(aka "The Time of the Return" )

 

directed by Alain Resnais
France 1963

Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) and “Muriel” (1963). These are the first three feature films directed by Alain Resnais, and I cannot think of another director whose first three features rival them in quality. Granted, Resnais had already put in more than a decade as a short film maker (mostly documentaries) so he was hardly a novice when “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” took the film world by storm, but his accomplishment is still stunning.

While “Muriel” is hardly an obscure film, it is easily the least well-known of the three, but it’s hard to imagine why aside from the most obvious explanation: it hasn’t been as widely distributed either on film or, until now, on DVD. “Muriel” actually has two titles, the other being “The Time of Return” – multiple “returns” comprise the narrative’s main body. Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérée), now in his mid-twenties, has just returned from a two year tour of duty in Algeria. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), a dignified silver-haired gentleman, has also returned both from a lengthy stay in Algeria (or so he claims) and also into the life of his former love Hélène (Delphine Seyrig, who also starred for Resnais in “Marienbad”), who is also Bernard’s step-mother. Hélène, for her part, returns incessantly to her imagined idyllic past, an obsession signified in part by her vocation as an antique furniture dealer.

Guy Maddin is today’s king of cinematic meditations on memory, but Resnais was the memory-master of the 60’s. Hélène has a bad memory (which probably explains why she views the past so romantically) and envies those with good memories. Little does she know that her step-son is cursed by his eidetic recall of the most traumatic event of his life. While serving in Algeria, Bernard witnessed the interrogation, torture and murder of Muriel whose precise identity we are never told; in fact, we never even see her. Muriel is never far from Bernard’s mind; he even tells Hélène he is engaged to a woman named Muriel. Some of Bernard’s Algerian comrades, especially the vaguely menacing Robert (Philippe Laudenbach), want Bernard to drop the Muriel matter completely but he is both unable and unwilling to comply. Her memory, or at least his memory of her, must be preserved, and Bernard engages in just every form of recording you can think of: journal entries, a tape recorder and even a small portable film camera. The implication is that physical recording devices function as the best antidote to the unreliability of human memory.

Unlike in his previous two films, Resnais does not jump around in time, though he certainly skips a few beats. Each sequence is situated in a short period of time (a single day, for example) but the narrative dances back and forth among multiple story-lines involving each of the protagonists. Each character has his or her own life both in relation to and apart from the other characters: Bernard has his tortured memories; Alphonse has his own past to escape; Hélène has not only her aloof step-son and fickle lover to deal with but also the mounting gambling debts that threaten her struggling business.

Environment receives as much attention as character, a quality attributable both to Resnais and screenwriter Jean Cayrol who also wrote the catalogue-style narration for Resnais’ “Night and Fog” (1955). The film opens with a rapid-fire montage of Hélène’s household belongings; similar montages focus on building exteriors, street signs, and consumer goods in storefronts.

Muriel” is a portrait of trauma as moving as any since, well, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” Lonelyache exudes from every frame of the film, in each precise gesture, each exacting detail. The film is so densely packed with that even after four viewings I feel like I have barely scratched its surface. In fact, I find it more difficult to write about than even “Marienbad.”

As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, Jean-Luc Godard is more properly considered a Swiss filmmaker which leaves the titles of “Greatest Living French filmmaker” up for grabs, and no more obvious candidate to fill the post than Alain Resnais. “Muriel” is one of his greatest achievements. Personally, I think it's an even better film than "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" but that's splitting hairs.

Christopher Long

Posters

Theatrical Release: October 13, 1963 (USA)

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Koch Lorber - Region 1 - NTSC

Big thanks to Christopher Long for the Review!

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Distribution

Koch Lorber

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime 1:55:52
Video

1.66:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 5.91 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate

Audio French
Subtitles English
Features Release Information:
Studio: Koch Lorber

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.66:1

Edition Details:
• Interview with Francois Thomas

DVD Release Date: March 13th, 2007

Chapters 12

 

Comments:

NOTE: The Masters of Cinema release is reviewed fully HERE.

I’m so excited to see “Muriel” made available on a Region 1 DVD that I hate to point out the flaws in the transfer. Unfortunately, the image is very soft in places as should be evident in some of the screen captures below. The color palette also seems a bit washed out, especially the reds. I don’t if this is attributable to the source material or the transfer. It’s not a bad transfer mind you, it’s just that it’s only average and a film like “Muriel” deserves so much more.

The only extra included is a short interview (13 min.) with Francois Thomas, author of “L’atelier d’Alain Resnais.” His lucid, if all too brief, analysis of the film is very enlightening, particularly his contention that “high brow” Resnais drew heavily on comic books as an inspiration for the film’s design, especially with its overlapping audio edits (think of the “POW” “ZAP”s that extend into the next frame or two in a particularly lurid comic book.)

Resnais is just as important a French New Wave director as either Godard or Truffaut but for some reason only a few of his films have received even a modest Region 1 DVD release. Even the widely-acclaimed “Last Year at Marienbad” is available only on a mediocre (and I am being generous) transfer (in Region 1) from Fox Lorber way back from another century. Resnais deserves a lot better, though he’s hardly alone in that category.

Ed. NOTE: There is an Optimum - Region 2 PAL release of Last Year at Marienbad compared HERE to the Fox-Lorber.

Even with an average transfer and only one modest extra, this should be considered one of the crucial Region 1 DVD releases so far in 2007. “Muriel” is an unqualified masterpiece.

 - Christopher Long

 

 



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DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:

Distribution

Koch Lorber

Region 1 - NTSC




 

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