Close-Up on Marguerite Duras’s "India Song"

The iconic multi-hyphenate artist Marguerite Duras confronts the pain of others in her India-set drama starring Delphine Seyrig.
Beatrice Loayza

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Marguerite Duras's India Song (1975) is now showing April 4 - May 3, 2020 in the United States.

The quintessential Marguerite Duras heroine suffers inwardly as the outside world shakes, its distant echoes gently, but inexhaustibly knocking at her front door. This woman appears in Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), solemnly recounting the sallow conditions of her marriage as chirpy luau-inflected music from a neighboring party invades the room; she is in Nathalie Granger (1972), a film about women whose days are spent in relative silence doing yard work and staring out windows. News of external violence plays on the radio, and the appearance of a bumbling salesman unsettles the drudgery of their daily lives.

The films of Marguerite Duras are adept at generating this particular tension, this conflict between the psychic world of the individual and the external one with its countless, unimaginable problems. Yet none of her films so deeply plumb this encounter quite like India Song (1975). The wife of the French ambassador in India, Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) is a Venetian pianist who has lost entirely the will to play; they say she suffers from a “leprosy of the heart.” Numb and listless, she attenuates her sorrows with love affairs condoned by her husband, while beyond the walls of her estate, a Laotian beggar woman goes mad, fishermen work in the Ganges, and wars rage in distant lands.

Revisiting this work about, among other things, a white woman drunk with sorrow, I was reminded of a time when I, myself, felt nothing but my own sadness. I’ve always wondered if depression, resilient and imperceptible like an odorless poison, is merely evidence of an incredible self-absorption. Yet that conclusion feels insincere, reductive. How to dignify the very lifelessness of a woman’s inner life while scrutinizing the insularity of her condition? India Song, crucially,is not concerned with absolving Anne-Marie from her privileged detachment. Duras, knowing that placing tragedies one beside the other encourages hierarchies, takes a more slippery approach.

Duras was born on April 4, 1914 in Gia-Dinh, a province in French Indochina near Saigon. Her father died young, and she was raised in relative poverty by her school teacher mother along with two brothers, one sickly, the other a brute and an opium addict. When Marguerite came of age, she moved to France, and there she endured the Nazi occupation. She was employed by the Vichy government, despite ties to the French Resistance, and in 1942 she lost her first baby in childbirth. Her husband at the time was deported to the concentration camp of Buchenwald. He returned, just barely alive. It was towards the end of these early experiences, nestled within the century-defining sagas of European colonialism and World War II, that Duras began to write.

But how, as Theodor Adorno famously inquired, “to write poetry after Auschwitz?” How to represent the unrepresentable? How to find a language for sorrows so beyond the scope of words? Duras dedicated much of her work, often hammered out and sculpted from her most intimate life experiences, to the task of representing and articulating precisely this dilemma. Rather than write-off personal, subjective experience as ill-equipped to convey vast historical traumas, Duras located in the figure of the disaffected woman a spiritual point of origin from which to flesh out such unfathomable, unknowable sorrows. Released as both a play and a film, mediums that Duras considered more malleable and better capable of sustaining ambiguities, and building off characters that appear in her novels like The Vice-Consul and The Ravishing of Lol Stein, India Song is in part the product of a disillusionment with the formal restrictions of the novel. Indeed, the film’s radical manipulation of sound and image breaks with traditional forms of storytelling, generating from an otherwise routine tale of aristocratic ennui an embodied account of post-colonial guilt and despair. 

The film opens at dusk. The sun exudes a mesmerizing orange glow before receding into the foggy night. We hear the crackling voice of a woman singing in an unknown language before two disembodied voices, servants perhaps, whisper stories about this raucous beggar woman who lives among the lepers. No one knows how she found her way to Calcutta, this woman who comes originally from Savannakhet, Laos, but here she is, “together/ she and the white woman/ during the same years.” Sound in the film is entirely non-diegetic, and loose strands of conversation from unidentified speakers both male and female, privileged and poor, come together like incantations joining two, unlike experiences and people in a shared stream of recollections. At such a remove from the image, speech plunges us into a heightened state of dissociation, yet stray observations about the smell, and sound of India and its colonized inhabitants ground these phantom characters in palpable sensations. Anne-Marie is seen, but she’s empty. The beggar woman is invisible, but can be sensed and heard. Such distinctions, though they complement and fill in what’s lacking in either representation, tether the characters to necessarily discrete conditions.

