Delphine Seyrig has always been my favorite French actress — this was mostly based on her icy, regal, and hauntingly beautiful role in Alain Resnais’ seemingly impenetrable masterpiece, The Last Year at Marienbad. In Resnais’ third film, Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963) Delphine Seyrig’s acting abilities really shine through. Gone are her icy stares, delicately turned head indicating ambivalence, impassive expressions — instead, we see her vulnerable, motherly, and human. In short, if for nothing else, Muriel is a vehicle for Seyrig’s true acting ability as Hélène, a middle-aged widow. Although Seyrig is only in her 30s, despite the artificial quality of the 60s makeup which attempts to make her older, we believe that Hélène has experienced a great deal in her life.
Seyrig’s acting tour de force is hampered somewhat by the most obvious and bothersome flaw of this film — poor supporting acting almost across the board. Hélène’s traumatized son, Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), is probably the worst acted role in the film. Almost as poorly portrayed is Hélène’s one time love interest who has come to visit her, Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kérien). So in short, if one can tolerate some poor acting then the rest of Muriel, or The Time of Return has quite a lot to offer: ingenious editing, a convoluted but meaningful plot, and above all, an interesting examination of the trauma of war, the banality of everyday life, and the nostalgia of lost love and what could have been.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Hélène, who lives in an apartment which doubles as an antique store in the newly rebuilt (after WWII) city of Boulogne-sur-mer with her son Bernard, is visited by the lover from her distant past, Alphonse. Alphonse arrives with his young “niece” who is actually his current lover. Bernard, recently returned from the war in Algeria, is traumatized by his experiences, most notably, an incident concerning the brutal torture of a young girl named Muriel. As Hélène and Alphonse reminisce, they slowly realize that they have drastically different interpretations of their own previous relationship. Their past is no Golden Age. One desires to return to the bliss of youth the other tries to rationalize the destruction of youth. Bernard’s story is slowly revealed explaining his refusal to engage properly with the people around him and his odd activities concerning a film he had made in Algeria. Both are attempting to rationalize the past — both are unsuccessful — and both are forever changed.
The editing is superb and challenging. Both Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad utilize unusual editing styles. Muriel is no different. For those not expecting experimental editing the experience can be a jarring and unsettling. Like Bresson, Resnais is obsessed with routine movements which often betray the state of mind of the characters. So, the camera moves from doorknob to light switch to bookcase to hand to book to hand to dishes to… well, you get the idea. However, Resnais utilizes this technique judiciously and to great effect.
In one instance, while Alphonse is paging through the documents which relate to Muriel, the girl abused by Bernard’s fellow soldiers in Algeria, the scattered memories coalesce and the camera remains still. Other times, the memories are cobbled and interspersed and inspired by various banal objects. The cobbling effect from the banal is somehow deeply gratifying.
Likewise, certain metaphors and objects are returned to again and again, a particular building built on a slop of Boulogne-sur-mur, so shoddily constructed after WWII that the city waits for it to plummet down the hill. The place, the cinematography, are wonderfully melded. I wish Resnais didn’t use color! I suspect, he realized this mistake since he returned to black and white in his next film, La Guerre est Finie (although poorly in comparison to his previous work).
Although in no way Resnais’ masterpiece, Muriel is still a worthwhile viewing experience. It will be frustrating to some and rewarding to others. Definitely seek out this seldom seen film is you enjoy Resnais and Delphine Seyrig. She is in top-notch form and the film would be among the Resnais’ greats if the supporting acting was up to the audacious task. Although a deeply reflective and moving work, Muriel also tends to be somewhat laborious — I had to watch it in two sittings.