Intense Vocalization: Marguerite Duras
Hiroshima Mon Amour
The Marguerite Duras retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this month—18 years after the celebrated auteur’s death—presents an ideal opportunity to contemplate her place in the history of cinema. For while Hiroshima Mon Amour, the screenplay she wrote for Alain Resnais to direct, became an international success in 1960 (and remains a touchstone of “art cinema” to this day), the films she subsequently created on her own, beginning in 1969 with Destroy, She Said, have been alas, for the happy few.
Born Marguerite Donnadieu in 1914 in what is now Vietnam, Duras has throughout her work—47 books and 19 films—spoken constantly and above all passionately of love, in ways far more intense and idiosyncratic than normally found in cinema. Hiroshima Mon Amour has the audacity to connect the two theaters of the Second World War through the depiction of a love affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) in Hiroshima, the city over which the first atomic bomb was dropped. For the actress, who has come to Hiroshima to appear in a film “for Peace”) the new affair revives memories of an older one—her first, in fact, with a young German soldier in her hometown of Nevers, France, when she was a teenager during the war.
Juxtaposing hypnotic tracking shots through postwar Hiroshima with newsreel footage of atomic bomb blasts, dramatic re-creations of the massacre, and fresh footage of the critically injured survivors, Hiroshima Mon Amour periodically flashes back to the heroine’s doomed romance with the German soldier, who was shot and killed by Allied forces on the final day of the war. Because her love for this soldier was regarded as collaboration, she was duly punished; her head shaved, she was long confined to a cellar by her parents, deeply ashamed, and fearful of retaliation from the outraged community. Eventually, she’s spirited away to Paris where she begins life anew, becoming the actress we now see in Japan.
Hiroshima Mon Amour
There is, needless to say, an imbalance between the singular death of a German soldier and the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians by the atomic bomb. But Duras’s emphasis—even at this early stage of her cinematic evolution—lies on the voices of her principal players. Throughout Hiroshima Mon Amour we hear Riva and Okada in voiceover, speaking in halting sentence fragments: he asking her questions, she carefully composing a récit of her past life and her reaction to the Hiroshima of the present. This isn’t ordinary conversation, nor is it dramatic speech of the standard “realistic” sort. It’s closer in many ways to opera, and Duras’s scrupulous choice of words coupled with her keen awareness of their aural impact reaches a crescendo in the film’s finale. “You are Hiroshima,” Riva says to her Japanese amour, to which Okada responds: “And you are Nevers—Nevers in France.” Thus individual lives are bound to the fate of nations.
Quite heady stuff for 1960. Even more so today, when serious, formally challenging motion pictures about major modern history are virtually unknown. Duras’s interests, however, weren’t historically bounded any more than they resembled “real life” as it is commonly conceived. For through her films, Duras created a world all her own, committed to exploring emotional states at their most rarefied and extreme. And while it may look to the casual observer something along the lines of the world we know, it’s in actuality as abstract as a science-fiction fantasy or a surrealist dreamscape.
Destroy, She Said unfolds in the garden of a country hotel adjoining a forest that threatens the soigné guests (Michael Lonsdale, Henri Garcin, Nicole Hiss, Catherine Sellers) in some strange, difficult-to-define way comparable to to the “something” that so unsettles the upper-crust swells in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Low-key in tone, it does not seem like the sort of “art film” designed to break new ground. But it does so, and by explicit intention: Duras described her text as “a book that could either be read or acted or filmed or, I always add, simply thrown away.” The key word in this is “book,” as literature is always primary for Duras—even in the midst of the seemingly resolutely “cinematic.” It’s not by accident that Lonsdale—soon to emerge as a key Duras interpreter—plays a character called “Stein.” His name is derived from Duras’s novel The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, the most crucial work of her entire oeuvre.
Destroy, She Said
Written in 1964, The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein is set in a small French town called S. Thala where the title character, engaged to a man named Michael Richardson, sees her fiancé snatched away by an older woman named Anne-Marie Stretter at a country ball in “Town Beach.” This event is so emotionally overwhelming that it continues to reverberate in her life a decade later. Lol’s romantic loss is a spectral coup de foudre that Duras utilizes again and again in her work, most importantly in India Song (75). Adapted from the second novel in the Lol V. Stein series, The Vice-Consul, India Song was originally commissioned by British theater director Peter Hall. But when that stage production never materialized, India Song was made into a film, taking the form of what might be called a dance-drama. Resplendent in chic evening clothes, its actors (Delphine Seyrig, Mathieu Carrière, Claude Mann, and Lonsdale among them) move about in a lushly decorated mansion without speaking a single word.
