“he’ll erect barbed wire around his little ego.”

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…

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5 thoughts on ““he’ll erect barbed wire around his little ego.”

  1. I like your reviews of MURIEL in dvdverdict.com and in your blog very much. Your reviews inspired me to begin reading some parts of the book ALAIN RESNAIS, written by John Francis Kreidl, published by Twayne Publishers in Boston, 1977. In this book, there are three articles on MURIEL in page 79-134. At first, I intended to finish reading these three articles before I comment on your blog, but now ten days have passed, and I still can’t find time to finish reading them, so I think I should start making some comments before it’s too late.

    Here are some of my thoughts on MURIEL, a film which I saw only once in 1997:

    –My friend commented after seeing this movie with me that he had spotted a clock in many scenes of this film, or if there was no clock in the scene, the characters in that scene would be talking about time. I think that when I find the time to watch the DVD of this film, I will try to see if what my friend said was right. (Or maybe I just remember wrongly what my friend said.)

    ————————

    –In dvdverdict.com, you said, “…I personally respond more deeply and intensely to Resnais’s earlier, more poetic masterpieces Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour…”.

    I think I share the same feeling with you. I like MURIEL very much, but less than those two films. I think my feelings towards Resnais’s films are varied, and my feelings might depend on who was the scriptwriter of each Resnais’s film, because some of his films seem to have different styles. I don’t know how much the style of each of his film is influenced by him or his scriptwriter.

    Alain Resnais’ films that I saw, in preferential order:

    1.LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD (1961, A+++++++++++++++)
    Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet

    2.HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (1959, A++++++++++)
    Written by Marguerite Duras

    3.NIGHT AND FOG (1955, A++++++++)
    Written by Jean Cayrol

    4.MY AMERICAN UNCLE (1980, A+++++)
    Written by Jean Grualt, adapted from Henri Laborit’s writings

    5.SAME OLD SONG (1997, A++)
    Written by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui

    6.MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (1963, A+)
    Written by Jean Cayrol

    7.PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (2006, A+)
    Written by Jean-Michel Ribes, adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play

    8.NOT ON THE LIPS (2003, A+)
    Written by Andre Barde

    9.MELO (1986, A)
    Written by Alain Resnais, adapted from Henri Bernstein’s play

    I like every film of Resnais that I saw, and I think he is an auteur, but sometimes I wonder how much of my love for LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR is due to the scriptwriter or the director.

    ——————————-

    –I think MURIEL can be a part of an unintentional trilogy of FRENCH MEN AND WAR, This trilogy include:

    1.ADIEU PHILIPPINE (1962, Jacques Rozier)
    It’s about a French man before going to Algerian war. I haven’t seen this film yet.

    2.FLANDRES (2006, Bruno Dumont, A+)
    Though the war in this film is not Algerian, I think the content of this film somehow reminds me of MURIEL. In MURIEL we never saw the torture of Muriel, but what is not shown in MURIEL might be substituted by what is shown in FLANDRES, I guess.

    3.MURIEL

    ——————————–

    –There are many films about Algerian war which I want to see, but haven’t seen them yet, including:

    1.THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)

    2.THOU SHALT NOT KILL (1961, Claude Autant-Lara, 148 min)

    3.THE UNDECLARED WAR (1992, Bertrand Tavernier, 240 min)

    You can find the list of films about this conflict in an article in africultures.com. The article is called FROM MISCEGENATION PHOBIA TO AMBIVALENCE IN FILM by Olivier Barlet.

    —————————————

    –I think films about war veterans are very interesting. Many films in this group deal with the guilt of the war veterans and the unforgettable sins they did during the war, or deal with their mental scars. Sometimes these war veterans seem to carry the sin and guilt around and bring them back home and it affected those people around him.

    Interesting films in this group may include:

    1.MY STEP-BROTHER FRANKENSTEIN (2004, Valeri Todorovsky, Russia, A+)

    2.THE TWILIGHT ZONE: EPISODE “NIGHTCRAWLERS” (1985, William Friedkin, A+)
    I’m not sure if this thriller TV episode is a metaphor for something or not.

    3.MARIA’S LOVERS (1984, Andrei Konchalovsky, A)

    4.THE LIGHT (2004, Philppe Lioret, A)

    5.TRACKS (1976, Henry Jaglom)
    I haven’t found the time to see this DVD yet.

    ————————–

    –In the book ALAIN RESNAIS, John Francis Kreidl quoted Pierre Kast from Cahiers du Cinema. I think what Kast said is very interesting, so I quote it here.

    Pierre Kast said in the article “Les Malheurs du Muriel” in Cahiers du Cinema No. 149 (November 1963) page 29 that:

    “What does Resnais propose [in MURIEL]? To show, it seems to me, as never yet before seen, a certain reality: to oblige the viewer to confront himself with himself, [an act] which appears to him at once faithful and monstrously unfaithful to that which he has never thought about in looking at himself in this way. It is concerned above all with the profound reputting under analysis of all of the logical systems dealing with external reality concerning those people who live in the world today. Evidently, if one sets out to describe the subject matter of MURIEL with a certain type of vocabulary, one arrives at a presentation analogous to that of ELLE or MARIE-CLAIRE; but it is precisely that which is put to the question; in other words, the film obliges people to find themselves in the presence of –in regarding their own self-adventure—the same horror that springs forth in looking at the external world, this monstrous reality in which they live and to which they are normally accustomed. And the essential proposition of Resnais is to open their eyes and tell them: look at yourself, here you are in fact.”

    The book ALAIN RESNAIS by John Francis Kreidl is still available in amazon.com, but the price is 46.50 dollars. You may check your local library.

    ———————————————-

    –Some trivia: MURIEL is in the top ten best films of 1963’s list by Jean-Luc Godard. The list is as follows:

    1.TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (Robert Bresson)
    2.THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (Luis Bunuel)
    3.THE BIRDS (Alfred Hitchcock)
    4.THE CHAPMAN REPORT (George Cukor)
    5.ADIEU PHILIPPINE (Jacques Rozier)
    6.DONOVAN’S REEF (John Ford)
    7.MURIEL
    8.THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (Jerry Lewis)
    9.IRMA LA DOUCE (Billy Wilder)
    10.TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (Vincente Minnelli)

    Looking at this list, I wish THE CHAPMAN REPORT be released as DVD soon, because Ty Hardin is gorgeous.

  2. Wow, it’s always nice to see such a thoughtful response to something one has written. The Algerian war so seeps into every facet of MURIEL, it really takes a couple viewings to recognize its intensity. And you’re right, my blog review was much too short for the analysis this film deserves…thanks for teasing out and personalizing this particular theme!

  3. Hi Doug-

    Thank you so much for stopping by and for taking the time to read. And even if your thoughts were brief, it really was the most insightful analysis that I ran into during my web searches. I’m looking forward to taking another look at Muriel in the future, with these issues specifically in mind…

    -jesse

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