This is the first time the older couple have met in over twenty years. On an impulse, it seems, Hélène wrote to him; and he responded by coming here.
As they walk past the shops in the high street Hélène comes unexpectedly alive. Her legs and arms amusingly free and adolescently uncoordinated she seems suddenly to have thrown off… the weight of her years. So full of animation! Her eyes alive, her face, its features breaking up into independent life, is overflowing with (youthful) vitality. Her excitement has been released! Brimming over with vivacity, her body seems unable to contain it, and she appears she could lose control. Exploding out into happiness! A centrifugal force, it showers its fragments on the people around her; who do not respond in kind.
Walking down the street Hélène turns, almost pirouettes: so light, so free, she should have wings – for she is a bird that is ready to fly… Yet there is also some reserve. She has a shyness, a degree of self-consciousness, that ties her to the ground; and we see that her happiness teeters on the brink, her laughter ready to fall into nervous giggling.
Alphonse doesn’t show such excitement. To us he appears heavy and slow. His thick coat, made thicker by the brown patterning, looks too big for him; it makes him look cumbersome, emphasising his years, and confirming his middle aged complacency. He appears freighted with his past’s cargo; and he seems too old to fall in love. Here is a man who is too masculine and conventional, and made more so by his age. Someone who has spent too many years acquiring the habits of ordinary usage, that now weighs him down with its petty conformities. A man who has lived too long with the mundane things of life to be sensitive to what is around him; and so lacks, or so we think, those gifts of receptiveness that allow us to be free. An overly stuffed owl on a Victorian mantelpiece; if you must have the ornithological metaphor.
For a moment we see the past and the present conjoined, in a scene that is imbued with the very texture of their relationship.
Once in her flat Hélène tells Alphonse that she is going out for the night; and she leaves for the casino with a man that appears to be her present love – Roland de Smoke. This is unexpected! Like Alphonse we thought the old affair was to be resumed.
The story is made particularly complicated by the editing, that jumps between scenes, leaving many gaps we must fill in for ourselves. Nevertheless, the general outlines of the story seem straightforward: they were lovers before the war separated them, and they have not seen each other since. Later Hélène married for security, and Alphonse went to Algeria, where for years he owned a café. Thus confirming our first impression of a solid bourgeois. However, we learn little more than this. The occasional detail, such as the Folkestone hotel where they once spent the night, strays into their general conversation; but they do not, as we would expect, talk obsessively about their earlier affair. They are not keen to relive their memories, which does seem odd, especially after that high street scene.
They share only part of their respective pasts, and we believe they see it differently. Alphonse was Hélène’s only love, and thus those pre-war years, her own distant past, has become for her a lost paradise. This resonates with her occupation: she sells antiques from her apartment, which gives them an unexpected lustre - customers think they are family heirlooms and are therefore under priced. For Hélène the past is something she lives off, although her old lover is one antique she hasn’t sold. With Alphonse the value of the past is not so clear. For him his most important years are the period after the war, and they are located in Algeria; and centred around the café he owned; and from which he is now exiled by war. Boorishly he talks a lot about that time. However, it appears to have left few traces on his memory, for when Hélène’s stepson Bernard asks him the name of the café he will not (cannot?) recall it.
Here are two different pasts. We watch the effects of these differences. Alphonse appears to carry the weight of all these years around with him. He is like a grand monument encrusted with time’s detritus – so encumbered does he look, so solid and so dull. Hélène seems lighter, and vulnerable; like a bird hopping from branch to branch, responding instinctively to the local atmosphere – to a sudden gust of wind, to a shout, to the rustle of leaves… That is why she wrote to Alphonse, and why for a few moments she is overwhelmed by that old love; some quirk of his must have momentarily captured her fancy. Very quickly, though, she reverts to the reserve of her present life, and their shared past loses its lustre; a valuable antique suddenly reduced to another piece of old furniture. Just one more tree she leaves behind to fly - to Roland, to Bernard, or to the local casino, where she seems to spend too much time. Selling the past her present lacks foundation, and so her future becomes a game of chance? On a whim she invited Alphonse to Boulogne, but the cards have come out wrong - disappointed in her recent acquisition she leaves him behind; while later she refuses his advances.
This is a clever and very precise description of an old love that is withered by separation; and is thus very close to Resnais’ previous film, Last Year at Marienbad. A love affair abruptly ended leaves many powerful feelings that only gradually decline with time. Years later these emotions still exist, although now they are subterranean and less intense. However, although they can be rekindled by the presence of the lost lover – by a letter, a telephone call, by a movement of a hip, an unexpected smile, by a hand on salt and pepper hair - these are fragile remnants, carried along on the weak and intermittent tributaries of the full-bodied river left behind many years before. Today she is more clear sighted; and her febrile emotions, because less grounded in love, are apt to instinctively react to other more powerful stimuli: the disappointment at Françoise’s presence (instinctively she would have known she was not his niece); the boorish behaviour of her stepson; the charms of her new love. She is also more sensitive, and we assume more critical, of the dull bourgeois, that monument to habitual living, that Alphonse has now become.
Although middle aged he is strangely active. Very quickly he gets to know many people; mostly by visiting the city’s cafes and restaurants. We assume he is seeking work; but later there is a suggestion he’s chasing after women. Is Alphonse a ladies’ man? Towards the end of the film he finds a way into Hélène’s bed, and in the morning his impassive face is alive with light and happiness. Sex, it seems, is his elixir. However, we surmise this has little to do with his former love – Hélène is simply an attractive woman who is currently available. This is a passion of the moment, not a resurrected memory from out of the glorious past.
Françoise has to watch (both are staying in Hélène’s apartment) as Alphonse slowly manoeuvres his way into his old lover’s affections. She must, we assume, be in the other bedroom when he at last revives that love between Hélène’s sheets. That she sees his ecstatic reaction is obvious: she says she will leave him when they return to Paris. They had originally met when she was depressed and vulnerable. He got her a job in films; and his reward was the free us of her body. The least she could do, she tells Bernard; going on to say that he is a gentleman who allows her to be herself; a freedom she has not had before. Being with him she can breathe for the first time. It is an interesting conundrum: that someone who appears so heavy and slow can yet make women feel so weightless…
It cannot last. In the few weeks they are in Boulogne Alphonse squeezes the last breath out of their relationship; although Françoise, despite her threats, and her own attraction to Bernard, cannot leave him so easily. She inhabits that space at the end of a love affair, with its moments of intense pain when the passion remains yet the feelings are beginning to change. A moment when the present actuality is turning into a memory... into the past. And it is that past, the previous time they have spent together, that keeps Françoise in the apartment; at least until near the end of the film. Very soon it is all she will have, her memories and an intense longing, which, like a heavy suitcase, she will carry back to the capital city.
Bernard is crushed by his past. Algeria lives aggressively inside his consciousness; like a termite it eats away at him from within, destroying the foundations of his present life. During the war he met a woman called Muriel who, we assume, his platoon tortured. Later, it is suggested, he brought her to France; at least we believe this is the case for he calls her his fiancé. However, it is not clear if her presence is a fiction that he himself has created - we never see her.[i] She is obviously a symbol for the past’s hold on him. Is Muriel a synecdoche for Algeria? Or is her meaning somewhat wider: the German occupation of France and the guilty secrets of his parents and their generation? Or does it encompass more metaphysical terrain: our general inability to eradicate the effects of our earlier, and often destructive, youth? Not all of us were soldiers like Bernard, but we were all unthinking and cruel: many of us were like Alphonse and broke off a young love affair….
For Bernard, Muriel is physically alive inside him. She is a memory still full of feeling and painful emotion, which he lives with every day – he is married to it. He is clearly someone in distress, for he doesn’t work, and spends most of his time just drifting around the town. During the day he takes photographs; some of which he uses to deal with his war experiences. Although we suspect this is not an altogether recuperative process: his obsession to record the past is not so much an attempt to forget or destroy it but a means of keeping it alive in all its painful agony. Like Hélène he is fragile, but in a deeper, far more destructive way; as we see at the end of the film.
Roland is a curious character. Is he a property developer or just the demolition man? This confusion is wonderfully caught by a story he tells at a dinner party: as soon as a new housing project was finished it began immediately to subside; to eventually collapse without a single person ever living inside it. At first we think he is the lover of Hélène, but as the film progresses, and she moves closer to Alphonse, he appears to shift towards Françoise, although it is not clear if they sleep together. He is a strange one. He is a sort of symbol of the renovating present, and a kind of Cassandra…
For reasons that are first unclear Ernest is after Alphonse. Later we learn he wants him to return to Paris and to his sister, to whom he is married; and to the café they own and which is in financial trouble. Paris? Has Alphonse been telling lies?
Ernest has arrived to tell everyone the truth. Alphonse, he argues, creates the past to suit his own purposes. Thus the story with which he eventually seduces Hélène – he didn’t receive a letter and was unaware she wanted him - is really about Ernest, and his lost love for her. Ernest is an earthquake of fact inside the wonderland that Alphonse has created; and although the details are unclear it seems that he has led a consistently shabby existence. As a seducer? Almost certainly. As a collaborator? This seems possible. And generally as a slippery customer (Françoise’s description)? Absolutely! The solid bourgeois isn’t so dull and respectable after all.
The past exists. There are facts, and they cannot be wished away.[ii] Ernest delivers them with a knock out punch! Françoise tries to record them on Bernard’s machine, but presses the play button by mistake. We hear the laughter of soldiers when they, we assume, were torturing Muriel. It stops the two men fighting, and instigates their departure; while Hélène runs out of the apartment, shattered by the revelations. It is time for Françoise to leave for Paris. Her mistake shatters Bernard, who, destroyed by this eruption of the past into his living room, breaks up completely.
We can domesticate the past, but to do so we need a lot of time and plenty of space – we have to get very far away from its physical presence. Ernest represents its dangers for those who have not completely recovered from its effects. His visit is a dangerous provocation to Hélène and Bernard. Hélène stirred up by her old lover’s visit is receptive to the revelations that she now hears; and her only recourse to run away from them. Bernard, with a wound that has never properly healed, is lacerated by this visit; and the agony it has unleashed. It makes an already terrible pain unendurable; and which he has to remove in some way… you will have to see the film to find out how.
Ernest is a different threat to Alphonse: the exposure of his lies, which are far less painful. This is nicely symbolised by his final escape: he finds it easy to elude his brother in law.
Boulogne, the person introducing the film told us, was a port for German submarines during the war and was therefore heavily bombed. It is a place in trauma he said; and went on to compare the town’s condition with that of the characters. Everyone is in trauma? I think he is only partly right.[iii] The town represents the damage the past has inflicted on its two residents - Hélène and Bernard. It also represents the dangerousness of a past when we are too close to it…
Roland is the local man slowly rebuilding the town, removing the bomb craters and damaged buildings; and he needs more time to finish his work. It is a town that is not ready for Alphonse and Ernest, who arrive when it is only partially restored; and thus is not solid enough to withstand them.
It is also a town where a pretty Parisian actress will always be out of place.
(Review of Muriel)
[i] The film is full of such symbols: Roland the demolition man; the flat block that is subsiding; the collapse of the studio ceiling…. The present is an unstable place because the past is never secure.
[ii] As I am writing this I am thinking of the Parisian intellectuals in the 1960s, and their relativism and extreme subjectivism; their denial of the objective world – were they attempting to erase their country’s past… Paul de Man, famously a Nazi collaborator in Belgium and an acclaimed Deconstructionist, was accused of doing just this.
[iii] Here I disagree with the person who gave the (interesting) introductory talk – Bernard is the only character in trauma.
For Hélène that period of the worst mental crisis has passed; although the effects of Ernest’s revelation are enormous. Her relationship is now a febrile memory, liable to create emotional and erratic behaviour because triggered by her old lover’s presence. Alphonse uses the past. And Françoise is different again: her trauma is about to begin, but this is to do with the present, and the end of her affair. Only in Bernard does the past still have the power to destroy; and can therefore truly said to be traumatic.
The commentator offered us two influences on this film: Citizen Kane and Vertigo - he compared the rings on a tree stump to the opening credits of the latter film… very good indeed! Although the influences are more profound of course: the one film is about trying to recover a lost time; the other to recreate it; and both recognise its dangers.