Realized Dystopia – Consumerist/Entertainment Society And Its Settlers, Fighters And Sufferers

At a press conference at a Venice Film Festival in 1963, Resnais said that his film depicted “the malaise of a so-called happy society”

One of the topic of the film is the Algerian war. In 1960, Resnais had been one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the 121, in which a group of the intellectuals had declared opposition to the French government’s military policy in Algeria.

The film was for the most part very badly received by both the press and the public. Resnais observed later that it had been the most expensive film to make and the one which had drawn perhaps the smallest audiences.

“The film’s stature increases with a second viewing” (The Times – London). This recognition that “Muriel” benefits from, or required multiple viewings was something upon which a number of commentators have agreed. Wikipedia

… The violent explosiveness of prosaic life in Resnais’ astonishing film
Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit – “Art of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais”, Harvard, 1993, p. 194

So, we have a thriller, but a thriller where the enigma is the intention of the film itself… The dreamlike quality, the sense of anxiety, the muted sense of terror… grow out of an accumulation of everyday details taken to the point of exasperation. In the final shots it becomes almost physically unbearable – you actually long for some catastrophe to set you free. The final tracking shot fulfills that expectation.
“Cahiers du cinema 1960 – 1968: New Wave, New Cinema….” Harvard, 1986, p. 73

Images of healthy urbanistic intensity, of casino, of endless restaurants, cafes and bars, the swarming streets and squares, the windows of different shops playfully pressing us to come inside, the shots of the exteriors of the buildings, the spectacular view on the sea-port, the cross-roads, the street counters full of goods, in front of stores, the views of the railway-station, news-stands full of colorful magazines and post-cards, etc. The quantity of episodic characters in the film is overwhelming. People appear and disappear with the speed of cut vegetables moving out of automatic food processor. Everybody is busy, excited, goal-oriented. The film has nearly one thousand cuts. “Muriel” is concretely a matter of comings and goings, small talk, dead time, quickly eaten meals, aimless strolls, missed opportunities, compulsive entertainments, conversations with blunt ends, doors, open spaces, half-forgotten and mis-remembered pasts. James Monaco, “Alain Resnais”, Oxford, 1979, p. 86 – 87

“Muriel” is a refined work of art dedicated to kitsch as a way of life. It is a solemn song about prosaic life’s sneeze during snooze, it’s a gift of tragic love for people trapped in cheap prosperity.

Identification with power is basic pleasure for powerless – cheap prosperity is a “generous” “democratic” compromise between factual powerlessness of the demos and luxurious power of the wealthy. If the powerful ones act against the powerless, the powerless, through their identification with the powerful, act (together with the powerful) against themselves. Mass-consumerism is for poor the one of forms of identifying with the power (the way for the poor to imitate the rich and feel themselves like their role-models).

Resnais’ film is about degradation of human beings through mass-cultural orientation on consumerist prosperity and entertainment, which kidnap the very potential of human soul for maturation and refinement and throw it to the dump of the history.

The film suggests between the lines – “between images” that people’s internal world in the atmosphere of cozy-easy and petty-pretty pleasures doesn’t have a chance to develop. Extra-survivalist/succeedist self is not able to develop existentially spiritual sensibility, and people cannot psychologically grow. In 20th century, for example, international strains and wars provoked in populations extra-hate, surplus-fear and self-sacrifices with psychotic background, like post-WWII mass-entertainment and profit-worship practically emptied human existentially spiritual and humanistically-intellectual resources.

The past is returning in the life of the heroes of Resnais’ film because historical process became frozen by the virtuoso repressive strategies of mass consumerism and mass entertainment and pseudo-presence of artificial ways of life started to destroy the real present tense of human existence, which, if life would be liberated and free, could move the past into the future. The meaning of life (which is not tautological – identical with building material prosperity and insatiable consumption of things and entertaining images without any otherness and existential spirituality), is being suffocated because the decision-makers want to be in charge of the existing society forever and they’re trying to shut up/down the human minds and hearts with artificial pleasures. In 21st century, socio-cultural situation is changing. Even cheap prosperity for the masses is considered by bill/mills (billionaires/millionaires) as “too expensive” – and the slogan of the day is the austerity for the majority of the population. But this recent transition from “mass-prosperity society”, depicted in “Muriel”, to “austerity” society doesn’t make Resnais’ film outdated. Hot wars with external enemies always start with the politico-economic war of the rich decision-makers at home – with the people of their own country. Transition of “democracy” from “prosperity” to “austerity” has very peculiar psychological connotations. “Muriel, or the Time of Return” can help us to understand better the specificity of our times.

