When director Alain Resnais was at the height of his fame (or notoriety), he was identified with a fragmentary editing style that in many ways became the sine qua non for artistically ambitious 1960s filmmaking. One of the “Big Three” of the French New Wave, Resnais was older than Godard and Truffaut, and unlike the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, he was already an experienced film professional before acquiring fame. In addition to having made short documentaries before his features, he was a well-established film editor, which is not incidental.
Nearly as fractured as his first features, Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel is neither as intense as the former nor as original as the latter. Focused largely on four characters and their mundane, everyday ups and downs, there is little justification for the cut-cut-cut approach the director takes. About the most that can be said for it is that in some scenes, the method all too capably evokes the characters’ edginess. Otherwise, the cutting feels like mannered complexity for its own sake, albeit at a very high level of execution.
While there are traces of Resnais’s early interests in time and memory, those themes do not structure the editing. Hiroshima, mon amour, for example, is most famous for the innovative use of associative cutting embedded in a character’s consciousness. In a well-known moment, the main character looks at the arm of her sleeping lover, which triggers a memory of the death of a previous love in the Second World War. The technique was instantly incorporated into cinematic grammar, so that today such moments barely register as anything other than a way to initiate a flashback.
In Muriel, however, while there is much cutting between people, locations and periods, there is little grounding in the characters’ emotions. On the other hand, the film lacks the extreme, complete dissociation from character and forward movement that Resnais employed in Marienbad. The results are thus neither as satisfying as traditional methods, nor as formally compelling as Resnais’s other work. There’s nothing much to appreciate beyond the film’s accurate character depiction or the virtuosic technique. But the people are more annoying than interesting and the execution too obtrusive to inspire any reaction much better than impatience.
The situation builds to a climax of a sort, but it is emotionally flat, almost arbitrary, so that by the end of Muriel you are less interested in how the characters will resolve their issues than in simply being done. (The most hair raising moment occurs late in the film when one character, on the lam from his wife and with a maddening tendency to wander aimlessly, slips away from his brother-in-law. For a moment, you fear the movie will follow him again.) More showy than insightful, Muriel is a dramatically static movie given false movement through an approach too self-conscious to be ignored, but not radical enough to be of value for itself.