Home Movies: Two by Duras
This article appeared in the March 9, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
A blood-orange sun hovers in a swamp-green dusk, dissolving slowly over a horizon so barren and indistinct it could be almost anyplace. Then we arrive at a highly specific place: an embassy in Calcutta. We enter a room with a floor-to-ceiling mirror, French doors left ajar, a baby grand piano, a vase with freshly cut roses, and sticks of burning incense. A handful of well-dressed figures pass through the space, walking, lounging, slow-dancing, all silent as ghosts. Over all of this, disembodied voices talk of torrid affairs, suicide, madness, and colonial rot, while music drifts in and out—most notably a jazz melody that eventually will be announced as “India Song Blues.” The images and the voiceover are related but also separate, running parallel, never intersecting. Which is memory and which is fiction? Which is the present tense and which is the past? Are the bodies phantoms? Could the voices be, too?
Thus opens Marguerite Duras’s masterpiece India Song (1975), drawing us into the 1930s-set tale of a French woman named Anne-Marie Stretter and her many lovers, and of the man who desired her most yet would never know her exquisite body. I first experienced India Song at the Cinematheque Ontario many years ago; the screening changed me in the way that only a handful of films do in one’s life. In the cleavage between the film’s images and sounds there exists something mysterious and delectable, an abyss that invites endless conjecture. A new two-disc release from the Criterion Collection pairs India Song and Duras’s lesser-known chamber drama Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), along with supplemental materials that include a new documentary brimming with anecdotes from several key collaborators, illuminating Duras’s peculiar, intimate, and congenial process. In placing India Song and Vera Baxter together in a kind of diptych, the set highlights Duras’s bold audiovisual juxtapositions, while offering newcomers a welcome introduction to her singular filmography.
Having accrued fame as the author of provocative novels like Moderato cantabile (1958) and the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Duras only began directing films in late middle age, with an approach that was genuinely sui generis, combining cascades of language with an indifference toward exposition. Engaging a cosmology of recurring characters ensnared by existential quandaries and entropic desire, India Song draws on Duras’s literary work, especially The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964), in which Anne-Marie Stretter appears as a peripheral character. The allure of India Song is far from limited to elements of story or character, however; it emerges as fiercely cinematic—at once primitive and innovative in form—and calls upon Duras’s high-caliber collaborators to undertake unusual tasks. The actors perform simple, non-demonstrative actions, yet the best of them—Delphine Seyrig as the elegant seductress Stretter; Michael Lonsdale as the lovesick vice-consul, his face glistening with tears, his arms dangling limply from narrow shoulders in an unflattering white tuxedo jacket—register as haunted by longing, regret, or doom. Their mute presences align with the smoke, fecundity, and decaying opulence on display, an alluring confluence of eros and death, seemingly suspended yet always moving toward its inevitable end point.
Duras’s films are typically limited to a few locations, and her visuals—full of glacial pans, rich colors, and vivid textures—luxuriate in talismanic objects and the body as landscape. One of India Song’s most memorable shots reveals tiny drops of perspiration on Seyrig’s breast, rising and falling with her half-slumbering breath, an image that recalls the ash-and-glitter-encrusted flesh of Hiroshima’s lovers. The verbal density of Duras’s films, meanwhile, should never be mistaken for a tendency toward explication; on the contrary, the words spoken in India Song’s steady voiceover allude to, conflate, and sometimes contradict the images on screen, multiplying meanings while stripping characters of fixed identities. It is obvious that Duras’s films are supported by an immense intellectual scaffolding, yet their intended effect overwhelmingly prioritizes the sensual: attempting to track all the characters and events in a single viewing is a fool’s errand. Perhaps more than any major European filmmaker of her time, Duras still confounds and begs reckoning.
Baxter, Vera Baxter shares many things with India Song—myriad glassy surfaces, themes of infidelity and obsession, and a deliberately repetitive score from Carlos d’Alessio—but distinguishes itself with a contemporary setting, synchronized sound, and ample conversation between characters. In a hotel bar in a seaside town, an unnamed woman (Seyrig, playing a character who feels like a stand-in for Duras) overhears talk of the titular heroine, played by Claudine Gabay. The wife to a philandering gambler who has repeatedly lost fortunes, Vera is having an affair with one Michel Cayre (Gérard Depardieu, so young, handsome, and broody) and hiding out in a luxurious villa that she’s considering renting. Seyrig’s character goes there—beyond curiosity, her motives are oblique—and interviews Vera, who gradually confides in her mysterious interlocutor, sharing secrets about her propensity for lies, her disastrous marriage, and her desire to destroy it by fleeing with Michel. Meanwhile, looping, incongruously jaunty sounds of quena, siku, charango, and percussion, which we’re told are coming from some neighboring festivities, infuse every scene with something like jubilation. Where India Song’s ambiance is one of morbidity, with its intermingling of melancholy blues and tableaux of decadence, Vera Baxter’s pairing of upbeat music and purging confession feels oddly tinged with promise.
Gorgeously photographed by Sacha Vierny, Vera Baxter transpires for the most part in this largely vacant villa, whose interiors and bay-window views are worthy of an Architectural Digest spread—though there are striking cutaways to seascapes and landscapes, to images of a naked woman posing on a bed like a Renaissance model, and to a room somewhere in Chantilly, where Vera’s husband meets with his young lover. These cutaways are but one of Duras’s techniques for reminding us that even the most insular, isolated dramas transpire in concert with other, parallel dramas unfolding far or near. Vera Baxter may not possess quite the same impact as India Song, but it is equally transfixing and lurid, transporting us to a hushed female space where the conjunction of beguiling narrative, vaporous soundscape, and voluptuous visuals generate an uncanny intimacy that is Duras’s indelible trademark.
José Teodoro is a critic, essayist, and playwright.