The Muse of a frozen – the not-realizable love, who is lost in an atmosphere of a “messy” (not focused) and chaotic mass-cultural emotions

Helene Aughain moves through life without noticing what the most people concentrate on – financial prosperity, reliable jobs, careers, self-enrichment – everything that is located on the surface of life. In profound and detailed performance of Delphine Seyrig Helene is moved mainly by the memories of her ambiguous amorous relationship taken place long ago, in her youth. She is a person gifted with existentially spiritual sensitivity and yet she is awkwardly trying to adapt to the world around her. She lives in a kind of fog. But she irradiates a certain charm, which, as if, from faraway places and some other times.

Helene is an intelligent and a beautiful woman. Her soul is so delicate that her eyes are always sad, if, of course, she is not listening to the stories of Roland de Smoke, her financial patron and amorous presence (Claude Sainval).

Helene is worried about her step-son, who continued to live with her after the death of his father – Helene’s husband. She is right to be afraid, that after serving in the French army during Algerian war Bernard has difficulties of adapting to society. With all her sensitivity Helene tragically doesn’t understand what torments Bernard, and all her efforts to help him aren’t effective. Bernard has her gentle emotional support, but this is not enough. Feelings awakened by participation in war are too extreme to be tamed by the touch of Helene’s kindness.

Helene sells antique furniture from her apartment. Here we see one of her customers. This person is not particularly vulgar – she is like every philistine (her vulgarity is completely innocent). She lives by her consumerist naiveté, like the hungry eat and the thirsty drink.

Customer’s chat makes Helene’s face, as if, disappear behind her smoking, but the exchange of commercial information is sacred, and Helene is trying to endure

The consumerist paradise created by the efforts of the financial demiurges and mass-worshippers of cheap prosperity

Window-shoppers are, as if, the shadows of the shining mannequins advertising themselves

The store windows advertising as consumer society’s museums oriented on providing dense pleasures to the worshippers of goods

Mosaic aesthetics of chopped cheap prosperity

Prosperous life looks easy and funny like caricatures

Bernard (to the right, in profile – Jean-Baptiste Thierree) is horrified how much time Helene’s lover – Alfonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) spends chatting and joking about nothing in bars and cafes

Freedom of choice for consumers encourages “recreational” use of drugs and obsession with gambling. At the casinos the poor and the rich can observe their common human nature and enjoy their “democratic” equality.

Aggressive advance of mass prosperity – survival dressed up in pop-dream about becoming a millionaire. Democracy makes mass prosperity look powerful and power – be more and more prosperous.

Helene and Alfonse – outworn “romantic” couple of a not-realizable life together (an incompatibility of the amorous sufferer and amorous settler)

Helene and Alfonse are as self-centered on their relations, as passively belong to the world around and as naïve as they were when they were young. But they have grown more indifferent and close-minded, more “conserved”, as canned food.

Alfonse “tactlessly” compares Helene to a crystal

Mutuality without air. Alfonse is ready to return as if their affair just starts for the first time, as if before he didn’t traumatized hopes in Helene’s soul

Lovers of all ages are prone to passionately accuse one another of not-loving enough

Helene with generous sincerity (she was and is always sincerely generous) believes Alfonse’s lie that Francoise is his niece (not his girlfriend), and she invites them both to stay in her place.

Helene is ready to give herself to the emotional waves from her past, but… the past is not the present even although the present is predatorily ready to engulf it.

Helene is still grateful to the smallest signs of Alfonse’s attention. Helene and Alfonse are a tragic match of a sincere need to believe and sincere lies – between sufferer of love and settler in love.

