One of the remarkable things about Alain Resnais’s film Muriel (1963), now released on Blu-Ray and DVD in a new print by Criterion, is that it doesn’t grow on you. It’s just as strange on a second or third viewing as on the first, and part of the reason is its cosy, well-dressed look. The characters wear fur-coats, silk scarves; they seem constantly on some sort of bourgeois parade – well, their hair gets ruffled when they are really upset – but almost nothing in their lives corresponds to this orderly image. Similarly, the film’s orderly, carefully stacked effect doesn’t match any of its continuing preoccupations. At one point we see a display of postcards outside a shop, and the camera obligingly shows us the whole random set. It feels as if the film is doing this all the time. Rooms, objects, streets, old and new buildings just succeed each other on the screen, fragments of history or memory looking for a story.
Unlike Resnais’s two earlier features, Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Muriel is in colour, and a lavish sort of colour at that. This adds to the sense of dislocated tourism. The cinematographer is Sacha Vierny, who also shot the previous films, and would go on to work with Buñuel on Belle de jour (1967). Both Resnais and Buñuel are interested in having the camera work as a kind of spy, but it must have helped to have a craftsman who was so good at getting just that look. One of the eerie things about Muriel, as about many moments in Belle de jour, is that the camera doesn’t move. ‘The challenge,’ Resnais said, ‘was never to shift the camera position.’ There are plenty of cuts and new angles, people walk around within the frame, but the camera just squats and watches. The film doesn’t feel slow or frozen, in fact the quick cutting makes it seem very lively, but you do begin to wonder how the camera always gets to the scene ahead of time, sits there ready and waiting for people to show up. It doesn’t have to move, whatever it needs to catch will always come to it. It’s a prescient spy: it already knows what it is supposed to find out.
I wouldn’t swear that this programme is entirely consistent. There are times when the camera seemed to move a bit, but I could be … seeing things, and the overall performance is striking. And then in the last sequence, the camera moves. It tracks a woman arriving at an apartment, ringing the doorbell, going inside because the door is slightly open, walking through the rooms, looking for someone, her wandering husband as it happens. There is no one there, but the place is full of furniture of all ages. It’s an apartment that also serves as an antique shop. The owner lives among the things she sells, indeed among some things she has already sold. That’s why she tells her guests to be careful with the china. We have spent a good portion of the movie in this room, and we have had several tours of the place. But only edited tours; not this long bewildered prowl.
We know the woman is not going to find her husband, here or anywhere else, because we have already seen him take off when he was supposed to be on his way back to her, in the not so amiable custody of her brother. But who is he, and where is this apartment? The first question is only partly answerable, like so many questions this film asks or implies. He is called Alphonse (played by Jean-Pierre Kerien), he is visiting an old flame in Boulogne. He has (just in case) brought his niece Françoise with him, although she is not his niece, she is his current mistress. He says he has spent the last 15 years in Algiers, running a restaurant, and he implies that he may have done a little more than that. ‘I had a certain influence,’ he says. There is something about the contented, theatrical way in which he says that these were the best years of his life that makes us wonder what he is hiding, and his brother-in-law later offers a refutation of the whole story. Alphonse wasn’t in Algiers at all, he was failing to a run a restaurant in Paris. It seems as if the old romance that brings him to town has some sort of basis in fact, but beyond that the facts get very hazy. It was a wartime affair, the dates are around 1939 or 1940. Did he leave her, did she leave him? Were certain letters lost in the post, or were they never written? What about the rendezvous she failed to keep? Or the one he failed to keep? The whole blurred narrative is like Hiroshima mon amour played as domestic French cliché, the love-in-wartime movie we have all seen more often than we care to remember.
The old flame, and owner of the antique shop flat, is Hélène, marvellously portrayed by Delphine Seyrig. The haughty glamour she brought to Last Year at Marienbad has been replaced by an extraordinary mixture of scattiness and angst. She is so optimistic that she forgets her own sorrows from one minute to the next, and she almost never walks, only runs towards everything and everyone with a hopping, eager stride. Then the camera catches her face, and she looks so desperate you think surely this time she can’t recover. She lives with her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), also said to be back from Algeria, although he certainly was there – he had signed up for the army. They have an awkward relationship because she is always trying to pretend that a polite, regulated life is all anyone needs, and he is trying to be a moody existentialist from another movie. He has his reasons.
He is engaged to a girl called Muriel, Hélène believes; and he certainly keeps announcing that he is going off to see her. At one point Hélène says she cares about Muriel only because she cares about him, and she is then very close to the truth she will never know. ‘We must tell Muriel’ is one of the last things she says in the film, when Bernard has disappeared. Another character, to whom Bernard has told his story, says: ‘We mustn’t disturb her.’ Bernard has a local girlfriend whom he often goes to see, but she is not Muriel. Muriel is an Algerian woman Bernard and his comrades tortured. Alphonse, when he is snooping round Hélène’s flat, reads some notes of Bernard’s that explain much of this, but he can’t know what they refer to, and neither can we when we glance at them with Alphonse. Only a good memory or a second viewing will allow them their full effect. ‘It was with Muriel that everything really began,’ one note says. ‘It is since Muriel that I am no longer really alive.’
In one sense it is easy to connect Muriel to Resnais’s earlier work. The themes are all there: war, trauma, damage, memory, lost love. But we shouldn’t do this too simply or too directly. Susan Sontag was right to say that Muriel, like the other films, does ‘not go to the end, either of the idea or the emotion which inspires them’; but not going to end, in this case, seems to be just the meticulously studied point. There is no end, and Resnais, in turn, was wrong to say he had done nothing on film to make things prettier. It’s all pretty, that’s why it feels so desolate. When the characters are not evading reality altogether, as almost all of them are, they are turning it into a boulevard play. A friend asks Bernard what the other torturer is doing now. He says: ‘He’s wandering around Boulogne, like everybody else.’