Thinking About Cinema With Cinema

Resnais' Muriel

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 18 minutes (4307 words)

Muriel (Alain Resnais, 1963) is a film which rewards additional viewings. On subsequent viewings it still remains deceivingly complex, but can be pieced together with the aid of apriori knowledge of Alain Resnais’ formal style. In one book-length study, the explication of Resnais is aided by the philosophy of Bergson. [1] Like the characters in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Hélene (Delphine Seyrig) and Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée) are both shells of their former selves haunted by lingering memories of the past, Hélene of a lover whose infidelity she is unwilling to renounce, and Bernard of a horrible experience during the Algerian War. Hélene lives with her step-son Bernard in a flat that serves as an antique store. Appropriately enough she is surrounded by ancient artifacts, remnants of the past she lives in. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), her lover of twenty years ago, arrives with his current lover, a much younger woman named Françoise (Nita Klein), whom he introduces as his niece. We slowly discover that Alphonse, with tall tales of war-time bravery, is a lying, deceitful charlatan. Like Hélene and Bernard, he too is running, not from a virtual past but from a wife and bankrupt business; he distorts the past and his (non) involvement in the war; and preys on Hélene’s emotional fragility. Hélene, mired in a gambling addiction, is perhaps the most sympathetic, or pathetic, character. She seems to float through her environment, like a ghost, eyes agape, trying to experience life with rear view mirrors. She is innocent, naive and all too sensitive, with Alphonse quite the opposite.

The characters are definitely not healthy in the Bergsonian sense, never taking stock of their whole being. They do not experience duration, but are overwhelmed by “non-pragmatic” memories, memories that hold them back and keep them from acting with their whole personalities. They do not live “durationally,” with their past aiding the future. The past is a hindrance, a wall, but both Alphonse and Bernard have their respective characters who come calling for them to take stock of their past. Alphonse’s dark angel is Ernest (Jean Champion), his brother-in-law, and Bernard’s is Robert (Philippe Laudenbach), his partner in war crime.

Bernard is the most complex character. He is scarred from his consenting involvement in the torture and murder of an Algerian woman, Muriel, and struggles with his guilt while attempting to confront and/or camouflage this past. He is distant and aloof. He too takes advantage of Hélene (financially) and lives selfishly. He uses his camera as a voyeuristic tool, not unlike the character in Peeping Tom, and clings protectively to his tape recorder (which has Muriel’s voice taped), projector, and footage from Algiers (which he shot?) and notebook. Anything to make him forget the pain of his memory, the real problem. At the end he kills Robert, his accomplice, in a futile, self-deceptive attempt to put his past behind him. The film’s ending (or its continuation) is beautifully open. Alphonse eludes his brother-in law, who has come to bring him back to his wife, to yet again escape from his fiscal/familial responsibilities, while his wife, Simone, searches for him in Hélene’s empty apartment; Bernard leaves town because of the murder, covering up one murder with a second; Hélene, distraught over Bernard’s departure, continues to live in a state of denial; and Françoise, the least important character, is last seen wandering the streets alone.

The form of the film folds into the content. With its over 800 shots, the elliptical cutting style echoes the rambling, incoherent thought patterns of the characters; yet there is never a sense of the montage representing a singular point of view or subjectivity. (The opening series of shots sets this up, reminiscent in its disorientation of the opening of Ménilmontant, 1924).

The seemingly disconnected shot order makes sense in context of the character’s lives. The unspoken gaps and disconnected urban spaces ideally represent what Deleuze refers to as the ‘irrational’ or ‘incommensurable’ interval of the ‘time-image.’ There is no psychological probing a la French Poetic Realism. No character motivation, traces of subjectivity, or stream of consciousness patterns. The point of view is primarily omniscient. The cutting is associational (in a free form style). Objects, locations, time frames, situations are juxtaposed in abstract fashion. Daytime shots sit comfortably next to nighttime shots. There is no temporal and spatial unity because the film is about, essentially, meandering time (consciousness). The characters do not have a sense of temporal/spatial unity in their lives.