But Helene’s intelligence cannot allow her to idealize her life. If the present is a mirage, the past is another mirage which can be even stickier. That’s why time of the past returns into the present and there is no development toward the future. Time returns when present is not moving – is not becoming, transforming. Only the present living into future can change the past.

Helene’s psychological martyrdom

To be burdened by love is an experience arising from being unconsciously critical of one’s own love. Helene feels the unreality of her relationship with Alfonse and, for that matter, with Roland de Smoke. But Helene’s amorous suffering is a frozen flower – it is dead but its deadness is, as if, alive.

Helene feels trapped in a soulless life in a society where people live to satisfy themselves by consuming technological gadgets, furniture, cartoons, services, etc., and her grief about “disappearing” love makes her so admirable.

Helene is helpless to ease Bernard’s guilty feelings for not being able to help Muriel, when she was raped, tortured and killed by the French soldiers of the same unit Bernard was belonging to. Bernard even couldn’t share with his step-mother the incident tormenting him so much, as army usually hides similar truths from civilian society in order not to hurt loud prestige of wars.

Suffering made Helene to become even more obsessed with her past – trying to save her love in front of herself she started to confuse dates and events of her past and her present in a bizarre and morbid way. Present and past become mixed, but this time – in a directly hallucinatory – psychotic way.

The superfluous White Knight locked between his moral indignation and his guilty conscience

Bernard (in the center – Jean-Baptiste Thierree) could be a real hero of post-war democracy, if this democracy couldn’t be distorted by mass-cultural orientation on consuming entertainment, not on facts and truth. In this atmosphere people’s psychological growth not only cannot be successful, but it cannot even take place. Bernard is an exceptionally genuine person who doesn’t allow himself to get rid of truth (because it’s unpleasant) and start to be occupied with self-promotion. He cannot forget about war while everybody around him pretends that war didn’t happen. Bernard becomes like a broken tree or a flower thrown to the ground.

Bernard tries to cheer himself up, but for him with his guilty feelings there is no place in today’s society. In spite of his care for his girlfriend, she is doomed to be just a pan between his psychological burdens and busy societal life.

No, Bernard is not from the breed of conquerors of their country through social success and financial power. He is saying good-bye, because he is resisting to be conquered by a life that goes on breeding innocent conformists. The war proved to him that too many people who got opportunity to abuse others will always use this chance with a predatory pleasure. Bernard faces the impossible choice – to be an absurd fighter for the truth or leave to nowhere.

By re-watching a French propaganda documentary about Algerian war Bernard reminds himself about the real war of aggression he went through, and its aftermath – a happily deserved consumerist life. He remembers how his comrades in arms were innocently killing and torturing the Algerians. The psychological mechanism of subduing personal shame out of existential necessity or social pressure is as universal as the human body’s eliminative function.

Human beings-functionaries – those who are doomed to act predictably – like robots

Ernest’s (Jean Champion) mass-cultural (political populism’s) sugary compassionate and cheering face

Ernest unexpectedly performs the song attending people’s basic/childish emotional needs – typical amusing music.

Mass-culture’s serious face – when private business becomes pierced by bankruptcy

Alfonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien – on the left) and Ernest, his brother in law – are quarrelling because Alfonse run away from his wife’s bankrupt business, but Ernest demands his return to his wife, who is Ernest’s sister. Alfonse and Ernest are mass-cultural entrepreneurship’s underarms. The only way for them is to start new business.

Human beings/functionaries of the system are doomed to act like mechanical devises. Even moments of their ephemeral compassion are robotic.

Sufferers, settlers and fighters of mass society

The owner of the female goat (Jean Daste) is a settler on the margin of mass prosperity. He has one task in life – to succeed in his modest survival. Is he subdued by his humiliation or by his psychotic obsession? In mass-cultural society the difference between the two becomes murky.

Robert (Philippe Laudenbach) is not only a phantom from Bernard’s past, when they both served in French military in Algeria…

…Robert is ready to eliminate the witnesses of war crime (torture, rape and murder of the Algerian woman, Muriel, Arabic civilian), if ranked authorities will change their mind and decide to press charges against him, and then Bernard is amidst potential witnesses.

