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ou Le temps d'un retour

Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour
Koch Lorber
1963 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic widescreen / 112 min. / Street Date March 13, 2007 / 24.98
Starring Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Nita Klein, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Claude Sainval, Laurence Badie, Jean Champion
Cinematography Sacha Vierny
Production Design Jacques Saulnier
Film Editor Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier, Eric Pluet
Original Music Paul Colline
Written by Jean Cayrol
Produced by Anatole Dauman
Directed by Alain Resnais

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour is Alain Resnais' most accessible and perhaps most subtle art film about time-shifting consciousness. The maker of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour uncovers temporal, memory-based disturbances in ordinary life, and for the most part chooses to avoid abstract visuals and distancing devices like repeating voiceovers and complex flashbacks.

But Muriel will be every bit as perplexing to some viewers, as it uses an eccentric anti-narrative editing style to emphasize the lack of progress in its characters' lives. The sympathetic Hélène sends a letter asking an old beau to visit, and then wonders why she did it or what she could have expected to occur. All she finds are more people living in the past or hiding from painful memories.


Hélène Aughain (Delphine Seyrig) sells antiques out of her apartment in Boulogne, which she shares with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), whose father died years ago. Lonely and falling prey to a bad gambling habit, Hélène invites an old lover, Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kérien) to visit. He's never given Hélène a good explanation why he left her in the war years. Alphonse shows up with young Françoise (Nita Klein), who he claims is his niece. It soon becomes apparent that Alphonse tells a lot of tall tales, as Françoise is actually his mistress. Just back from the Algerian war, Bernard behaves oddly and sometimes rudely. He tells Hélène that he frequently visits someone named Muriel, when he's really off brooding alone or passing the time with a casual girlfriend, the cheerful Marie-Dominique (Martine Vatel). Muriel is actually the name of an Algerian woman tortured and murdered by Bernard's comrade Robert (Philippe Laudenbach). Bernard was complicit in the crime, which has left him unbalanced.

Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour (Muriel, or the Time of Return) finds Alain Resnais and his screenwriter Jean Cayrol again probing the meaning of memory. Unlike art film directors that present personal styles while still serving up the same old psychological underpinnings, most everything in Resnais' films is subordinated to the theme. The meanings are all on the surface; there are no tricks or distractions.

Muriel is free of flashbacks and side-trips into other dimensions, and for the most part resembles a conventional drama. But we quickly note the director's attempt to randomize certain activities. The film begins with a series of details in Hélène's kitchen as she goes through her morning rituals. But they're presented in a jumbled order: A hand opening a doorknob to leave precedes a shot of tea-water being boiled. Scenes appear to follow a narrative logic, but the details are all wrong. People talk about events we've just seen happen, and change the particulars. A meal is described as one dish, cooked as another and then later complimented as yet a third different entrée. A nighttime walk through the city is inter-cut with daytime views of streets going by. All of these dislocations imply that the discordant material is actually happening at a different time -- a different meal, a different walk. Or they may simply represent the inability of the characters to deal with the present tense: All concentrate on past events, and only the cynical, detached Françoise seems to have a specific idea for a personal future. The present is a jumble of 'things happening', often with the dull spots erased. At one point the dinner guests ask, "Where's Bernard?" and the show jump-cuts ahead to show Bernard already arrived and eating.

Hélène appears to have written Alphonse in search of a way out of her doldrums. The antiques business is weak and she still wonders why he dropped her almost twenty years before. Alphonse shows himself to be an almost completely false friend. A bad guest, he's resentful when Hélène leaves him alone and takes to searching through Bernard's private papers. His 'niece' Françoise is a pert little smartie. She amuses herself by laughing at the provincials as they eat in cafés. But she's baffled when Bernard simply leaves her in an unfamiliar part of town in the middle of the night, saying that he'll be back for her in an hour. By the logic of this movie, nobody keeps even the most basic of promises; Françoise has to find her own way back to Hélène's apartment.

Muriel may be confusing but it is never arbitrary. Everything that occurs feeds back into the main theme. Hélène's ruinous gambling and Bernard's horse-riding are weak attempts to evade real problems. Crowded with unsold antiques, Hélène's house is a repository for clutter from the past that mirrors her confused state. Like Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Bernard obsesses over films and tape recordings of his guilty secret from Algeria, unable to put it behind him. Alphonse constantly tells lies about past businesses, foreign adventures and glories to cover up his personal failures and betrayals. Friendly with shopkeepers, he soon becomes the most popular man in town.

The seaport town of Boulogne is equally haunted. Described by Hélène's friend Roland (Claude Sainval) as a 'martyr town', much of it is still in ruins while plaques denote where massacres took place during the war. Roland wants to reinvigorate the city but a new building project sticks out like a modern eyesore among the more traditional buildings. Worse, its foundation is no good, and it cannot be occupied. The building languishes in a state of limbo, just like Hélène, Bernard and even Alphonse.

Muriel turns out to be another Resnais puzzle picture but one that remains committed to its characters. Alphonse's lies are uncovered when a man named Ernest (Jean Champion) shows up -- Alphonse had lied to Hélène about his wife Simone being dead, and Ernest is his brother-in-law come to fetch him. Hélène is too dazed to summon a coherent response, and Alphonse goes on behaving as if nothing has changed. Bernard's obsession hits the breaking point when Robert returns to town, unrepentant for the murder of Muriel. The memory of the unseen woman takes on the entire weight of colonial oppression. Françoise has only to accidentally play a couple of seconds of the tape recording from Algeria for Bernard to break down emotionally.

Some details have the painful sting of real life. A squatter expects Bernard to find a mate for his goat, another case of a one person's idle promise becoming someone else's betrayal. A friendly croupier in the casino seems happily married, but admits that he's only staying with his wife because it's convenient to their work. Hélène rushes to a train station hoping to head off Alphonse with a desperate plea of love. The station has stopped handling passenger traffic; her plans for a romantic solution are scotched. And just to show us that the "Time of Return" is an unending cycle, Alphonse's previously unseen wife Simone (Françoise Bertin) walks into the empty apartment, too late to find anyone or confront her personal problem.

Many European art films leave the actors to their own devices to animate characters originally conceived as cogs in an intellectual schematic. Delphine Seyrig is exceptionally good as the emotionally vulnerable antiques dealer. Hélène spends most of the film maintaining her poise while in a state of confusion, and Ms. Seyrig never allows her to be a simple victim. Jean-Pierre Kérien is equally good as the charming cad who uses her as an escape from his own sentimental crimes. Young Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée plays Bernard as a caring man eaten up by his own conscience, another person hiding secrets from those around him.

Koch Lorber's DVD of Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour is a good enhanced encoding of this attractively filmed show. It looks far better than earlier VHS copies. Colors are accurate and the widescreen framing produces improved compositions. A filmed interview with critic and Resnais biographer Francois Thomas is the main extra; some of the ideas presented above come from his views. The film's original trailer shows touches of a sense of humor not apparent in the feature.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview with Resnais scholar Francois Thomas, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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