Muriel got me thinking about a knotty question. Can a claim be made for the following cine-metaphysical assumption: that editing is a cinematic tool well suited to expressing the rational and the intellectual (in so far as cinema is able to do this), and the moving camera/long take a tool well suited to expressing the emotional? I don’t mean this in the restrictive way that it sounds, but as a probe, an impressionistic thought that grows as much out of empirical viewing experience as abstract philosophical speculation (with a bent toward Bergson and Deleuze). In Bergsonian terms, the intellect, by nature, is a spatializing mechanism. To acquire knowledge it employs concepts, symbols, abstraction, analysis, and fragmentation. The intellect, unable to treat mobility, falsifies movement. It can only express movement in static terms. It “substitutes for the continuous the discontinuous, for mobility stability…. But in doing so it allows what is the very essence of the real to escape.” [2] It is clear that in Bergson’s view the intellect is best suited to the study of inert objects, immobility and being, and intuition to the study of movement and change (duration). Intuition is the means with which to grasp the essential element of reality, duration. Bergson calls intuition the “sympathy by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it” and the intellectual process an “operation which reduces the object to elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others.” [3]. In his system, then, intuition can approach the flux of reality and the intellect can only take static “snapshots” of reality.

Can these attributes – intellect/fragmentation, intuition/wholeness and continuity – be aligned in a general sense to the potentialities of editing (intellect) and the long take (intuition)? Some directors seem to think so, like Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexandr Sokurov, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Theo Angelopoulos, who all favor the psychological intensity of the long take when it comes to intensifying the experiential. For example, what comes to mind when we think of Hitchcock, Resnais, Godard, Eisenstein, Vertov, Makavejev, Kubrick, Roeg and other directors that rely heavily on montage and editing? Concepts, ideas, manipulation, intellectualism, commentary, and meta-commentary, and didacticism. Compare these initial thoughts to those evoked by Renoir, Dreyer, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Tarr, or Mizoguchi. Roughly said, the former focus on social reality and the latter metaphysical reality. The latter are not denying a social reality but are more interested in the Bergsonian reality that is grasped by intuition rather than the intellect. Hence editing, which fragments and is a pragmatic, utilitarian narrative tool, is a necessity in filmmaking best suited at making commentary, expressing concepts, and raising intellectual and political ideas. This is not to say that a long take style does not require intellect and calculation. (Look at Miklos Jansço for example.) The point is that, from a receiving end, the spectator viewpoint, there appears to be more of a demand on the intellect with editing, and on the emotions with the long take (I am not discounting the obvious cognitive rebuff that the mind is always ‘working’ when it comes to decoding and perceiving moving images of any kind.) This is especially, or perhaps only, the case with editing that consciously provokes thought, editing that wants the audience to think dialectically in terms of shot one (thesis) plus shot two (antithesis) equals synthesis. As such this excludes the vast majority of editing strategies, the “invisible editing style” common to most Hollywood films. But it is this "intellectual montage" that Tarkovsky (unwittingly expressing Bergsonism) vehemently opposed in both theory and practice (though ultimately he was much closer to Eisenstein’s ‘third meaning’ tonal and overtonal montage than he would ever care to admit or acknowledge). It is true that this type of editing, intellectual, didactic and associationist, is in little evidence since the early days of Eisenstein. However, it is ever present in the work of Hitchcock, Godard, Resnais and Roeg.

It is instructive to note that there are many components to style, hence the above discussion is not the same as saying these directors are the same in every manner. There is a more general term that may be used, the notion of a sensibility behind a style. By sensibility I mean a delicate triangular relation between the filmmaker, their material and the world. Sensibility could include broad (somewhat) crude distinctions such as cool/emotional, spiritual/materialist, or humanist/cynical. In this case directors with different styles but similar sensibilities could conceivably be grouped together; for example, Bresson and Hitchcock, Tarkovsky and Dovzhenko, Cassavetes and Scorsese, Kubrick and Resnais, Eisenstein and Jançso. Of course directors could also share both sensibility and style (Antonioni and Wenders as an example).

A further connected thought. With Eisensteinian editing the audience is forced to conceptualize as the images fuse before their eyes. The meaning is grasped, but there is no time to contemplate the meaning. Soon there will be other shot to shot relations to consider, and those replaced by others. With the long take there is more time granted to the spectator, although more information can be relayed. One is able to contemplate and reflect during a long take and, I believe, have an effect which lingers longer than the montage style. With editing, the majority of thinking occurs at the precise moment of the cut; with long takes the thought process can peak at any moment within the shot, and often gains in intensity precisely as a result of duration. Kenji Mizoguchi expressed his preference for the long take in a like minded way:

Mizoguchi always claimed that his desire to leave intact the spectator’s psychological flow was responsible for his unusually long takes. He even cites a psychological experiment conducted around 1930 [by Dr. Konan Naito], demonstrating the effect of sustained as opposed to interrupted vision of a scene. This experiment suggested that the nearly hypnotic effect of the single take makes up in intensity what it loses in detailed information [4].

