Past Lives: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963)

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“In general I am not interested in the events themselves but in what happens afterwards. Not the departure, but the return.” – Jean Cayrol

In Muriel, or The Time of Return (1963), the repressed past infiltrates the present like a fungal growth slowly inching across the frame. A pre-World War II lover and a ghostly memory from Algiers fill the gaps in the lives of the Aughain family of Boulogne-sur-mer, a sleepy, emptied out seaside town just waiting to be possessed. Alain Resnais’ follow-up to Last Year at Marienbad (’61), Muriel has a materialist, tactile sense of place, established through rapid montages of everyday objects, whereas Marienbad’s amorphous no-place was shot with languorous long takes. The shift can be attributed to his collaborators, moving from nouveau roman author/filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet on Marienbad to Jean Cayrol on Muriel. Cayrol was a poet and concentration camp survivor who had provided the text for Resnais’ Night and Fog. He has these characters bear the physical weight of history, something that slows their steps and hunches their backs, and this lurch can now be seen on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. 

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In a 1969 interview included on the Criterion disc, Delphine Seyrig compared working on Marienbad to being in a Racine tragedy, “where people stroll around without ever actually having anything to do”, whereas in her role in Muriel she was “faced with something much more concrete…having a package to wrap, or a cigarette to light.” In the latter she plays the dowdy Hélène Aughain, a widowed antiques dealer in Boulogne-sur-mer who lives with her step-son Bernard (the severe-looking Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), recently discharged from military duty in Algeria. Her life is charted in the rapid close-up montage that begins the film: of doorknobs, tea kettles, purses, and glass fruit centerpieces (25 shots in 23 seconds). All the while a customer is rambling about the chest of drawers she’s seeking. She deals in antiques, objects that project history without the buyer knowing exactly what that history is. Hélène has settled into her role, her dun-colored sweaters and dull brown blouses blending in with the lacquered bookcases and end tables she hawks to customers. Her vices are gambling (poorly) and a balding developer with the vaporous name of Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval). Seyrig is playing a character decades older than she is, but inhabits the role with a grim, distant fatalism.

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Hélène lives in a house in which all of the furniture is for sale, and with a son that is not hers. Bernard is the son from her dead husband’s previous marriage, and he treats her like a live-in maid more than a mother. He is morose, cynical, and menacing, harboring grudges against the world that placed him in that apartment. He has been marked by a tragedy that occurred during his service in Algiers, one he replays constantly in his head, and later, on tape. Bernard is chillingly embodied by Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, whose sunken cheeks make him look like a rosy-skinned Dracula. 

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Their pasts begin to leach into the present with the arrival of Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien) and his niece Françoise (Nita Klein). Alphonse was Hélène’s great love before WWII struck. Or at least she once thought so. She writes him a letter urging him to come visit, expecting nothing less than a miracle, and instead it is just a man. He is debonair and handsome, but the memory of their love and parting don’t match up. Hélène’s memories are more real than the Alphonse in front of her, who is a habitual dissembler and hanger-on. She can’t let go of the memory so she can’t let go of Alphonse, whose presence forces Bernard to move to an old stable house which he has filled with old newsreels from Algiers. Bernard idly flirts with Françoise, but always returns to his true girlfriend, Muriel. It is the name he has given to a phantom, a girl destroyed in Algiers. He was witness and mute, and the guilt is bleeding him apart.

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Cayrol’s script has a precise structure, although it’s not clear while viewing. James Monaco laid it out in his book Alain Resnais: “Cayrol, in the published script, sets up a five act structure. All the action of the film takes place in Boulogne-sur-mer between Saturday, 29 September 1962 and Sunday, 14 October of that year. The first and fifth acts each cover one day, the second and fourth a week each, and the third 2 days precisely in the middle of the time span. Three meals provide focal points at the beginning, middle, and end.”

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The ending meal is a tour-de-force of the past-becoming-present. It turns out Alphonse has abandoned his most recent life, and it has raced to catch up at this dinner. His brother-in-law Ernest (Jean Champion, the spitting image of James Whitmore) emerges from the ether to join the meal. He fully punctures their present and lets the past flood in. After sitting down with his tea he starts singing “Deja”, from a 1928 musical revue. “Time too rushes on/In such a hurry/How insane.” Then, with Hans Werner Henze’s fractured score crashing on the soundtrack, Ernest leans into a ferocious jeremiad against Alphonse that Resnais cuts back and forth with static shots of boxy apartment buildings, a disorienting push-pull effect that confuses space as Ernest is collapsing time. This pushes each character to a breaking point. Alphonse runs away, blending into the crowds of Boulogne, while Hélène, her history seemingly erased, runs off to a friend’s apartment. Bernard’s secrets, in a burst of audio tape laughter, are leaking out around him, and he runs off in a streak of violence. As their past seeks acknowledgment, they disappear. All that’s left is an empty room.

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