Never ending nor beginning.
Just as it effectively has two titles, Muriel, or The Time of Return plays on twin themes of reconstruction and deconstruction.
About that reconstruction: there’s the physical and the conceptual.
Our story’s set in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a quaint French seaport town, still in the process of rebuilding itself some fifteen years after the conclusion of World War two–a process at least one resident looks upon with a combination of bemusement and frustration:
“It’s like the story of the sliding house. You know it, of course. It’s that tall building shaped like a toolbox. There were sketches, a pilot study, blueprints, 300 pages of descriptions and measurements. Work finally started with 1,000 pages of specifications, with full insurance coverage. In short, the building went up. All the doorknobs and fittings are in place. The building’s ready, the windows are in, but…it’s sliding away, and the cliff is receding. So we’re waiting for it to collapse. It won’t make a pretty ruin.”
Equally elaborate and unstable are the past reconstructions defining and sustaining the relationships of the film’s primary characters:
Helene Aughain (Delphine Seyrig, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) sells antique furniture from the apartment she shares with her late husband’s son, Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree, The Clowns).
On impulse, Helene posts a letter, extending an open-ended invitation to Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien, Le Guerre est Finie), an ex-lover. The pair worked together as resistance fighters against Nazi occupation in Paris some twenty years earlier and haven’t seen each other since. Alphonse accepts Helene’s invitation but then surprises her by bringing along his beautiful young niece Francoise (Nita Klein, Total Eclipse), a budding actress.
Conveniently, Francoise happens to be just about the same age as Bernard, though a match doesn’t seem imminent, as the young man seems wholly preoccupied by haunting memories of his recent tour of duty as a soldier in the Algerian war. Likewise, a rematch between Helene and Alphonse seems unlikely, as memories of their time together don’t exactly line up and each of them seem to feel that they’d been wronged by the other. It’s fair to say that all four of them are guilty of misrepresenting themselves while trying to hide dark secrets and oh, so tangled become the webs they weave.
This being a French film of the first order, Muriel, or The Time of Return naturally includes several supporting characters (each bringing colorful asides); discussions of philosophy, food, wines, et al.
Now about that deconstruction: there are stuttering, elliptical edits–not jump cuts, per se, but montages made up of flashing images (i.e. several pieces of furniture in Helene’s apartment, the hat of a visiting customer, Helene’s crossed ankles). An operatic soprano wails over Hans Werner Henze’s (Love Unto Death) decidedly non-operatic score. Dialogue from some preceding scenes bleeds into scenes following. Questions between characters go perpetually unanswered. And who knows what else? I’ve only seen the film twice so far, and if ever a motion picture required multiple viewings…well, you know the rest.
Under the masterful stewardship of director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), everything works exactly as it should, though for the life of me, I can’t say how. I can only aver that Muriel, or The Time of Return is a true motion picture masterpiece; a singular mixture of sight, sound and flawless ensemble work that not only requires several viewings, but indeed, makes the prospect desirable.
Mad love and much respect to the good people at Criterion, not only for resurrecting this inexplicably neglected magnum opus, but also for providing the kind of transfer it deserves. If you’re holding onto a copy of the 2007 Koch Lorber DVD release and wondering whether or not to upgrade, let me put it this way: the difference is between experiencing the feature in all its cinematic glory, versus the feeling that you’re watching a videotape transferred to disc. Your call.
The bonus features are a rag-tag bunch; slight on time, though interesting nevertheless. Biggest and best is a 27 minute interview with film scholar Francois Thomas, who puts paid to the notion that Resnais’ final cut resulted from editing via Cuisinart, by providing a copy of Jean Cayrol’s (Night And Fog) meticulously detailed screenplay. Cayrol himself–who died in 2005–appears in a five minute clip from a 1980 documentary; Werner-Henze and Seyrig are featured for about for minutes apiece, in French television snippets from 1963 and 1969, respectively. There’s also a look in at the original theatrical trailer and a handsome, photo-laden booklet with an essay by film scholar James Quandt.
And what of Muriel, herself? To the best of my knowledge, the title character never makes an appearance here. Helene assumes she’s the girlfriend that Bernard frequently darts off to meet, but is this because she’s mistaken, or because he’s purposely misled her? In conversations with his actual girlfriend, Marie-Do (Martine Vatel), Bernard identifies Muriel as the victim of wartime atrocities perpetuated by his compatriots, but was he also a participant? The shell-shocked vet continually labors on a documentary film intended to expose these horrors, but his good buddy and comrade-in-arms Robert (Philippe Laudenbach, Of Gods and Men) counsels him to get on with his life by leaving Muriel and the rest of the war behind, which begs the question: Is Robert looking to help a battle-fatigued friend, or merely to cover up a crime?
Regrettably, I can’t give you definitive answers to these questions, as yet. Like I said, I’ve only screened the film twice–so far.