Muriel opens with a seemingly idiosyncratic series of fragmented images, as a client stands in the doorway of an antique dealer, Helene’s (Delphine Seyrig) apartment to provide specific details on her furniture request. Oddly, the client specifies that she does not want anything “old fashioned”. Helene is a widow, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her former lover, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), whom she had not seen since the war. Reacting to young Bernard’s (Jean-Baptiste Thierree) disinterest, Helene remarks that Alphonse could be Bernard’s father. However, Bernard later explains to Alphonse’s lover, Francoise (Nita Klein), that Helene is his stepmother. Other incongruous patterns emerge. Bernard mentions that he is meeting a girl named Muriel later in the evening, but is elusive about their relationship. Despite Helene’s diligence in noting the arrival of Alphonse’s train, she encounters an empty train station. The evening walk from the train station is intercut with a montage of daylight images of the port town. Helene announces that dinner will consist of chicken and mushrooms, but Francoise comments in approval that Alphonse loves sausage and Italian salami. Moreover, during the course of dinner, Helene encourages Alphonse to have some more cabbage and fennel. Later in the evening, a man named Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval) arrives at the house to escort Helene to the casino, but Alphonse later infers that Helene left the house alone to meet Roland at the casino. Alphonse’s motives for the visit are equally ambiguous. He seems eager to rekindle his relationship with Helene, but brings Francoise to the trip, and seems resigned to the idea that their life before the war is irretrievably lost. Similarly, Bernard’s service in the Algerian war proves to be a painful, inescapable memory that resigns him to a life of isolation and profound guilt.
Alain Resnais creates a visual and thematic conundrum on the effects of war on the lives of three emotionally scarred survivors in Muriel. Using jarring jump cuts and frenetic montage sequences, Helene is literally surrounded by the past, as she uses the apartment to showcase and sell antique furniture. Alphonse, who has struggled to rebuild his life after the war, is unable to reconcile with their failed relationship, and returns to Helene in order to escape personal problems. Bernard, haunted by the memory of a nameless war casualty, sits in a dilapidated studio endlessly replaying military footage, struggling with his own personal demons. As in Francois Truffaut’s The Green Room, an unnatural, pervasive green hue creates a sense of unresolved longing and insurmountable loss. Muriel is a cinematically groundbreaking, cryptic, and endlessly fascinating labyrinthine puzzle on memory and altered perception – an honest, yet challenging portrait of isolating guilt and the tragedy of survival.
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