It’s not quite Tab Hunter’s fantasy arthouse drive-in in Polyester, advertising “Dusk to Dawn: Three Marguerite Duras Hits,” but Anthology Film Archives’ seven-feature-plus-shorts retro is the best way to experience the cinematic side of Madame Duras’s multimedia life.
A name novelist since just after WWII, Duras became a bonafide intellectual celebrity with her Academy Award-nominated script for Alain Resnais’s 1959 Hiroshima, mon amour (starring Duras’s later close collaborator, Delphine Seyrig). Her work was adapted for the screen before and after—often by mismatched temperaments, as when gushy Jules Dassin handled this most arid of stylists in 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966). The next year, Duras, 53, with full confidence in her sensibility and the hypnotic draw of her voice, began to shoot her increasingly screenplay-terse stories for the screen.
Movies were the medium of the moment, and everyone wanted a shot. Duras’s son had turned 18: “[He] never talks about my books. What he loves is the cinema. It’s maybe because of him I’m getting involved. He can join the crew.” She was no one-off dabbler. Over the next two decades, the doyenne of French letters created her own industry of trance-y movies, enthralled with themselves (mirrors are ubiquitous) and entirely inseparable from their author’s engulfing personality.
The early features are minimal narratives, distinguished by barbiturate-paced line readings and an air of society about to either implode or go comatose. Destroy, She Said (1969), Duras’s second film (from a novel of the same year, published with staging directions), has a trio of lovers at a resort hotel closing in on neurasthenic Catherine Sellers—the film’s key scene is a long card game that’s something like an interrogation, during which Sellers’s entire spectrum of reactions is run through in seemingly random order. Nathalie Granger (1972) is a pre-Jeanne Dielman study in housewife lassitude, with a very young Gerard Depardieu’s washing machine salesman unnerved and unmanned by the blasé stonewalling of Lucia Bosè and Jeanne Moreau—who would play Duras in 2001’s Cet amour-là, based on the memoir of Duras’s late-in-life secretary/ companion/ untouchable homosexual love object, Yann Andréa, who himself appears in Duras’s Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981).
Through her fecund 1960s and ’70s, Duras scavenged and repurposed the same memories, scenarios, and characters in successive novels, plays, and films. (Edmund White suggests a non-theoretical motive for Duras’s reiterations: an alcoholic’s attempt to restore an ever-eroding memory. “Since Duras drank in order to write she seldom recognized her own writings when she reread them.”) India Song (1975) plays out a scenario that Duras had been reworking since novels The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) and The Vice-Consul (1966). The crucial scene is a scandal at a reception ball in the colonies (the film is ostensibly set in Calcutta, though Duras spent her first seventeen years in French Indochina). India Song’s Embassy setting looks abandoned from the outside, but characters in swank evening dress still go their appointed rounds within, silent and almost incorporeal amid purling cigarette and incense smoke. There is no on-screen dialogue; the story comes from the layered soundtrack of non-diegetic conversation and unseen narrators gossiping about the adulteries of Anne-Marie Stretter (Seyrig), seen drifting between dance partners as the lugubrious blues of Carlos d’Alessio title tune plays over and over again, different but the same. Only Michael Lonsdale’s disgraced vice-consul—gone mad because he cannot reconcile himself to his environment, a type who recurs in Duras’s work—fails to behave, but his wounded-animal roar of protest barely registers over the ceremony.
The Truck (1977) is protest in itself, a mesmerizing, rueful film made of stalled preliminaries. Depardieu and Duras—small, bunched, hermetic—sit alone in a deep-shadowed room that re-arranges itself between shots. They read from and discuss her new script for a film about a truck driver who picks up a hitchhiking woman “of a certain age.” Their conversation is periodically interrupted by traveling passenger’s-eye images of the industrial sprawl west of Paris, construction sites and roundabouts in damp dusk, set to Beethoven. The movie they’re describing never actually begins, but its discussion builds a nest of strange associations; Depardieu and Duras, melding with the proposed characters, enter into an unlikely flirtation and a confessional, as doomsayer Duras dredges up her bottomless disappointment.
After an unlikely resurrection through detox, Duras won the Prix Goncourt for her most popular book, The Lover, but ever-worsening health finished her as a director. The comic premise of her last film, 1985’s Les Enfants, sinks into the drudgery of a dropout manifesto, with 40-ish Axel Bogousslavsky playing a nonconformist seven-year old. As the filmmaker’s mouthpiece, Bogousslavsky never touches Duras’s singularly droll, oracular gravity in The Truck. Who has tried since?