and deranged for the fact that it is attacking an almost saintly working class woman.  As horrors and injustices are melodramatically heaped upon her, it seems as though there can be no excusing or forgiving such behaviour.  But, once the film ends, you realise that the character responsible for all of these terrible crimes might have been different.  He might have been free.  La Rupture is a film about the breaking of a picaroon upon the wheel of modern capitalism.

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