Muriel (1963)

Just when you thought Last Year at Marienbad represented some sort of peak of “difficult” cinema, along comes Resnais with Muriel… and this time he really fucks with you by telling a fairly conventional story involving people with names. It’s just that it doesn’t bear much relation to conventional storytelling; one of the pieces in the DVD booklet says it’s like Marienbad in a real historical setting (in this particular case, Boulogne in 1962), and I can kind of see where that comparison comes from. Certainly I can’t think of any other film whose sense of time (and occasionally space) is so fractured and disorienting while still telling a story that’s actually linear (it’s quite an impressive achievement, really). That story revolves around Helene inviting an old lover, Alphonse, to come and visit her in Boulogne, where she sells antique furniture; she’s not expecting him to bring his “niece” and he’s not expecting her somewhat existential stepson, who’s home from the recently ended war in Algeria and brought some obscure trauma back with him. As for what Alphonse has been doing in the 20+ years since they split under vague circumstances, that winds up being another story. Or stories. As I said, all of this is straightforward enough, but Resnais loads the telling of the tale with a barrage of jump cuts, often resulting in fragments of scenes jammed rather abruptly against each other, thus rendering the sense of time quite difficult to latch onto; apparently in the script each scene is specifically timed and dated and the action takes place over two weeks, but you don’t get that information from the film itself, which gives the feeling of taking place over, well, any amount of time to the point where time becomes a kind of meaningless concept. It is impressive, as I said, and Resnais makes all this abstraction surprisingly engrossing, though I know it’s going to need more than one viewing to really sink in.

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