Among the fascinating
bastards born when the French New Wave and the nouveau roman swapped precious fluids, the films of novelist Marguerite Duras are beautiful, monstrous sleepwalkers, creeping through modern emptinesses and doped on remembered conversations. In a real sense, they feel like movies made by and about dead people — narrative experiences from limbo.
Already the author of nine relatively conventional novels when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Duras felt the winds blowing, and as her fiction became sparser and more enigmatic alongside fellow rad fictioneer-turned-auteur Alain Robbe-Grillet, she decided to make the move to film, first with versions of her plays La Musica (1967) and Destroy, She Said (1969). Both films were stylishly austere and poised, ballets of zombie-like disattachment, but the latter, included in this selective Walter Reade retro, comes off as her New Wave manifesto, her version of Last Year at Marienbad, with ample Beckettian contradictions, luxury-hotel intimations of doomsday, and a saturated sense of
ennui. For us meat-eaters, it might be the thickest cut on the table.
From there, her cinematic sensibility became even more restrictive, frozen, and radically implacable. Despite the presence of French cinema’s Brahman caste, from Delphine Seyrig to Jeanne Moreau to Bulle Ogier, the characters are petrified figures in the landscape, and around them the films don’t really move — they float like smoke in a sealed room. Nathalie Granger (1972) is Duras’s first out-and-out anti-film, a strangely comic visitation with two nearly mute women (Moreau and Antonioni vet Lucia Bosé) who live with two children (one of them with behavioral problems at school), and whose chilly life of waiting and numbness is interrupted only by news of rampaging homicides in the neighborhood and a call from Gérard Depardieu’s baffled door-to-door salesman.
Shades of Chantal Akerman, Duras
cut the fat until her film silently bled, but it’s practically orthodox compared to the aesthetics that followed. India Song (1975), her most beloved film, is another look-backward tale of romantic disaster and cross-purposes, set almost entirely in the French Embassy in Calcutta (but shot in French estates) and starring Seyrig as the compulsively promiscuous wife of the ambassador (Michael Lonsdale). Duras crafts an opulent frieze of poised intentions and desires so repressed the actors don’t dare move a muscle.
The famously unsignifying Marienbad looks like Noah by comparison. Here is where Duras shifts almost entirely toward narration to relay story, employing multiple voices articulating inner and outer ruminations over the often immobile cast, as if the filmmaker has decided she trusts only language, and not the rest of cinema’s arsenal. (Duras’s general intent, she has said, was to “murder” cinema.) India Song is as haunting and dreamlike as it can be soporific; once Lonsdale’s cuckold begins (and never stops) howling in agony off-screen, it coalesces into a kind of anesthetized horror film.
Le Camion (1977) indulges in synced
dialogue a good deal more, as an aimless truck drive through wintry Parisian suburbs is intercut with Duras and Depardieu sitting in her study talking with little
urgency about a script they never end up filming. Cinema is hung, drawn, and quartered. Le Navire Night (1979) and Agatha et les Lectures Illimitées (1981) both return to India Song‘s voiceover strategy, but even more ascetically — Duras’s camera roams empty landscapes and posh interiors, barely glimpsing immobile actors, while soundtrack personas limn a sometimes complex past history of lost love and
betrayal. (When, in Le Navire Night, we see Dominique Sanda suddenly brush out her enormous blond locks, it has the shock of violence.) Though coming close to
romance-fiction material, the films could hardly be less pulpily satisfying.
In every instance, as in Hiroshima Mon Amour, Duras’s storytelling obsessively details the fallout of ruined romance — she was the Empress Dowager of Regret. Her films were always rarefied cocktails happily sipped by the cognoscenti, and she was routinely feted at Cannes and Berlin, and nominated for Césars. However forbidding, they pumped her cult, as did the high-profile adaptations, by the likes of Resnais, Peter Brook (1960’s Moderato Cantabile), and Tony Richardson (Mademoiselle, from 1966), all of which are showcased this week as well. The Lincoln Center series also includes several of
Duras’s shorts and, rather quixotically, Jean-Luc Godard’s rapturous Every Man for Himself (1980), in which Jacques Dutronc’s character explains to his classroom that Duras is in the next room, though we never see her. Years later,
Godard explained this odd flourish by admitting that Duras was in fact in the next room during filming — such was her enigmatic allure, but also such was Godard’s regal respect for the reality of movies.