The neighbor, with whom Bernard shared some of his encounters with immoral behavior during the war, addresses the abyss inside the human soul

In spite of the reflexes of philistinism you are doomed to develop if you live in a consumerist society, Helene sometimes is horrified with what has happened to her soul, so disinterested, open and gentle when she was young, before the sticky presence/absence of Alfonse in her life.

Here, we see one of the enigmatic photos in Bernard’s archive. Is it he himself whose face is blackened out of shame that he wasn’t able to protect Muriel against sadistic rape?

Alfonse is a “professional” settler in women’s love (he is living on women’s memories), and he is ready to prosper in any country under any rulers. His existential task is to live – to survive and try to be happy under any regime.

Francoise (Nita Klein) joyfully confesses to Bernard that she is not Alfonse’s niece as he lied to Helene, but his girlfriend. To make this confession is very pleasant for her – she looks in a strong position in comparison with a “foolishly” simpleminded Helene. Francoise knows that a person like Bernard would never trouble Helene, his step-mother, with this kind of information, and she revenges his lover (Alfonse). At the same time she respects Helene very much.

Marie-Do (Bernard’s girlfriend) is, emotionally, still a child. She loves to laugh by trivial reasons, and then she makes Bernard laugh too

But with Bernard’s war experiences and spasms of guilt for being an occupant of the Third World country, he cannot forget what life is even when he is with Marie-Do. Compare their facial expressions after making love.

Bernard is continuing to “collect evidence” against a society that is growing its flesh on the juices it sucks from other nations.

Because the military authorities refuse to prosecute Robert as “he deserves”, Bernard decides to take the matter into his own hands. He recognizes that element of scapegoating is part of his decision – it should not be up to private person to kill a man whatever he did. But he cannot agree that the biggest criminals can walk free because the (corrupt) decision-makers don’t want to endanger their social positions.

Ontological Disappearance of human beings because they cannot live in a society they themselves have created

Ontological disappearance is a form of suicide, when people kill their own souls or their own way of life. It is an apocalyptic event created not by a punishing god but by people themselves finally feeling that they are suffocated by their own way of life in a society they participated in creating. “Muriel or Time Returns” is a depiction of an ontological – essential suicide of human beings, culminated in the final segment of the film, when Simone, Alfonse’s wife is coming to take him back home, but finds Helene’s apartment empty – without a single soul.

With all the mosaic of, as if pluralistically – shattered social organism, which, as if, has lost its macro-dimension and instead over-activated the micro-activities of individual pimples-cells’ feverish agitation, with all the over-bright colors mass culture has mobilized to excite the inhabitants of the mass-consumerist society, what Resnais shows us in his film is misery and privation looking like exuberant cheerfulness or businesslike confidence, and resulting despair, noisy or silent, maniacal or depressive, conscious in some people or unconscious in others. It is deprivation and loss in the depth of the very abundance and prosperity. It is a world of superficial satisfaction and comforts while human soul is hungry and thirsty. “The film forces people to face up to their own experience with the same horror that can suddenly grab them in relation to the world outside – the monstrous reality in which they live… Essentially, Resnais’ intention is to open their eyes. He wants to tell them: take a look at yourself, this is what you really are. (“Cahiers de Cinema 1960 – 1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood”, Harvard, 1986, p. 68.)

