Boulogne is a French town by the sea which suffered hugely during the Second World War and was rebuilt practically from the ground up after the bombings that devastated it. With that in mind, is it an old town or a new town - do the memories of the residents who were around during the conflict apply to the current place or a place of the past? For antique furniture dealer Helene (Delphine Seyrig) the matter is less pressing than what she is to do when her guests arrive, two people from Paris, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien) and his niece whose age gap means they approach life in differing ways. They will be staying with Helene and her stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree).
Or will they? Can we be sure of anything in this purposefully complex story from director Alain Resnais, who reteamed with his Night and Fog writer Jean Cayrol to relate a set of relationships that were very foggy indeed. Even a basic synopsis of Muriel would be almost impossible to draw up, so complicated and tricksy did it get, from the very first second we are subjected to a barrage of imagery that is deliberately disorienting, and yet the impression offered by watching it was that none of this was random, it all had a specific purpose and meaning, and if you were not able to latch onto it first time around, maybe you should try watching it over and over until it made sense.
If that doesn't sound like your idea of fun, well, some films are not here for pure entertainment, assuming Resnais' well nigh impenetrable puzzle was not supposed to be entertaining and was instead a lesson to be learned about the fallibility of the viewer's mental capacities. It's not quite as if Muriel was set on making you feel stupid, it was encouraging a robust questioning of your life as you experienced it, and that included how your memories not merely built up a personal story of how you existed on this Earth, but of other people as well. If you cannot trust your own memories, then how can you justify your assessment of those others who populated the world alongside you?
The acting was no path into what was actually happening, since the entire cast simultaneously appeared to know what was going on and having no clue where any of this was going, with characters absent for great swathes of screen time, then others popping up as if they - and we - are supposed to be aware of who they were and where their relation to everyone else stood. Amidst this was a nagging worry that you have forgotten something crucial that could explain all your problems and even allow you to move on; in that way this was a complement to Resnais' classic Last Year at Marienbad, another film that fretted and worried at the issues of memories lost, unformed or even never having been made, the sheer terror of that being you have no idea which is accurate.
But Muriel had more of a political bent than Marienbad, for there were echoes throughout of two wars that had scarred France in ways that were inescapably affecting the characters, who represented the ordinary French. The Second World War, with all its collaboration and shame, was preying on the mind of Helene, while Bernard had the issues of the Algerian War to cause him discomfort, especially when we discover the woman of the title is not someone we will encounter for she was a victim of torture by French troops, witnessed by Bernard raped and physically assaulted by men he had been led to believe were on the side of right. So this became even more disturbing as the implications of trying to cope with a past that featured behaviour so dreadful were thrown into sharper relief than any of the finer plot points that in any other film would have been the focus. Whether you were up for this challenge or not, and most would not be, its message reflected badly on you the more you considered it. Music by Hans Werner Henze (takes some getting used to).