In my years of film viewing I have noted a pattern with the type of directors who favor long take style; or more precisely, since some of these directors employ both long take and quick cutting (Orson Welles, Alain Resnais, Nicolas Roeg, Stanley Kubrick, J.L. Godard), a pattern of when the long take/camera movement is used and to what effect. With the following directors, many of whom use the long take style exclusively, the aesthetic power of their films progresses slowly and cumulatively toward an emotional climax(es): Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklos Jançso, Kenji Mizoguchi, Theo Angelopoulos, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Bela Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, Carl Dreyer, Lars Von Trier, and (post-1980) J.L. Godard. To this effect, the general pacing (which implies more than just the average shot length) of their films is much slower than the average film (and then some in some cases). A list of directors who employ (or favor) using shots of shorter duration include Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Nicolas Roeg, Dusan Makavejev, Alain Resnais, J.L. Godard, Stanley Kubrick. In general, the shorter cutting style used by these directors is at the service of expressing or making political and/or intellectual statements. As a consequence of this montage style, the aesthetic power of their films is felt at many points throughout the narrative, rather than cumulatively at the end of long scenes or at the conclusion of the film. In a related point, the thematic concerns of most of the long take filmmakers (especially Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Sokurov and Lars von Trier) lie within the metaphysical realm (religion, questions of the human spirit, transcending the social world) rather than materialist-political realm (politics, ideology, changing the social world).

In his Cinema 2: The Time-Image Gilles Deleuze spends considerable parts of chapters 7 (“Thought and cinema”) and 8 (“Cinema, body and brain, thought”) discussing editing in relation to its role within classical and modern cinema, and to the idea of an intellectual cinema. Deleuze begins the discussion with the following interesting observation, “…from the outset, Christianity and revolution, the Christian faith and revolutionary faith, were the two poles which attracted the art of the masses.” [5] Deleuze does not mean this to be a restrictive duality, since he notes remarkable differences within each group; for example, Rossellini, Bresson, and Ford within the Christians (I would add Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, Rohmer, Schrader) and Rocha, Güney and Eisenstein within the revolutionaries (I would add Godard, Jançso, Dovzhenko). At this point in the chapter Deleuze is discussing these directors in relation to thought and belief, and ascribes to modern cinema the function of restoring our (lost) belief in the world. “Whether we are Christians or atheists…we need reasons to believe in this world. [6] Deleuze discusses intellectual cinema only in the following chapter (8), but I noticed a commonality in the above names: with the possible exception of John Ford, the film’s of all the above directors have been referred to or called (or could be), at one time or another, as being intellectual. (Ford would surely hate for his films to be even considered as being intellectual!) Given the great differences between them, it raises a question which is ancillary to the main point of this essay: what is an intellectual film? The question is partly rhetorical, since there may not be an “answer” (or at least an easy one). However, it is tangentially related to the question of stylistic sensibility, and informs Deleuze’s next chapter.

The discussion of thought gives way in chapter 8 to a discussion of rational/irrational cutting and intellectual cinema. The use of rational/irrational here seems odd because it is used to define a cinema that includes a host of “intellectual” filmmakers. Only paragraphs before this statement Deleuze uses Resnais and Kubrick to argue for a new form of intellectual cinema (a “cinema of the brain”). Montage is assigned the function of restoring the “laws of the process of thought,” but thought does not necessarily align with the rational or irrational. Linking the irrational cut and the non-commensurable to the time-image does, however, make sense in relation to Deleuze’s reflection on the time-image being the province of “disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition” (hypnosis, hallucinations, madness, nightmares, etc.) and the break from a “sensory-motor” link (emancipated senses). What these all have in common, though they at times may appear contradictory, is a flux-like sense of “letting go” which can be linked to creative expression.

But what also seems to be bubbling below the surface of Deleuze’s rational/irrational duality is a parallel to Bergson’s epistemological duality of the intellect and intuition. Since it is the time-image that is able to give us fleeting moments of time (duration and “reality”), and the movement-image only an indirect representation of time, we can see a clear parallel between Bergson and Deleuze’s dualism: intellect = rational, intuition = irrational. And if we stretch this to the dualism of editing and the long take, intellect = editing, intuition = long take.

