Marguerite Duras : reportage – I

We are having a Duras retrospective here!

Unless you live in Paris, I guess it is a rare chance to see them. I wouldnt say a chance in a life, but definitely for ten years.

But perhaps you have no ecstasy for this kind of thing. You are cool, so lets stay cool and look at the menu.

1. Détruite, dit-elle (69)
2. Nathalie Granger (72)
3. India Song (75)
4. Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (76)
5. Le Camion (77)
6. Césarée (78)
7. Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver & Melbourne) (79)
8. Le Navire Night (79)
9. L’homme Atlantique (81)
10. Agatha et Les Lectures illimitées (81)
11. Les Enfants (84)

It is easily observable that in the whole 70s Duras was really engaged in cinema. By comparison, the 60s is for her a rather preparatory period where the major films in which Duras was involved are :

Hiroshima Mon Amour (59) – Alain Resnais
Moderato Cantabile (60) – Peter Brooks
Une Aussi Longue Absence (61) – Henri Colpi
Mademoiselle (66) – Tony Richardson

Since 1966, Duras simply couldn’t bear it any more. It is even hard to imagine that why such a possesive, agressive woman wait three more years that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (63).

Despite all the preparation, the techniques, however, in this Détruite, dit-elle (1969), are still quite primitive. The story presents its major (and only) scene in a tranquil house. In this so-called hotel and its surrounding park (and in the third layer, something called a forest) there are only four habitants : two male, two female. They claim to be writer, professor, with their usual symptoms of psychological disorder. No narration. No development of character. There is only this elusive dialogue which simultaneously arouses inquisitiveness and fatigue. In brief, it is a photographed Duras novel.

There are several elements worth mentionning. They are the keyword of the Duras world. One of these is the German name. It is Stein, Steiner, or Stretter. And there is this mysterious venetian woman we keep encountering in many later occasions.

Nathalie Granger (1972) reasonably extends the theme and method of the previous film. But it seems that Duras wanted now to incorporate two themes into one film – without much success. There is still only one scene : a big dilapidated house with a big courtyard, even a small lake out of nowhere where duckweed grows in abundance. There are still two women and their relationship, although already present in the previous film, is so much strengthened here. But who is Nathalie? It is neither of two women we see occupying most of the time. It is a little girl’s name. This theme of piano, violence from « une très petite fille » is from Moderato Cantabile.

Another noticable lesson Duras learned from Détruite, dit-elle is the comical use of an outsider, preferably a man, in this hypnotic world of walking ghosts. In previous instance it is the visiting husband. His confusion under verbal attack near the end of the film is the only place where I hear people laugh. Same thing here. Only that we have an even better actor, Gérald Depardieu, who played a wash machine salesman.

Both these two films are B&W. La Femme du Gange (74) is her first color film, retaining more or less the same crew. It pays to notice that Bruno Nuytten, camera operator in Nathalie, continued to work with Duras and has now become the cinemathographer for India Song (75).

The story of India Song is closely connected to La Femme du Gange. It is even not an exaggeration to say that the former is a ‘remake’ of the latter. But for Duras, this kind of practice is normal. This obstinate self-repeating has become a literary genre invented by Duras and carried on by Annie Ernaux.

India Song is a masterpiece. The way its story is presented can be called revolutionary. It is completely driven by the sound track, which is, no suprise, made separately. This is why most of the time you feel that they are detached. Yet there are times when they are connected. But never are they really dependant on each other. It is even possible to use the sound track to compose another set of images, the result of which will be another film. This is exactly what she did and the film is called Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (76).

Perhaps there is this gap of La Femme du Gang. So I was not really fully prepared to accept any radical change in respect of visual composition and lighting. And India Song certainly made me admit that Duras has an excellent tonal taste. It is still people living in a big house (the French embassy in Calcutta). Yet the house is considerably more real, more fantastic. Although the use of mirror was already discovered in Détruite, dit-elle, it is really becoming impressive in India Song. The increase of production value also contributes a lot to the look of everything. For example, Cerruti 1881, then just established in Paris for less than ten years, sponsored the costumes of men (25 years earlier than for Richard Gere in Pretty Woman). As for Delphine Seyrig, she is always elegant. And it is good to know that she can still do that after 15 years in L’année dernière à Marienbad.

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