Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Montage and character subjectivity in Alain Resnais' Muriel ou le temps d'un retour

In her 1963 review of Alain Resnais' Muriel: ou Le Temps d'un Retour (1963), Susan Sontag deems it "the most difficult, by far, of Resnais', three feature films"[1] (for at the time he had only made 3 features). Considering Resnais' previous work in Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) and L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961), which were already arguably "difficult", it would seem hard to produce something that surpasses them in terms of difficulty (without perhaps venturing in to experimental-film territory). "Difficult" is, however, a very subjective term, and this difficulty is further elaborated on by Alan Williams, which notes that despite "many critics [considering] Muriel to be Resnais's greatest film, [general] audiences often find it hard to follow because of its jagged, Eisenstenian editing and highly elliptical screenplay"[2]. While not directly using the term "Eisenstenian" in a pejorative manner, its use by Williams here does point to the fact that Muriel does not only go against the classical Hollywood continuity editing, but it does so in such a jarring way that it actually bothers the spectator in some way. As Sontag notes when comparing Resnais' editing of Muriel to Jean-Luc Godard's editing of À bout de souffle (1960) and Vivre Sa Vie (1962), unlike Godard's "jumpy, jazzy… abrupt cutting [that] pulls the viewer into the story, makes him restless and heightens his appetite for action, creating a kind of visual suspense", Resnais' abrupt cutting "pulls the viewer away from the story… [acting] as a brake on the narrative, a form of aesthetic undertow, a sort of filmic alienation effect"[3]. What effect then, does this technique have on our understanding of the narrative and furthermore, how does it affect our perception of character subjectivity in Resnais' film? In answering these questions, I intend to show that Muriel's editing style functions in a way that enables Resnais to imply characters' subjectivity and their present state precisely by avoiding both, instead concentrating on the world surrounding them and their past.

To illustrate this, I will start by looking at the effects that the editing style has on the film narrative and how it contributes to or alters our perception of thereof. Following, I will consider how the montage in Muriel relates to character interaction and relationships among each other. Concentrating primarily on the character of Hélène (Delphine Seyrig), I will examine some of the ways that her character interacts with others and how these interactions are handled in terms of editing. Finally, I will look at how these choices in editing contribute to our understanding of character subjectivity in Muriel (primarily of Hélène's character but also more broadly of all characters).

To begin, we can observe the narrative in Muriel and how the editing affects it. Sontag notes that despite there being a story in Muriel, the film is "designed so that, at any given moment of it, it's not about anything at all" adding that "at any given moment it is a formal composition; and it is to this end that individual scenes are shaped so obliquely, the time sequences scrambled, and dialogue kept to a minimum of informativeness"[4]. How does it achieve this "not being about anything at all" however? Claude Ollier claims that the film's linearity is increasingly cut by obliques and curves and that despite the linear narrative continuing perfectly chronologically, the scenes follow each other in a more and more discontinuous way with the ellipses getting wider and wider[5]. This is accomplished by what O'Brien refers to as "inverted jump cuts", that is, according to her, "splicing which resembles continuity editing in its lack of attention to temporal breaks, but which elides the passing of time"[6]. In addition to creating confusion in the spectator by facing them with narrative gaps that are presented in a way usually used to present contiguous time, essentially "forcing" them to confront the ellipses in the narrative, the "visual and auditory bricolage" also forces them to "fill in the gaps in order to make sense of the film"[7]. The, "severing [of] connective tissue between the shots" in turn opens the space for spectator participation, which is initially pleasurable but eventually becomes displeasure[8], dislocation and shock[9] and eventually abhorrence, as the spectator "is forced to participate in a scene of torture"[10]. As such, the film is no longer "hard to follow" but rather becomes discomforting for the viewer to watch. This is perhaps what Ollier refers to when he deems Muriel as a film like a kind of spiral which opens further and further out, being rendered "centrifugal with everything [being] projected to the outside"[11]. In fact Ollier echoes O'Brien's view, stating that his "main feeling watching it was … a raising anxiety, panic even"[12]. But to what end is this editing strategy and its effect on the spectator used? If the spectator feels discomfort, how do the characters in Muriel feel?

