Coming July 19th from The Criterion Collection, Muriel, or The Time of Return. Directed by Alain Resnais and written by Jean Cayrol, Muriel is a lost 1963 french classic incorporating themes of time, memory, war, and unrequited love. Starring Delphine Seyrig, Jean-Pierre Kérien, Nita Klein, and Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, Muriel revolves around four souls as they attempt to navigate life shortly following the troubled resolution of the Algerian War.
Hélène is a widow living in Boulogne –sur-Mer with her step-son Bernard. Selling antiques out of her apartment, Hélène has quite a following of clientele interested in purchasing whatever small pieces of the past they can get their hands on. Hélène is visited by a lover from her past, Alphonse, and who he claims is his niece, Françoise. Forcing the characters to interact over dinner, the film does a superb job of establishing each of the characters early on, setting the tension for later interactions between the group. Alphonse is mysterious, duplicitous, and distant. Bernard is strange, disturbed, and volatile. Françoise is obedient, naïve, and timid. Hélène is gregarious and eager to please.
Hélène reminisces with Alphonse on the days they shared together in their youth. Both seem joyful in their nostalgia. Bernard, however, is haunted by his past in the war. He acts out in desperate and childish ways, unable to resolve the horrors he faced during the Algerian war. Françoise slowly coaxes Bernard out of his shell and he begins to finally open up to her about the things he did during his time in the service. All of this leads to the reveal of the titular character and her permanent impression on Bernard’s life. Meanwhile, Hélène and Alphonse’s reminiscence turns sour as they slowly begin to recall how and why they were driven apart. Hélène still desperately pines for Alphone but he finds himself in a punishingly cold disposition.
Almost the entirety of the film’s dialogue is about the past, memory, and the past’s influence on the present. Each of the characters are haunted by the actions of their past and struggle to reconcile how the past has shaped their present situation. As the plot reveals more and more to the audience, each player becomes more complicated and defined. The audience is given more and more insight into the characters motivations. Seamlessly incorporating non-linear shots and scenes, the film begins to slide into a sort of retroactive chaos where no viewer could reasonably grasp every nuance. Scenes bounce around, mirror each other, or purposely provide issues in continuity to shock and confuse the viewer. As if the entire film itself were a poorly rendered memory. There’s even a scene which is comprised of two entirely different dialogues shuffled together to stack onto the viewer’s confusion.
This is the sort of film that deserves obsessing over. No scene, moment, or prop is wasted. Every single thing exists for a purpose and has it’s own weighted importance. Muriel is a film that warrants multiple views with a legal pad and pen. Riding heavily on the theme of memory and the past is an ambitious endeavor and Muriel not only does so masterfully but the audience is essentially watching the end result of four retroactive subplots all resolving within the same fifteen days.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Clarity/Detail: Every detail is crisp and clean. The film feels sharp and wonderfully rendered.
Depth: Great sense of depth. There are several scenes where depth adds a necessary sense of immersion and allows the viewer to get lost in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Black Levels: Black levels are astounding. It is evident from the beginning, a whole scene is shot walking down a dimly lit street. The blacks feel full and rich, without that strange washing out or grayish blob feel.
Color Reproduction: Color is remastered to beautiful degree. The film feels fresh and looks as though it could have been filmed only a year or two ago. Yes it is that good.
Flesh Tones: Flesh looks well rendered and organic.
Noise/Artifacts: None that were noticeable.
Audio Formats(s): French Monaural
Dynamics: Mono means everything sounds as if it’s coming from the center of the frame so there’s not a lot here to work with. The most I can say on this subject is that the sound never seems to get bombastically out of hand as is the case with some older films.
Low Frequency Extension: If you came to Muriel to hear the bass drop, you’ve come to the wrong place my friend.
Surround Sound Presentation: Criterion did a masterful job considering the source material was originally a monoaural track. That being said, don’t expect it to be on par with modern films which are filmed using multiple tracks and more advanced audio techniques and equipment.
Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is crisp and clean.
Une approche d’Alain Resnais, révolutionnaire discret: Excerpt from a 1980s television documentary regarding the work of Alain Resnais and writer Jean Cayrol
L’invite Du Dimanche: Excerpt from a french television show. Interview with Delphine Seyrig and her experience with Muriel and her first film with Alain Resnais Last Year at Marienbad.
Discorama: 1963 French television excerpt featuring Werner Henze discussing his work on Muriel and working with Alain Resnais.
Francois Thomas: Interview with film scholar Francois Thomas conducted for Criterion.
Bottomline, this movie is fantastic and certainly worth a multiple watches. Dense, heady, and dramatic, Muriel fulfills every criteria that should entice anyone looking for an unapologetically intellectual and collegiate film that explores the depths of personal history and it’s influence on the present self. Muriel forces the viewer to pause and think deeply, not only on what is happening on screen but about those monumental moments in one’s own history that shape and define us. Those moments no one can truly escape.