This isn’t the S. Thala of The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein but rather Lahore, India, in the Thirties. Off-screen voices (chiefly those of Duras and Françoise Lebrun, the unforgettable anti-heroine of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore) inform us of dramatic action which we do not see performed, as would be the case in a conventional drama. We are instead told how Anne-Marie Stretter overwhelmed an entire community with her sexual power, driving the Vice-Consul of France into madness. The insanity is given voice repeatedly in the film as Lonsdale screams out her “maiden name,” Anna-Maria Guardi. This in turn is the sound referred to in the title of an alternate version of India Song that Duras made in 1976: Son Nom du Venise dans Calcutta Désert. Son Nom pairs the very same soundtrack as that of India Song with shots of the now deserted set—an abandoned mansion in the heart of Paris. If anything expresses Duras’s view of sound as primary and image secondary, it’s this persistence of a sonic idea across multiple works.
That’s not to say Duras shortchanged the visual dimension of cinema, but she was radically parsimonious with it. This is best demonstrated by 1977’s Le Camion, starring Gerard Depardieu and Duras herself, and principally set in the writer-filmmaker’s own home. Seated at a table with Depardieu sitting across from her, Duras relates what “would be” (as she puts it) a story about truck driver and a garrulous female hitchhiker he picks up by chance. Periodically the film cuts away from this placid storytelling scene to shots of a truck rolling down a highway with Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” playing softly on the soundtrack. Instead of a film about a truck driver and hitchhiker, we get a description composed entirely in the conditional tense. Obviously of no commercial value, Le Camion premiered at Cannes where it was awarded fulsome praise by, of all people, Pauline Kael. A critic with next to no patience with the avant-garde, Kael was totally won over by Duras and wrote about the film in a New Yorker article that was nominally devoted to Star Wars.
“This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference,” Kael dryly remarks of the blockbuster, “yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience.” Le Camion also makes no pretense of trying to “connect” with such an audience—which fascinates Kael. “Conditioned from childhood, people go to the movies wanting the basic gratification of a story acted out . . . Each time she cuts to the outdoors, you’re drawn into the hypnotic flow of the road imagery, and though you know perfectly well there will be nothing but the truck and the landscape, you half dream your way into a ‘real’ movie.” But as Star Wars demonstrates, “real movies” aren’t what they used to be.
Duras had no hope of replacing “real movies” with her conditionally tensed ones, but she went on making her sui generis works anyway—aided by a curious “real-life” character named Yann Andrea. A fan of India Song, Andrea entered Duras’s world in 1980 when he helped her through a “rest cure” designed to stem her alcoholism. His account of this, in a 1983 book entitled M.D., was met with some degree of critical interest. Duras’s own interest in Andrea quickly became an obsession. He appears with Bulle Ogier in Agatha et les lectures illimitées her 1981 reworking of elements that first appeared in her early biographical novel Un barrage contre le Pacifique (aka The Sea Wall), filmed by René Clément as This Angry Age in 1957. While Anthony Perkins and Sylvana Mangano play characters based on Duras and her brother in Clement’s version, their emotional conflict doesn’t go so far as incest, which is frankly discussed in Agatha. As nothing in the film is conventionally dramatized (Andrea and Ogier are seen wandering about the lobby of a hotel on the Normandy coast that also served as a setting for her India Song variation avant la lettre, La Femme du Gange, in 1974), no acting in the conventional sense was required.
Duras’s entire attitude toward actors is passing strange. Jeanne Moreau has been the performer most identified with her work, starring in the 1960 film of Moderato Cantabile directed by Peter Brook, and Duras’s own 1972 Nathalie Granger. Both stories feature children who resist music lessons amidst reports of a serial killer who is on the loose but never seen. Moreau is low-key in the first film and even more subdued in the second, in which she sits at home (Duras’s again) with another woman played by Lucia Bose. The women’s relationship is never defined, and their virtual immobility is disrupted only by the appearance of a washing-machine salesman—played by Depardieu in his motion-picture debut. Obviously ill-equipped for the job, he delivers his spiel to Moreau and Bose in an energetic, tough, and often incoherent style; he’s eventually seen dashing about the neighborhood in a state clearly suggestive of mental imbalance. It’s astonishing to see so vivid a performer becalmed only a few years later in Le Camion.