According to Sontag, "the way the scenes are photographed and edited decomposes, rather than analyzes, the story"[13]. This decomposition in lieu of analysis can be observed in the scene at the bar in which Alphonse and Bernard have their conversations with Ernest and Robert, respectively[14]. By manipulating the shot-counter shot technique using "criss-crossing … across the two sets of characters rather than within them", Resnais decomposes the scene, forcing us to "intellectualize the shot-counter shot effect and come to realize the psychological parallels between Alphonse and Bernard"[15]. The interchangeability of the characters in this scene, used to convey elements of some characters through parallels of others is further explained by Resnais himself, stating that when he sees a film, he is "more interested in the play of feelings than in the characters" and that he envisions "a Cinema without psychologically definite characters, in which feelings would have free play"[16]. Editing is then used here to convey traits through the parallels that are drawn with other characters.

But this is not the only instance in which the editing in Muriel is used to express subjectivity not present in the narrative and/or characters themselves. Considering the distinction that is made between the long take and montage sequences, which states that long-take is better suited for expressing non-rational emotions / emotional moments, whereas montage is better suited for expressing ideas or concepts[17], we can observe an instance of each in Muriel and how each is used to express the respective elements mentioned. Both scenes are interactions that Hélène has with a man, the first is handled with montage whereas the second is handled with a long take. The first scene in question, employing the discontinuous montage discussed prior, has 9 shots and happens as Hélène is preparing Alphonse's bed[18]. O'Brien's concept of "inverted jump cut" is employed here, as we are presented with a version of shot-reverse shot that has the characters in different spaces every time the camera returns to them - for example Hélène is seen picking some pillows from a closet in the living room, then we cut to Alphonse, and when we cut back to Hélène she turns away from a cabinet in the bathroom - a different room. Later on in the same scene we actually cut from a shot of Alphonse alone to one of him sitting next to Hélène, despite it all being part of the same conversation. There is definitely time/space discontinuity, but because the shot-reverse shot method, which matches the dialogue audio as well as their look (Alphonse looks to the left of the screen while Hélène looks to the right), we are "duped" into expecting it to be continuity editing. We can observe what is conveyed in this sequence when examining the dialogue, which involves Hélène finding out that Alphonses' wife is not dead and her subsequent imploring him to "stop her from coming here"[19] (which puts their relationship in a different perspective), Alphonses's perception of Bernard's participation in the war ("What does he know about real war?"[20]) as well as Bernard's attitude to Alphonse ("That's why he looks at you as if he must justify himself."[21]) and Hélène's attitude to Bernard ("It hasn't been easy, loving him."[22]). Here, the ideas expressed take on meanings that surpass those of the characters involved - marriage and fidelity, war as seen by different generations of people, mother/son relationship and son/father-figure relationship.

Similarly, more emotional and personal issues are expressed later in the film using a long take. In her conversation with Roland de Smoke (Claude Sainval), which is handled in one single minute and 30 second shot[23], Hélène gives many insights into her emotions ("I'm frightened"[24], " I am mad at him"[25]), her worries of the future ("I don't know what will happen"[26]), the present ("I wonder what I am doing with my life"[27]) and her appearance/age ("Do I look my age?"[28]). But despite the emotion and apparent subjectivity of the sequence, there is a certain objective quality to it. During most of the sequence, Hélène and Roland are both in the frame, taking up equal space on the screen. Furthermore, the deep depth of field puts the whole apartment in focus, so curtains, doors, furniture and paintings on the wall take up as much space and are as clear as the two characters. This seems to be a common aspect of Muriel, restricting itself to the objective world[29] with no "psychological probing a la French Poetic Realism. No character motivation, traces of subjectivity, or stream of consciousness patterns. The point of view is primarily omniscient. The cutting is associational"[30]. Thus, Muriel is the story of a youth probing with his camera and a woman examining her memories, but while the film carries out "a parallel of their investigation" it never "investigates itself or its own processes"[31]. With its 800 shots and elliptical cutting style that echoes the rambling, incoherent thought patterns of the characters[32], the film is as lost within its characters as they are within themselves. "There is never a sense of the montage representing a singular point of view or subjectivity"[33], rather, everything, everyone is given equal space; every one is their own little story, their own little world, and one character's story is no more or less important than another's. So while all the characters and worlds interact with each other, and can form one coherent story (as opposed to many), it seems as if "Resnais had taken [the] story, which could [have been] told quite straightforwardly, and cut it against the grain. This "against the grain" feeling - the sense of being shown the action at an angle - is the peculiar mark of Muriel. It is Resnais' way of making a realistic story over into an examination of the form of emotions"[34]. Thus, Muriel "breaks free" from the traditional narrative way of expressing emotion, and instead abstracts the narrative through the editing to ultimately achieve the ability to (figuratively) "show" emotions. And so, through the editing and the gaps in the narrative, the film prevents an easy identification with an illusion of reality[35] (which would have been the case had it been edited in a more "coherent" manner). This in turn has the effect of focusing our experience of the film to the emotional state of the characters in the film, instead of concentrating, like in so many other films, on "visual pleasure".

