In the seaside town of Boulogne, no one seems to be able to cope with their past, least of all Hélène, an antique furniture saleswoman, her stepson Bernard, and her former lover Alphonse.In the seaside town of Boulogne, no one seems to be able to cope with their past, least of all Hélène, an antique furniture saleswoman, her stepson Bernard, and her former lover Alphonse.In the seaside town of Boulogne, no one seems to be able to cope with their past, least of all Hélène, an antique furniture saleswoman, her stepson Bernard, and her former lover Alphonse.
Politics and perception
Some decades before Haneke's 'Cache' once more centralised the trope of Algeria-guilt amongst the bourgeoisie, 'Muriel' is less a polemical allegory-and less marked by immigrant experience-and more a kind of spider's web of implication, its critique of French conduct in Algeria constructed as a kind of puzzle which is only really a puzzle if we ignore those political truths hiding in plain sight-which is precisely the point. Haneke is concerned to reveal his cards half-way through the film-it's important that one *get* and *absorb* a message. Likewise, in Muriel, the account of torture committed by the ex-soldier now returned to Boulogne-sur-Mer plays out at the half-way point. But for Resnais and scriptwriter Jean Cayrol, to whom the film equally owes its striking detail and shape, form and message are imbricated in closer ways. Likewise, compared to other experiments with narrative within avant-garde cinema of the period-including Resnais' own-here, complexities of perception rendered through avant-garde technique may reflect existential questions of memory, desire and so on, but more precisely, they serve a political purpose. As in Demy's Parapluies de Cherbourg the following year, the film's critique of French conduct in Algeria is presented as both motor to and peripheral figure / irritant within what is in some ways a love story. But there are no Michel Legrand songs here, no bright-burning neon glow, no dwelling in sentiment: the film is analytical, critical, clipped, dense. The constructs of desire, loss, the attempt to regain past intimacy, told in half-finished stories, never-received letters, interrupted monologues, the constant unspoken-the evasions and illusions of romantic love-are open secrets around which the lovers tip-toe, traipse and on which they trample, while the Algerian conflict is imbricated within the social fabric of a particular town, and, metonymically, the broader society in which it has its place. Of particular interest for the film is the way that the community of that town is constructed through a mixture of the repressed memory of trauma (the second world war and national service in Algeria-attack by or complicity with fascist occupation domestically and participation in colonial violence abroad), the militarist underlay of the business world, of Gaullism, of particular modes of masculine identity. The clipped precision of the film's extreme fast-cutting turns editing at once almost hallucinatory in its flashes of distorted logic and extraordinarily precise in its planned juxtapositions: the trope of mystery-who is Muriel? What happened in Algeria? What happened to break apart the now elderly lovers reunited in a web of half-truths, half-desires, and deceit?-a diagnostic frame at once personal and social. Resnais may suggest that film itself-at least, as conceived of as a repository of direct truth, the authenticity of visual experience-is inadequate: as when the young ex-soldiers' Algerian footage literally burns up in the projector when exposed to the light. But film, understood differently-for its challenge to, its going against the grain of perception-provides the shock to the habituated dailiness of looking so that an antique table, the door to a café, a walk around town, the assassination of a far-right terrorist, flicker and bunch up together like a terrible revelation of what lies beneath.
- Sep 13, 2020
Contribute to this page
Suggest an edit or add missing content