Muriel, or the Time of Return (Alain Resnais, 1963)

by Smart

Resnais’ first two feature length films are arguably masterpieces. Muriel would be his third, so naturally expectations at the time of its release were high. Unfortunately for Resnais, critics, for the most part, were left unimpressed. The film tells the story (to use the term loosely) of a widow named Hélène as she attempts to reunite in the present with a man from her past with her hopes set on the future. This sense of the past is important and tends to dominate the undertone of the film. We also come to know Hélène’s stepson Bernard, who has just returned from the Algerian War and is traumatised by an event he took part in there, which we learn about later as the film once again explores the past. Sly, jumpy editing reflects the narrative structure, which seems to work in the spirit of the nouveau roman style with its absolute rejection of convention. Scenes are broken up erratically and a consistent sense of space is recurrently undermined as locations and characters move about inexplicably within a single cut. This experimental nature may explain for the film’s bad reception, as the discontinuous editing frequently breaks the flow of the story and leaves the viewer heavily disorientated.

During the film there are a number of montage sequences featuring various static images of the city. This establishes the setting in a fragmented sense, as we are never given a shot that allows us to discern the true spatial arena of the film. To see the setting as a character is to see it shattered and unknowable, no doubt an observation on the effects of WWII. A wide colour range is applied simply and unobtrusively through costume and set design, giving each handsomely framed shot a nice vibrancy and contrast. Multiple scenes take place inside of each other, with dialogue overlapping visuals and suggesting something in the context of a metanarrative. The majority of the scene transitions are handled with smash cuts, which adds to the overall jarring quality of the film’s editing. It is an emotional style of editing that places the viewer outside of their comfort zone. The story turns darker as more past incidents are uncovered and elaborated upon in varying degrees of lucidity. Mood can change from just one line of dialogue, particularly when these past events are referred to ominously, which is always accompanied with a short musical motif. Wide shots of scenic outdoor locations contrast with the stilted romance and its undercurrents of disaster. The poetic dialogue avoids explicit meaning and adds to the overall perplexity of this subversive drama.