Written by Jean Cayrol and directed by Alain Resnais, Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour takes place during two weeks mostly in early October 1962, that is to say, after Algeria’s achievement of independence in July following war between France and its colony that had begun in 1954. Information about the French military’s widespread use of torture on Algerians had also come to light. With its topical brace of history, Resnais’s film is a haunted repository of ongoing relevance.
Delphine Seyrig gives a beautiful performance as Hélène, a widow who sells antiques in Boulogne. She lives with stepson Bernard, who is haunted by memories of Muriel, an Algerian girl he tortured and killed while soldiering in Algiers. Hélène remembers love: her first love, Alphonse, whose visit (with his current mistress, masquerading as his niece) is ostensibly the “return” to which the title refers. Moreover, Alphonse keeps “returning” to his fifteen years in Algeria, where he may never have actually been. Bernard keeps returning in his mind to Algiers, and as a result (possibly) kills again: this time, Robert, with whom he tortured and killed Muriel. Or is the memory of Muriel an oppressive phantom encapsulating for individuals a national burden of guilt? The substance to which our memories allude is elusive because it is dispersed throughout our sensible lives.
Resnais’s trademark intricate editing creates a mosaic of past, present and, implicitly, future—lives fractured by war, even on the homefront. Humanity breaks down when memory is either attached to or dissociated from traumatic experience.
The titular “return” refers also to Cayrol and Resnais’s return to their previous collaboration, Night and Fog (1955), a documentary survey of the history that haunts Auschwitz and another previous Resnais film that is also in color.
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