But this is nothing compared to the way Duras treats Bulle Ogier, Matthieu Carrière, and Dominique Sanda in Le Navire Night. The récit concerns a man and a woman who conduct a romance entirely over the telephone without ever meeting in person. Who the three stars are supposed to “represent” in this scenario is not at all clear. Neither is the reason we see them only in a few shots, predominantly showing them sitting calmly while makeup is applied to their faces, as if in preparation for a scene to be shot. But no such scene ensues. What we see instead are shots of empty roads, water puddles, and ceiling fixtures while the actors’ voices relating the “story” drone on. This same anti-technique was utilized by Duras in short works made from outtakes of Agatha—Cesarée (78) and L’Homme atlantique (81)—both of which will be screened alongside Marin Karmitz’s 1964 Duras adaptation Nuit Noire, Calcutta.
Curiously, Duras ended her filmmaking career with something resembling the conventional. Les Enfants began life as a 1970 book she wrote for children entitled Ah! Ernesto, later filmed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in 1982 as En rachâchant (a rendition Duras disliked; also part of the retrospective’s shorts program). The story concerns a little boy who doesn’t want to go to school lest he learn things that he doesn’t already know. Les Enfants expands this slim tale to feature length with the novelty of having Ernesto played by an adult actor, Axel Bogousslavsky. It’s wryly amusing in a way quite unusual for Duras. More importantly, it’s shot in a more or less ordinary style, with actors playing actual characters and speaking words on screen in the usual manner.
That Duras would conclude her filmmaking career in this manner must be regarded in the context of a career that was devoted to textual elucidation. One suspects that the success of her novel The Lover in 1984—an overwhelming hit with both critics and the general public—put her off from filmmaking. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 adaptation of this tale, which was another derivation from the Un barrage contre le Pacifique cycle and which related how her family pimped her out to a wealthy Chinese man, was served up in the plush “high-class” erotic style of the Emmanuelle films. In what you might call anticipatory retaliation, Duras in 1991 wrote The North China Lover, a “remake” of The Lover adding details that the first version of Duras’s original novel didn’t include, all folded into an explicit critique of the film she suspected (with good reason) Annaud was putting together.
Duras makes her final film appearances in two 1993 documentary shorts directed by Benoît Jacquot: Écrire, in which she discusses her work process, and The Death of a Young English Aviator, in which she visits the grave of a British flier killed during World War II who she discovered was gay. The latter revelation was of pivotal import to Duras in her final years, given her close relationship with Yann Andrea, who was also gay. Andrea had looked to Duras for emotional support after being spurned by a man with whom he had fallen in love but who turned out to be straight. Duras’s fascination with Andrea recalls an extraordinary interview she conducted in 1980 with Elia Kazan in Cahiers du Cinéma (December 1980), entitled “The Trembling Man.” Duras had just seen and been duly impressed by Kazan’s Wild River, his 1960 film about an official from the Tennessee Valley Authority trying to convince a stubborn old woman to abandon her house so that a dam can be built. As the TVA official, Montgomery Clift, who was in poor physical shape at this point in his life (he would be dead six years later), visibly trembles when Remick’s character expresses affection for him in one scene. Duras hailed the moment as expressing “a new condition of love”—a notion that puzzled the otherwise deeply flattered Kazan.
The “new condition of love” she spoke of to Kazan so rapturously was fully explicated by Duras in two books: Blue Eyes, Black Hair (86), dealing with the rejection and consequent abjection Andrea faced, and Yann Andrea Steiner (92), in which Duras folds her curious beloved into her own personal mythology. Andrea went on to write his own memoir of their relationship, Cet Amour-là, in 1999, but before then, he helped Duras write her final book, C’est tout (95). It consisted literally of the last words she ever spoke, ending with “Viens vite. J’en ai plus de bouche, plus de visage”: “Come quickly. I no longer have a mouth, nor a face.”
The retrospective By Marguerite Duras runs October 15 to 22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.