Jean Cayrol, a poet who died two years ago, is most known as a concentration camp survivor who wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. His script for Muriel, or the Time of a Return, which I’ve just seen for the first time, is clearly one of the seminal works of film narrative, one of only a handful of films that has stylistic significance to the history of the novel. The pre-production for the film was done at same time as Resnais’ Robbe-Grillet-scripted Last Year in Marienbad, also starring Delphine Seyrig, and as it would have been written in the late 50s it came at a time when Robbe-Grillet had honed his prose style following the release of Jealousy and his much-discussed literary essays.
It is thus interesting to note the Robbe-Grillet influence and its boundaries here. You can see the influence in the dialogue, which like in Jealousy is innocuous, every-day chitchat of bourgeois characters (with the exception of the young, neurotic filmmaker and ex-Algerian-confict soldier Bernard). Clearly since Resnais was working with Robbe-Grillet this influence is likely. But Cayrol has no interest in Robbe-Grillet’s limits: he creates strong, iconic characters with psychological dimensions that are clear but not exaggerated. The use of everyday dialogue, especially that of Seyrig and her reuinted lover Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), a proud WW2 veteran who exemplifies the dress and manner of middle class café life, is pieced into small narrative fragments in a bounty of jump cuts, like a cubist painting of a man reading a newspaper, similar to Zamyatin’s ‘solar’ style of narrative which reorganized everyday life for symbolic effect.
Unlike the famous dolly shots of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (containing my favorite dolly shot ever) and Marienbad, the camera is always on a tripod and the editing makes movement in time more pronounced than in space. There are no flashbacks - everything happens in sequence, including Bernard’s recollections of Algeria. Deleuze notes that the film exists in an absent present: indeed, the characters don't know who they are or what they are doing (except Jean Champion’s Ernest, who intrudes into a dinner party to sing one of Resnais’ favorite childhood songs and set matters straight), are overcome by events of the past, and must suffer in life (like Cayrol) amid the many who have died.
Cayrol has spent a lifetime on the Blanchot ‘disaster'; here without any filmed footage of Algeria, the atrocities of the war are depicted and have ramifications on the action completely offscreen. With Resnais, who had just gone down this road with Duras in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and whose collaboration with Cayrol (Night and Fog) had previously been suppressed for diplomatic reasons, he is seeking to depict atrocities on a human scale, without the dehumanizing overabundance of carnage that you see in history films or in Hollywood action films. Muriel is a girl who is tortured in Bernard’s presence in Algeria, but we don’t know her, and neither did Bernard, so I speculate Cayrol is trying to replicate this detachment: Bernard’s obsession with the plight of someone he doesn’t know is neurotic in a film of only French middle class characters where he is expected to deal with his own problems and relationships but refuses to. It is notable how few French films deal with Algeria, even those of the patriotic Swiss-born Godard, and it is quite possible that Téchiné’s Changing Times, which has a similar story line of a reunion of elderly lovers involving North Africa and a title which may be taken from a line in Muriel, is a feel-good update of this movie.