But what is so bad about modern prosperity and technology, about boom in construction of new apartment buildings, material comforts of life, about plenitude of food and entertainment, etc.? Why all of this intensifies psychological worries, emotional dissatisfaction, emptiness and loneliness, and insensitivity, indifference and vulgarity? In the moment when “Muriel…” hit the screens, “In November of 1963, France Soir and Europe 1 carried out a survey (‘what is a Frenchman?’). And everyone approached just gave the optimistic, comfortable, peaceful version of their lives. There was no despairing response, no tragic reaction. “Muriel” is indispensable complement to that survey; it’s the shadowy, desperate side, people plunged in total dereliction and feeling completely [and happily] lost.” (Cahiers de cinema, Ibid, p. 72 – 73.) Resnais’ film is exploration of what is psychologically wrong with the modern prosperity and with hypnosis it puts the minds and souls of its inhabitants. The point here is not that something is lacking in cheap prosperity and the vulgar need to be entertained, but rather that something much more important tends to atrophy when easier – simplified and standardized pleasures are put right under our noses. What is drying up – our existentially spiritual motivations, humility, disinterested thinking about life, the need for humanistic education teaching us to develop semantic and aesthetic sensitivity by the price of sacrificing our primitive narcissism, and the taste for holistic (instead of consumerist) perception of the world. When all of this is sacrificed for our everyday psychological and material comforts we cannot be rationally critical of the political decisions made in our names, we cannot resist the wars which decision-makers prefer because they are not capable for wise diplomacy. Cheap prosperity makes from people philistines and conformists. It is much more effective than despotic autocrats in rapidly transforming people into totalitarian masses.

If Helene Aughain (Delphine Seyrig) presses the amorous illusion of her love for Alfonse to her chest like a little girl – flower, in society oriented on stimulating not so much genuine amorous sensitivity but rather virtue of pursuing self-advantage and success, Ernest (Jean Champion in an exceptional performance) – a personage with a much less screen time, although with more versatile semantic functions – is something like a “demon” of mass-cultural reason. Ernest is the agent of domesticity, family values and economic motivation, came to Helene’s apartment to fetch Alfonse and return him to his wife Simone and their “bankrupt restaurant”. This meek everyday-life person turns out to have multiple “personas”. After behaving at first as a detective searching for Alfonse, he, during a party at Helene’s place started, as if, to personify mass culture’s artistic potentials – he suddenly starts to sing, act and entertain her guests. By making Ernest the representative of pop-entertainment Resnais emphasizes its prosaic orientation masked by exaggerated sentimentality. Finally, Ernest is “miraculously” transformed into a prosecutor and judge, when he publicly accuses Alfonse in immorality, lies and sins. By juxtaposing Ernest’s accusing monologue with the camera shots of new apartment buildings (cut in a manner that makes them look like “advancing fortresses”, Resnais underlines the aggressive, even belligerent, even militaristic aspect of today’s urban development (mass-prosperity countries develop more and more militantly globalist posture in the world).

The film shows that in an environment of permanent selling/buying, wining/losing and money-making people are not able to realize themselves in existentially spiritual – meaningful activities and for this reason to develop as (holistic) personalities. So, they are not able to psychologically age, they only become worn out. People’s holistic development is impossible. “Muriel…” introduces the characters personifying perfect: archetypal philistines – it is, first of all, Alfonse, the licensed liar, whose wit is so lit and fit, that to listen to him is much more pleasant and preferable than to hear truth, Roland de Smoke – a real estate developer with gift for funny stories, and Claudie, eternal shadow of Helene, a Helene without soul. Consumerism and global financial adventures and wars, making career success and achieving financial self-enrichment are different strategies to avoid living and participation in making the society more morally decent and just place populated by people cultivated by humanistic education.

People like Alfonse will settle in any place and in any society, democratic or totalitarian. His tendency to escape from and return back to his wife Simone or/and to Helene is a recurrent feature of his amorous life. The question how to live more morally and existentially spiritually and how to treat other people more justly and kindly is absent from the lives of mass-cultural majority especially in 21st century – people prefer to settle in technical professions, occupations and tasks. They return to societal aspects of life only when they have become direct victims of austerity policies. And they don’t understand how regressive and dangerous their innocent indifference toward their own psychological resources is, especially today, the times of extreme contrast between the intensity of people’ consumerist desires and need for the entertainment on the one hand and a growing pauperization as a result of dogmatic austerity policies.