In conclusion, I have looked at how the editing is used in advancing and (in a way) subverting the narrative of the film. By creating gaps and forcing the viewer to fill them in, it awakes a feeling of unease and even discomfort in the viewer as they attempt to interpret the film as one that is edited in a more traditional way. Following, exploring the way in which the characters interact and how the editing handles these interactions, we saw how the various editing methods are used in conveying different ideas or emotional states. Using Hélène's character as example, I have examined how the editing style is used to explore her subjectivity (despite the overall objectivity of the film) and how this subjectivity applies to the overall way in which the concept is treated in the film. Finally, considering these subjects, we can see how Muriel, "by photographing only the present (as opposed to the subjective, continuous present), paradoxically achieves an intense dramatization of the influence of the past on its characters; by portraying only the outer world, it suggests the inner"[36]. It follows then, that while this method of portraying the inner world of characters is not what one would expect, the effect of coming to appreciate this portrayal despite its mode of presentation, is perhaps what ultimately renders Resnais' dramatization so intense.

[1] Sontag, 1963, 23

[2] Williams, 1992, 372

[3] Sontag, 1963, 25

[4] Ibid., 1963, 25-26

[5] Ollier, 1963, 69

[6] O'Brien, 2000, 51

[7] Ibid., 53

[8] Ibid., 60

[9] Ibid., 51

[10] Ibid., 53

[11] Ollier, 1963, 69

[12] Ibid., 69

[13] Sontag, 1963,25

[14] Resnais, 1963, [1'18'26" - 1'20'25"]

[15] Totaro, 2002

[16] Sarris, 1967, 440

[17] Totaro, 2002

[18] Resnais, 1963, [0'40'37" - 0'42'38"]

[19] Resnais, 1963, [0'40'49"]

[20] Ibid., [0'41'07"]

[21] Ibid., [0'41'58"]

[22] Ibid., [0'42'04"]

[23] Ibid., [1'00'05" - 1'01'36"]

[24] Ibid., [1'00'11"]

[25] Ibid., [1'00'38"]

[26] Ibid., [1'00'15"]

[27] Ibid., [1'00'22"]

[28] Ibid., [1'00'28"]

[29] Kawin, 2006, 198

[30] Totaro, 2002

[31] Kawin, 2006, 186

[32] Totaro, 2002

[33] Ibid.

[34] Sontag, 1963, 24

[35] O'Brien, 2000, 52

[36] Kawin, 2006, 198


Kawin, Bruce F. Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and first-person film. Champaign-Urbana: Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.

O'Brien, Alyssa J. "Manipulating Visual Pleasure in Muriel." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 17, no. 1 (2000): 49-61.

Ollier, Claude. "The Misfortunes of Muriel." In Cahiers du Cinema: Volume II, edited by Jim Hillier, 68-81. Abingdon: Routledge, 1963; 1986.

Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour. Directed by Alain Resnais. Argos Films, 1963.

Sarris, Andrew, ed. Interviews with Film Directors. New York: Avon Books, 1967.

Sontag, Susan. "Review: Muriel: ou Le Temps d'un Retour by Alain Resnais." Film Quarterly 17, no. 2 (Winter, 1963-1964): 23-27.

Totaro, Donato. "Muriel: Thinking With Cinema About Cinema." Offscreen. July 31, 2002. http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/muriel.html (accessed April 14, 2009).

Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

No comments: