Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (Masters of Cinema) Review

Alain Resnais’s Muriel is a complex weave of past and present. Gary Couzens reviews Eureka’s Masters of Cinema release of this influential film.

Boulogne, the early 1960s. Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) runs a furniture shop and lives with her stepson Roland (Claude Sainval), who has returned from serving in the army in Algeria. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), a lover of Hélène’s from the 1940s, visits her, bringing along his niece Françoise (Nita Klein). He used to run a cafe in Algiers. As Hélène and Alphonse try to rekindle their relationship, the past haunts them. But whose past, and how much of it is true?

In 1961 Alain Resnais had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with Last Year at Marienbad. Considering the film’s impact, the anticipation for Muriel, premiering at the same festival two years later, must have been considerable. Muriel shares its leading actress, its DP (Sacha Vierny) and its production designer (Jacques Saulnier) with Marienbad but the two films are on the surface quite different. In place of deliberate artifice, real locations in a real town, shot in a way not dissimilar to another European director then making waves, namely Michelangelo Antonioni. In place of black and white Scope, Muriel is in colour and “flat”. And if Marienbad was a showcase for Sacha Vierny, Muriel is for its editors (Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier, Eric Pluet). Instead of the long, fluid pans and tracks of the earlier film, we have a jagged, fragmentary cutting style.

The opening sequence sets the tone: a series of quick cuts from a door handle, a kettle boiling, the camera following a woman’s hand as she raises a cigarette to her mouth. Even when we have a conventional head shot, Resnais and his editors give us three angles of it in quick succession. The film settles down to a (relatively) more conventional style soon afterwards, but in a key later scene, a character’s speech is interspersed with shots of an apartment block. This type of cutting style, creating meaning through association and juxtaposition instead of the long sequence shots championed by critics such as André Bazin, may have had its roots in Eisenstein’s theory of montage, but at the time it seemed radically new. Its influence has been enormous: Nicolas Roeg is one particular director to have continued this style, also Steven Soderbergh in The Limey.

However, Muriel and Marienbad are similar in other ways. They share the theme of the weight of memory and the past on the present, and suggests the dangers of trying to rewrite or otherwise control what went before. The characters, as is their country, are trying to forget the war and to move on, but that isn’t always possible. Even the choice of location is significant: Boulogne is a sea port which had been heavily bombed during the war, and extensively rebuilt. Muriel’s scriptwriter, Jean Cayrol, had previously worked with Resnais on the short documentary Night and Fog, which also raised these themes. It’s not a surprise that Muriel is a more overtly political work than Marienbad, and this is particularly so in the sequence which gives the film its title. Cayrol and Resnais give this sequence due weight by placing it exactly at the centrepoint of the film.

We never meet Muriel. At first we are led to believe that she is Roland’s fiancée, whom Hélène has never met. (She points out that Muriel is an unusual name for this region of France, something which would almost certainly pass non-French viewers by otherwise.) But this is Roland rewriting reality: in the sequence referred to above he tells the story of the real Muriel, an Algerian woman (who may not even have been called Muriel) whose beating and (it’s implied) rape and murder he witnessed. Although this memory is painful, Roland is determined that Muriel should not be forgotten, for by rewriting history we are in danger of covering up atrocities.

Muriel is by no means an easy film: it requires close attention and it rewards repeated viewings. This DVD marked my second viewing, as I had seen the film in the early 1990s at the National Film Theatre. It had become a rarely-shown film in the UK (while Hiroshima Mon Amour and Marienbad were a common double-bill pairing in repertory cinemas at the time), with no TV showings I can remember or can find a record of. It’s a rich, endlessly fascinating and at times disturbing film, so full marks to Masters of Cinema for putting it back into circulation.


Muriel is released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema line. The single disc is encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 1.78:1. The cinema ratio was 1.66:1, so this DVD is slightly cropped, though not so that most people would notice. The transfer was approved by Resnais, so it would seem he prefers slight cropping to having black bars to screen left and right. Muriel is a 60s Eastmancolor film, the stocks of the day giving skin tones a slightly orange cast. Vierny’s camerawork is intentionally low-key and it comes over well in this transfer, and colours and blacks are as they should be.

The soundtrack is the original mono, not digitally restored at Resnais’s request. It sounds fine, and the dialogue, sound effects and Hans Werner Henze’s music score are well-balanced. English subtitles are provided, but can be switched off if your French is good enough.

The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, a long one (3:44) that is structured as some kind of key to this film.

Masters of Cinema’s customary booklet contains essays by B. Kite and Anna Thorngate, and notes from Henri Langlois from the Venice premiere.


Updated: Sep 18, 2009

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