Escapism (withdrawal of cathexis from the issue of social care about people or from the psychological quality of our personal relations) is, as if, a sign, that the apocalypse of ontological disappearance is closer and closer. At the end of Renais’ film the characters disappear – abandon their common place of living. It already is happening: more primitive people (with neoconservative and neo-liberal sensibilities) psychologically desert from the society into war- and profit-making. The psychologically more sophisticated people (with democratic sensibility) practically desert societal life for the world of technical science or mass-cultural (entertaining) art. The both solutions are apocalyptic since both groups ignore the social space. Resnais’ film is a prophesy of the final – apocalyptic ontological disappearance, when people do not necessarily disappear physically, but mutate into a condition with, may be, only traces of human race (like today we already with difficulty recognize some creatures as people – politicians-extremists, calculating-manipulating billionaires, professional militaries with “killological” preparation (aim-shot-aim-shot creatures), some policemen, robbers and murderers, gun-fanatics, pop-music idols, athletes of extreme sports, religious fanatics, aggrandized narcissists, etc.

*Personal note to the readers about perception of Resnais’ “Muriel, or Time of Return”

I arrived to US ten years after the screening of “Muriel, Or the Time of Return” in France. I had already seen the film in Moscow and I was completely fascinated and blissfully shocked, yet at the same time puzzled and confused. I was admiring the film’s formal virtuosity (that of montage, rhythm and surprise), but disoriented by what I then understood as Resnais’ criticism of consumerist society and its cheap and artificial prosperity and how it’s shattering and fragmenting human holistic intelligence (I already had read some American fiction-writers (critical realists) and sociologists with psychoanalytic background). But, I guess, I couldn’t connect Resnais’ cinematic language with the film’s meaning.

Then in Moscow some of my friends and acquaintances from a tiny exotic circle of “intellectual aesthetes” (cine-philes) “had a problem” with Godard and Resnais’ films, because living in the Soviet Union‘s atmosphere of musty orthodoxy they couldn’t believe that – how these extraordinary film-directors depicted Western life could be the truth and not their idiosyncratic exaggeration about Western democracies. They felt that Resnais in “Muriel…” is exaggerating and quite nearsighted in spite of his artistic greatness. To live under crude Soviet propaganda made us prone automatically react against what the film was suggesting, while automatic reaction, although not necessary completely wrong, is not attentive to nuances and, therefore, it falls between lie and truth. In other words, some of these people who “got a problem” with Godard and Resnais’ depiction of life in the West, could be quite happy to live like the heroes of “Muriel…”

But facing Renais’ film I felt myself, as if in front of a pool of fog. Indeed, can European democracy be standing on clay legs? In my perception, the aesthetic message of the film was much more articulate than its semantic “connotation”. I thought that Resnais shows how people live but without explaining why. How Resnais organized the film became stronger in me than what he was saying “through and by form”.

Throughout the forty or more following years I have been returning to “Muriel…” as its personage Bernard to his memories connected with Muriel – to his service in the army during Franco-Algerian war, or as Helene – to her past before and during the WWII. Only step by step my mental understanding of the film became inseparable from my emotional perception of it. By living in US for all these years I was noticing how this country is changing – how elements of genuine democracy were losing power and how mass culture, money worship and plebeian need to be entertained became stronger with each year. Today it is much clearer to me not only as to why so many film-enthusiasts try to avoid taking on “Muriel…” in its entirety and prefer to concentrate on its very form, but also why so many people cannot resist mass culture and fake prosperity and become robotic profit-makers and property appropriators like Roland de Smoke, and the runners from life to comfort like Alfonse Noyard. But the beauty and charm of Helene (Delphine Seyrig) is with me for all these years, in spite of her philistine reflexes and simplemindedness, and her conformist fears making her incapable of saving Bernard from being devastated by his traumatic moral disappointment.

Finally I came to understand that what in my youth I considered as disproportion in “Muriel…” between formal effects and semantic layers – doesn’t exist, that “extra-form” was not a goal in itself but it was carrying with itself an “extra-meaning”, which I with help of some film-specialists, began slowly assimilate, internalize and develop as my own interpretative vignettes about the film.

“Muriel, or Time Returns” is one of the most towering among “intellectual/philosophical” films, the film that leaves those who has missed watching and experiencing it and didn’t get a chance to return to it after watching – to continue to live without the cognitive potentials, which this film could awaken in them.

Posted on July/4/’17 –   “Muriel, Or The Time Of Return” By Alain Resnais (1964) by Acting-Out Politics