My general proposition for stylistic sensibility (and it is a large one!), is, then, that the long take, under the right directorial guidance and sensibility, is ideally suited to expressing (non-rational) emotions, or emotional moments, whereas montage is better suited to expressing ideas or concepts. The long take is an emotional trope, cutting an intellectual trope. Which is not the same as saying that the long take is “technologically determined” to express emotions over ideas. This would be foolish, since emotions can and do bleed into ideas, and directors have used the long take to express intellectual/political ideas: Godard and Jançso being two prime examples. In fact, the use of montage to signal political and/or intellectual moments or ideas may very well stem from the far-ranging, influential use of it in the films of post-Revolution Russian filmmakers such as Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevelod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov (this is certainly the case with Godard and Makavejev). In which case there is no inherent formal or technological determinism here, but rather a broad cultural and aesthetic determinism. Years of film viewing have, however, led me to conclude that the long take is used very often by filmmakers to express particular emotions, more so than rational or intellectual concepts. Even someone as calculating as Hitchcock once said that when he wants to express an emotion he moves his camera. This is far from a science, but the evidence above at least indicates that the long take is a wonderful cinematic trope for expressing emotions, and perhaps, just perhaps, has particular “innate” qualities to do so. The latter can stand as a structural guideline:


1. Intellectual Trope

2. Intellect/Fragmentation

3. Pure Perception

4. Materialist-Political Realm

5. Spatialized Time: Moving About in Time


1. Emotional Trope

2. Intuition/holistic

3. Pure Memory

4. Metaphysical-Spiritual Realm

5. Temporalized Space: Moving About in Space

If there is any truth in this claim, then it probably rests in the belief that time itself is better understood as emotion rather than a concept. I say this because time, as a concept, has baffled thinkers for centuries and eluded rational description. As the wise St. Augustine once said in his famous statement, “What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.” Or the modern philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote of time, that it “can reduce [us] to hopeless confusion.” [7] Which is not something that I particularly want to do, but if time is better understood as an emotion, then it stands to reason that the long take, which has an ability to emphasize and foreground time, would comprise an important aspect of an “emotional” style.

But can art and art styles be thought of as expressing emotions? The thoughts of two philosophers, both of whom shared an interest in the arts, while not “proving” the above ideas, help give them some historical and intellectual validity. In her book Feeling and Form, the philosopher Susanne K. Langer develops a general theory of art that is an expansion of her previous work on music in Philosophy in a New Key (the chapter entitled “On Significance in Music”). In this latter work she concludes that, “The tonal structures we call ‘music’ bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling –forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses- not joy and sorrow perhaps, but the poignancy of either and both –the greatness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally felt….Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life.” [8] From this she concludes a tentative theory of art: “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” [9] As an expression-theory of art, Langer’s theory places supreme value on art’s ability, through form, content and structure, to move people by reproducing aesthetic (artistic) equivalents of emotions. Music fits quite easily into such a theory because of all the arts, it is the one that touches and moves people in the most stirring manner. This is made even more striking because music usually lacks that which most people associate with emotions: storytelling. The flux of time manifested in a moving camera shot, whether linear or elliptical, has many similarities to music, and by extension feelings. All of the above adjectives from the Langer quote can, with some creativity, be applied to the long take/moving camera, “forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses….”

In the chapter “The Image of Time” Langer discusses music as an expression of lived time, duration, as opposed to clock time: “Music makes time audible, and its form and continuity sensible.” [10]. She makes important references to a philosopher that made a similar parallel between time and music many years prior to her, Henri Bergson. Bergson distinguished between two types of time, conceptualized and experienced time. Time that is spatialized, abstracted and divided is the former, lived time is the latter. Real time, what Bergson calls duration, flows, accumulates and is indivisible. When Bergson sought the impossible, something concrete to help define what he meant by “real time,” duration, he spoke metaphorically of consciousness and music – and also wrote quite fascinatingly, if briefly, on cinema in relation to his philosophy as early as 1907 in his Creative Evolution (see Time, Bergson and the Cinematographical Mechanism). In Time and Free Will Bergson, like Langer, used music as an analogy for the flux-like, interpenetrating nature of duration: “…as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another.” [11] Langer says of Bergson: “The demand Bergson makes upon philosophy – to set forth the dynamic forms of subjective experience – only art can fulfill. Perhaps this explains why he is the artists’ philosopher par excellence.” [12] This also explains why while time has baffled and stumped rational thinkers, it has provided immeasurable fodder for creative, artistic expression (especially in painting, literature, photography and film). I think the long take holds a unique expressive power because it gives viewers an expressible vision of time, of duration, of something that we all know and understand but can not explain. Cinema, especially that which respects human time and pacing, which values languid pacing, and employs extremely long takes, can likewise present us with, to appropriate Langer’s term, an “Image of Time.”