Anne-Marie first comes into view as a reflection and as the object of a longing male gaze. From the perspective of an enormous, full-wall mirror image, a suitor watches Anne-Marie as she dances with another man, their steps measured and mournful.  No one speaks. We follow the wan woman and her parade of lusty men over the course of one night, their languorous activities punctuated by images of the outdoors, the property’s unused tennis court, the woods with its chorus of cicadas. Anne-Marie seemingly floats through the decadent, gangrenous estate while her lover, Michael Richardson (Claude Mann), the virginal Vice-Consul of Lahore (Michael Lonsdale), and a young attachéfollow her lead. Duras and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten capture these characters in an equally stunted manner, with glacial pans, and long, doleful fixed shots. Madame Stretter takes turns dancing with different, desperate men; she endures the sticky heat by laying flat on the ground, her gown exposing her breast; she fades into her thoughts while seated, slumped on a velvet couch. Brief, banal moments are stretched out to tortured lengths.

When the camera drifts over Anne-Marie’s possessions—her wig, her jewelry, her grand piano and framed photographs—Duras recalls the haunted luxuries of Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a film also starring Delphine Seyrig and directed by Duras’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) collaborator Alain Resnais. Last Year at Marienbad’s emphasis on the stately, but menacing architecture of the mansion and the uncanny bric-a-brac within preserves memory in the frigid inaccessibility of the inanimate object. The similarly lugubrious estate of India Song, however, lacks the chilly, diabolical edge of Resnais’ interiors. Instead, Duras’s Calcutta chateau resembles a Southern gothic manor on the edge of ruin, overwhelmed by heat and pestilence. The walls themselves are painted the muck-green hue of disease, and incense that “smells like death” leaves trails of smoke in every room. These cramped, rotten quarters make manifest mentions of a nearby leper colony, while sensory descriptions of the howling beggar woman and the lepers summon Anne-Marie’s inner turmoil and vacancy: “Lepers burst like sacks of dust, you know / Don’t suffer? / No, feel nothing.”

But most haunting perhaps is the titular “India Song,” an achy piano tune with a hint of archness that plays over and over again at random throughout the film. Duras is fond of repetitive music; consider the ceaseless tiki tunes of Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), the jazzy number that plays as Madeleine Renaud’s tempestuous mother character observes dancers in Entire Days in the Trees (1976). The same old song, Duras seems to suggest, plays in hell, a song that bitterly reminds us there will be no changes, no exit.

Of the film’s many voiceover narrators, Anne-Marie and her sullen meditations introduce an element of unforeseen awareness: “In China, the war went on. The Japanese were still advancing. In Spain, they were still fighting. In Russia, the Revolution was betrayed. The Congress of Nuremberg has just taken place.” Anne-Marie Stretter might suffer from a “leprosy of the heart,” but are these spiritual pains conflated with the horrors of leprosy and by extension colonialism itself? Hiroshima, mon amour comes to mind. Is one woman’s romantic tragedy—the horrific death of Emanuelle Riva’s first love—equated with the atrocities of Hiroshima? Tellingly, none of India Song actually takes place in India; Duras shot primarily at a derelict mansion owned by the Rothschield family in Boulogne, in addition to abandoned apartment spaces in Paris. Meanwhile, the mad beggar woman, the lepers, and the many victims of colonialism are kept off screen, withheld from the sort of touristic scrutiny that yields pity and horror while reaffirming, as Susan Sontag writes of war photography in Regarding the Pain of Others, “the inevitability of tragedy in benighted or backwards—that is, poor—parts of the world.” Duras does not indulge in the spectacularization of the Other. Disease and destitution in India Song is summoned, but not replicated, because we cannot presume to know that pain, and we will never know it. Yet in the memory of pain itself, in the confrontation with those elusive memories, and the diverse ways in which such memories warp the individual, the collective, and desire itself, Duras, quite radically, succeeds in preserving the particulars of disparate experiences while gesturing at their interconnectedness. India Song unites disparate elements not to sentimentalize what they share in common, but to consider how and why they’ve come apart.

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