Politics and Muriel
(or: Reflections on how Alain Resnais has made me feel guilty about the War in Iraq)
The other day I wrote and submitted to DVD Verdict a review of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film Muriel, in which I attempted to take on an analysis of Resnais’s complex cinematic sensibilities, and how this film rates when placed within the context of the rest of his career. Not that it wasn’t a bad approach to this film—honestly, it’s more or less a justification of the film to an audience that isn’t exactly the type to be eagerly anticipating the release of obscure foreign films—but after submitting it, I realized I failed to touch on the one thing that has provoked more contemplation on my part than any other.
So I figure that’s what a blog is for, right? A chance to expand on thoughts and ideas otherwise left unfinished, incomplete…
While performing some preliminary research, Doug Cummings’s analysis of Muriel at filmjourney.org was the articles that I latched onto the strongest, an insightful if all-too-short analysis of this complex film. And as I read more and more about the film, I found that this line stuck out to me more than any other:
“Muriel was one of the first French films to address atrocities committed during the Algerian War of Independence… the film is without a doubt timely today in the US as the nation alternates between coming to grips or flat-out ignoring its own war of occupation and human rights abuses.”
A little background before I continue: though I think I keep up with current events and political issues more than most people (particularly those my age), I can’t and won’t claim to be a very political person. If anything, I’ve become apathetically apolitical since our current president’s reelection in 2004—staying up most of the night in a living room in London watching state after state being called for Bush was an experience that almost singlehandedly crushed any confidence or interest I had in American politics, both in politicians themselves, but most particularly in an electorate that could so easily and overwhelming condone an administration that seems to me so obviously wrongheaded, if not actually evil. That being the case, I’ve always maintained my rather vague anti-war stance regarding Iraq, though I can’t claim that my reasoning has evolved or progressed much more than the initial reasons I developed my freshman year of college, which are admittedly more theoretical (my thoughts run more towards pacifism) than specific in nature.
Needless to say, Cumming’s comment, which is rather offhandedly thrown in his piece, has really shaken me up as I’ve subsequently puzzled over Muriel. Cummings is right: Resnais’s film is extremely timely today, perhaps even more so than all those Iraq-centered documentaries that keep popping up in American theaters—if only because it hits upon my (and many others, I feel rather confident in saying) blissful, very intentional ignorance of the situation in Iraq.
Muriel is a film that depicts what are essentially trivial people flailing about in their essentially trivial everyday existence. Sure, several of the characters may be wrestling with deeper issues, particularly Bernard, who has just returned to France after serving in Algiers and seems to have participated in torture tactics. But on the whole, Muriel depicts a group of self-centered individuals wrapped up in their own cares, obsessions, habits and pasts, displaying only the occasional (and very, very slight) interest in anything other than themselves, let alone any kind of overarching political situation.
Could my own situation be summed up in more or less the same way? Errrr, yes. It can.
Admittedly, there are some differences between the world Muriel’s characters inhabit and my own. Novelist Jean Cayrol, who collaborated with Resnais on the script, has emphasized that the film’s location in the Northern port city Boulogne-sur-Mer was very intentional, as it was a city still undergoing the rebuilding process in the wake of WWII. The city, with its motley mix of crumbling pre-war buildings and newly constructed structures, serves as a potent, visual metaphor running throughout the film, a subtle reminder that this is a location, and indeed a society in general, still reeling from the affects of war and carnage. And even if Boulogne-sur-Mer is not being directly affected physically by the war raging in Algiers, there is the very physical presence of Bernard and other soldiers returning from the area to serve as reminders.
I guess what has surfaced is a sense of guilt over how easily I dismiss even the slight ways that the war in Iraq manages to touch me—I mean, I can’t begin to fathom how many times while watching a news network and a feature begins with a line like “today was the worst day ever for US casualties in Iraq” I think something along the lines of “it just keeps getting worse, doesn’t it?” and promptly switch the channel and end up watching the conclusion of an episode of Shear Genius that I’ve already seen once or twice before.
It’s rather disorienting to think one moment “god, these characters are clueless,” and then be aligned with them the next. It’s funny, I’ve read quite a few reviews that fault Muriel for not addressing the Algerian War more directly (though I’d be willing to guess that such comments are the result of not being aware of extreme government censorship during the time), when honestly, I can’t think of a film that more accurately nails the state of contemporary American society. And if the film itself is any indication, that’s a rather sad state indeed. I’ve been warned.
Now I’m off to edit my MySpace page…