Friday, November 25, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Muriel (1963)

Muriel (1963) ****
Directed by: Alain Resnais.
Written by: Jean Cayrol.
Starring: Delphine Seyrig (Hélène Aughain), Jean-Pierre Kérien (Alphonse Noyard), Nita Klein (Françoise),  Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée (Bernard Aughain), Claude Sainval (Roland de Smoke), Laurence Badie (Claudie), Jean Champion (Ernest),  Jean Dasté (The Goat Man), Martine Vatel (Marie-Dominique), Françoise Bertin (Simone).

The films of Alain Resnais are always a little more complex than they first appear – and that’s saying something as many of films appear to be very complex. His 1963 film Muriel – his third narrative feature following Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – is slightly different as at first, it seems like a rather straight forward melodrama – although a superbly acted and crafted one. The only thing that appears strange is Resnais’ repeated rapid editing of empty spaces waiting to be filled by the characters. At first, I simply dismissed them as a director, who was used to more formally complex work, trying to add some artiness to a standard story. But as the movie moves along, and everything becomes much more complex, these sequences actually become quite important – and add to the complexity of it all.

The film stars Delphine Seyrig as Helene, a widow who sells antiques out of her apartment in a small, seaside French town. Her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree) has just returned from his military service in Algeria, and seems haunted by his experiences there. He keeps mentioning “Muriel” so much, that Helene starts to refer to her as his fiancée – even though we see for the beginning of the film that he is seeing no one named Muriel, but is instead sleeping with Marie-Do (Martine Vatel). Helene has invited her former lover Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) to stay with her for a while, and he shows up with his “niece” Francoise (Nita Klein). Helene and Alphonse broke up because of the war (WWII), and he has supposedly spent most of his time since running a café in Algeria – but with the troubles there, he has returned.

The film is about the different ways these people are deluding themselves – and each other. They are hiding from reality, and putting up a front to those around. War has scared all of them in one way or another, much like the town itself (it is remarked that the town was destroyed in WWII, and is still in some ways building itself back up). The truth about all of these characters will be revealed throughout the course of the movie – but perhaps it’s not the real truth. The most memorable scene maybe when Bernard finally explains who Muriel is – his words juxtaposed against more banal news reel images of the Algerian war.

The film is a triumph for Resnais, as well as his actors. For Seyrig, her character fits in nicely alongside her other work in films like Last Year in Marienbad – where she plays a woman who either doesn’t remember a romantic tryst the year before or it never happened in the first place – and Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), where she plays a housewife wholly devoted to her routines, until it is shattered and she snaps. Her Helene seems like such a nice woman – a typical, young widow – but her apartment cluttered with stuff that is for sale works as a metaphor for how chaotic her mind is. She is a gambling addict, at risk of losing everything, but she continues gambling anyway. She has romanticized her brief romance with Alphonse, and the two of them seem to be falling back into something, but then why does she continue to see her new suitor, Roland de Smoke? And why did Alphonse bring along Francoise, who is clearly not his niece, but his lover. And why did she come?

The film has been seen by some as homage to Hitchcock, and I think that fits as well. It is not a typical thriller, but it is one that builds suspense in interesting ways – and one where the characters are not quite as they appear to be. Resnais jump cuts work, because it disturbs the movie, as the characters are disturbed, and helps to emphasize their alienation for reality.

The final shot in Muriel is haunting. It takes place inside Helene’s apartment, but everything now seems to be in order. A woman we have never seen before, but we know who she is, comes in and finds the place empty. The meanings of this shot are complex, and are ones I just beginning to grasp. Muriel is a complex masterpiece.

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