Cinephilia today exists, in part, thanks to the enthusiasm of voracious bloggers, who have created the sort of environment online that could be said to have existed in film culture’s heyday. There is a simultaneity that platform releasing and an ever-shrinking number of art-house venues managed to help erode. At the same time, that same wonton, constant blitz of movie love can also be a disorienting rush as past, present, and future come to coexist with retrospectives real and imagined playing off Friday night premieres and Ain’t It Cool News speculation. Muriel, Alain Resnais’s surprisingly cozy and linear domestic drama about the discombobulated psychological ruin of your average French citizen in the wake of WWII and the Algerian war for independence, itself exists not only as a new DVD release (DVDs being the most common incitation for online cinephiliac white noise) this March and a featured attraction at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this April, but was also one of three films from 1963 that were the subject of a valuable blog post at if charlie parker was a gunslinger,
there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.
The post presented a CD-R worth of audio recorded at a symposium wherein Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald, and John Simon (now revered as two legends of critical film writing and a “total mucker,” to use that dependable demagogue Simon’s own words against him) discussed Hud, 8 1/2, and Muriel, thereby giving many of today’s young cinephiles the chance to experience films more or less safely ensconced in the canon (i.e. the past) in a contemporary context. While the conversation between the three titans is nowhere near as rarified as one might expect (Macdonald, in particular, can’t seem to get a single clause out without stammering and refusing to come to a point) and frequently strays into exactly the sort of movie-reviewing apparatus the moderator discouraged, the participants’ abundant skepticism does offer the opportunity for today’s audiences to approach “the untouchables.”
Not that Muriel, a truly frustrating tug-of-war between conventional narrative and fragmented presentation, would need the extra help inviting skepticism today, even when puzzle-box descendent David Lynch can earn both the most genuine enthusiasm and scathing dismissal of his work with something like Inland Empire, which all but dares fans of Mulholland Drive to stop trying to solve the mystery (if there is one at all) and simply experience his films sensually. With Resnais, the metaphor is reversed. Last Year in Marienbad, the sensual showcase, is revered today more for whatever Resnais and Chanel contributed to Delphine Seyrig’s uncanny ability to spread her arms across the pillows of her king-size bed and have it convey sexuality, fear, iniquity, and amnesia all at once. Never mind figuring out who between X and A first gave the other a tongue bath, Marienbad has no problem winning audiences today with its irresistibly tactile combination of tracking shots, horror organ riffs, and checkerboard tile floors.
Muriel, on the other hand, features Seyrig wearing what looks like the same nest that would later crown Elizabeth Taylor’s face in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Instead of geometric topiary filmed in sharp black and white, the film presents Boulogne’s decaying pre-WWII structures against vapid department-store window displays in jaundiced puke colors (using the same cinematographer as Marienbad, Sacha Vierny). And if the coy manner Resnais presents the “clues” of Marienbad renders them beside the point, Muriel‘s signposts toward “deep meaning” are broadly painted. (It’s probably important to consider that a French film of its day couldn’t really bring up the Algerian conflict for oblique purposes.)
In the film, Seyrig’s Hélène suffers memory loss (writ by Resnais in marquee lights) and can’t make head or tail of her former-albeit-possibly-rekindling relationship with Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), especially since his pretty young “niece” (Nita Klein) is tagging along on their stay with Hélène and seems to be acting suspiciously jealous of Alphonse’s amorous attention paid to their host. Worse still, she can’t seem to get Hélène’s pouty-cute son Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée) to take much interest in her; he appears to have left at least half of his black heart in Algeria, where he and fellow soldiers may or may not have raped and killed a girl named Muriel. Clearly, Muriel‘s characters are tied up in surface affairs every bit as shallow as Marienbad‘s, but given the context of their situations, the lack of overstuffed mise-en-scène registers as an affirmation of Resnais’s stated desire to make a film examining the anger behind the façade française.
So while Marienbad‘s illicitly exciting shame is appropriately opulent, Muriel‘s disaffected drifters (who are as cut off from romantic fantasies as they are from political consciousness) naturally find themselves lost in a wasted fluxland, a place where train schedules seem to change daily, massive fright ships run aground, and brand new buildings sit empty on crumbling coastline, waiting to slide into the sea. As if driving their inability to collect their internal timelines and achieve stasis, Resnais follows his straightforward presentation of the visitors’ arrival by showing their days afterward in a hiccupping, shredded manner. Resnais cuts the hell out of about 20 minutes of the film (in two large chunks), presenting not only mere portions of hundreds of scenes, but portions of dialogue exchanges and gestures, completely unmoored from their narrative function. While perhaps meant to convey to the viewer the sense of chronological dislocation (which the characters all suffer, literally and metaphorically, in the wake of the Algerian war), it incidentally also captures the thrill and frustration of current-day cinephilia.
While the cinematography of Muriel is a little ruddy, I think it's safe to say it wasn't ever meant to look as ragged as the presentation on Koch Lorber's disc. The picture is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio (which is correct), but it appears vertically compressed, almost as though a 1.85:1 transfer were then squeezed in to match the correct specifications. Additionally, the film's blues and reds seem inordinately washed out. The dialogue sounds sort of hollow, and Hans-Werner Henze's chamber music by way of Igor Stravinsky occasionally sounds overmodulated.
Not much, but the one major bonus feature should appeal to anyone looking for a few quick answers. Resnais scholar Francois Thomas offers up a quarter-hour introduction to the film, deftly unpacking the director's stylistic choices and the film's political context. Fittingly, it only gives you a framework to study the film, but doesn't go any further.
Somewhere between swinging in Last Year at Marienbad and dropping spoons in Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig reached a domestic crossroads in Muriel.