To return to Muriel, in a recent essay entitled “Manipulating Visual Pleasure in Muriel,” Alyssa J. O’Brien uses psychoanalysis to argue for an intellectual (i.e. political) reading of the film’s elliptical montage. O’Brien argues that the film’s elliptical gaps challenge traditional scopophilic pleasures of cinema, specifically calling into formal question the pacifying function of suture to ‘stitch’ the spectator into the narrative. In the classic text, gaps and ellipses caused by the formal construction of the film allow for spectatorial pleasure. Audiences find pleasure in the desire and execution of filling in the gaps. O’Brien asks, “does Alain Resnais’s film encourage or frustrate this particular model of visual pleasure as penetrative perversion?” [13] Rather than providing the standard pleasure, the gaps, ellipses, and elisions in Muriel point to a political gesture. In Muriel the gaps relate to painful memory. In the case of Bernard, what is not shown is the torture and murder of Muriel. And, as O’Brien argues, “In filling in the gaps, the spectator is forced to participate in a scene of torture.” [14]

Interestingly enough, suture was first brought to bear on cinema by Jean-Pierre Oudart in 1969 in a discussion of the classic shot-counter shot method. [15] Predating the theory by six years, Resnais shatters this traditional ‘comfort’ trope to striking effect in a bar scene near the end. The four central male characters find themselves in the same bar. Alphonse is seated at a table with his nemesis Ernest, while Bernard stands some forty feet away at the bar with his nemesis, Robert. Both sets of characters engage in respective discussion that is treated in a seemingly classical shot-counter shot method. But Resnais manipulates the technique by criss-crossing the shot-counter shot method across the two sets of characters rather than within them. So that while Alphonse speaks to Ernest, for example, the scene cuts to Bernard, who speaks to an off-screen Robert; and then the shot cuts back to Ernest, talking to an off-screen Alphonse, rather than Robert. No doubt the scene may evoke an unsettling sense of disorientation or unease in the viewer (an emotion), which is fairly reflective of the film as a whole, but in doing so, Resnais forces us to intellectualize the shot-counter shot effect and come to realize the psychological parallels between Alphonse and Bernard. In fact throughout the film Resnais crosscuts in an unconventional manner, moving from night to day or from one part of the city to another. Hence montage, while still evoking an emotional sensation, serves an intellectual end.

Countering Shot / Counter Shot


1. John Ward. Alain Resnais, or the theme of time. London: Secker & Warburg, BFI., 1968. Ward brings the film’s fragmented montage to light using Bergson’s theory of memory (as pure duration) and notion of a whole ego (a person’s being growing out of his/her entire personality, and hence continually in process of Becoming).

2. Henri Bergson. The Creative Mind. trans. by Mabelle L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, (1912), 1946, 222-223).

3. Ibid., 190.

4. Dudley Andrews. Kenji Mizoguchi: a guide to references and resources. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1981, 37.

5. Gilles Deleuze. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: The Athlone Press, 1989, 171.

6. Ibid., 172.

7. Hans Meyerhoff. Time in Literature. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968, 6.

8. Susanne K. Langer. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953, 27.

9. Ibid., 40.

10. Ibid., 110.

11. Henri Bergson. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. trans. F.L. Pogson. 1889. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, 100.

12. Langer, 114-115.

13. Alyssa J. O’Brien. “Manipulating Visual Pleasure in Muriel,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Vol. 17(1), 2000): 49-61, 53.

14. Ibid.

15. Jean-Pierre Oudart. “Cinema and Suture,” Screen 18(4) (1977-78, Winter): 35-47.

Thinking About Cinema With Cinema

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 7 / July 2002 Essays   alain resnais   film style   film theory   film_theory   french cinema   gilles deleuze   henri bergson   montage   temporality