Out of Time

Amy Taubin on Marguerite Duras

Left: Marguerite Duras, Destroy, She Said, 1969, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Right: Marguerite Duras, India Song, 1975, color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes. Production still.

I FELL HARD for the films, novels, plays, and essays of Marguerite Duras roughly thirty years ago and then spent the decades between then and now resisting the sensuous beauty of their imagery, the tough-minded, spare elegance of their prose, and their rigorous morality. When I complied with the ridiculous ritual of drawing up for various publications lists of the greatest films of the twentieth century, her masterpiece, India Song (1975), did not appear. It should have been among the first five.

Duras’s subject is primal—eros and death; her fragmented, elliptical narratives, whether fact or fiction, are located in the quicksand of the psyche. To revisit her films is to be again overwhelmed by her languid femmes fatales, her wandering madwomen, her lovesick outsiders, everyone in exile whatever their gender. They are characters in a personal mythology of longing and loss, of the history of colonialism and the failure of all political programs and ideologies. Merely to reencounter the names—Anne-Marie Stretter; Michael Richardson; the Vice-Consul from Lahore; Aurelia Steiner; Lol V. Stein, present only in the novel named for her, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and significant for her absence from the films (Lacan wrote about her name and her “ravishing”)—is to realize that they never left my mind.

The monthlong program “In the Words of Marguerite Duras”—presented by Anthology Film Archives, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the French Embassy, and the French Institute Alliance Français—concludes with a series of films (March 12–18) at Anthology: seven features and two shorts projected in 35-mm prints with English subtitles. These are rare objects—only a few of the films Duras directed exist as subtitled prints, and only one of them, Nathalie Granger (1972), is currently available on DVD. If you’ve never seen any of them, do not start with her stilted early feature Destroy, She Said (1969) or even with Nathalie Granger, widely regarded as her most accessible, perhaps because its cast includes a charming black cat, a young girl who may or may not be exceptionally disposed toward violence, a restless Jeanne Moreau who seems not to know what she’s doing in this strange movie, and Gérard Depardieu as a confused washing-machine salesman (one of his first screen roles), all of them in imminent danger, at least according to news broadcasts, from a pair of teenage killers roaming the countryside. The danger remains offscreen, lurking perhaps in the overgrown garden or behind a half-opened door inside the comfortable but neglected house—the lamplight soft, the paint peeling from the walls. The only violence we see is a close-up of a piano teacher’s hands cruelly gripping those of her pupil.

Instead, begin with India Song, an evocation of colonialist India in the 1930s—1937, to be precise, the year before the war would change everything. A memory piece that calls up the dead, its heroine, Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), dances with her lover, Michael Richardson (Claude Mann), in the ballroom of the French Embassy in Calcutta, where her memorial—a photograph, a stick of burning incense, some flowers—is already arranged on the piano. Time folds in on itself in India Song, and space is fractured by the huge mirror that nearly covers one wall so that the reflection of the room is a constant; it is always different, however, from the framing of the room by the camera, whether still or moving. The image created by Duras and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten is at once ghostly and eroticized, so delicately colored that it seems hand-tinted, and the closeness of the air, weighted by the insufferable heat, is palpable. India Song puts all the senses on high alert, and yet it is not in any sense realism. No one would be surprised to learn that it was shot on a set constructed in a crumbling mansion near Paris.

There is the image, and then there is the sound track, its tonalities as subtle and rich as the color and play of light on the screen. There is no sync sound in India Song. The narrative—the backstory, the description of the actions and relationships of the characters—is conveyed by some half-dozen offscreen voices, their fragmentary speculations, mixed occasionally with bits of dialogue spoken asynchronously by the main characters (the dark, throaty timbre of Seyrig’s voice is unmistakable), an undercurrent of unseen party guests; Carlos D’Alessio’s great score is punctuated by the repeated melody of the “India Song Blues” and bits of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a Duras signature. Two other voices emanating from the offscreen space are crucial. When the Vice-Consul from Lahore (Michael Lonsdale), already driven mad by his unrequited love for Mme. Stretter, is rejected by her at the party, he goes into the garden and bellows like a wounded animal. The Vice-Consul is all too human—he sweats, his clothes are wrinkled, he cannot keep his feelings in check—which is why his love is doomed. Also in the garden is a beggar woman who lives among the lepers although she is not diseased herself, simply mad. She never appears on-screen, but it is her song and her high-pitched laugh that we hear at the opening and closing of the film. For seventeen years, we’re told, her path has paralleled that of Mme. Stretter’s, from the Mekong through all the great cities of the Far East to Calcutta where she, the colonized, will remain after the colonizer, her “double,” has committed suicide in “the islands of the Delta.” India Song shows us the face of European colonialism, but India itself . . . there is no way for the colonizer to put that on the screen. As in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), for which Duras wrote the screenplay, representation has limits, specific to a particular point of view, historical and personal. (“You can never understand Hiroshima,” says the Japanese man to his French lover.) India Song is a great film because every fetishized image and sound is finally merely a substitute and a shield for what remains invisible. It presents a moral argument, not simply about colonialism but about its representation.

The other film not to be missed is The Truck (1977), a more minimalist work than India Song but just as remarkable for its precise balancing of interior and exterior, sound and image. Duras and Depardieu sit across from each other at a round table in Duras’s home. She reads aloud the shooting script for a film titled The Truck, for which she has cast Depardieu as the driver, a doctrinaire Communist Party member. En route, he picks up a hitchhiker, one of Duras’s madwomen of a certain age. The truck driver doesn’t hide his contempt for her, but she also gets under his skin because there is no way she can fit into his schematic view of proletarian victory. As Duras reads, Depardieu occasionally interrupts with questions that seem to be spontaneous but are not. They are the lines assigned to him in the script for The Truck, which will never exist in any other form than this reading. Intercut, however, with the Duras-Depardieu table read are sequences of a truck speeding along various highways and byways of France, accompanied by, what else, the Diabelli Variations, which end this conceptual and comic road movie on a note of triumph.

“Marguerite Duras on Film” runs March 12–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.