Difference and Repetition: The Filmmaking of Marguerite Duras

Though best known as a novelist, Marguerite Duras pursued a unique filmmaking career of upending expectations.
Lawrence Garcia

MUBI's series Hypnotic Incantations: A Marguerite Duras Focus is showing September - October, 2020 in the United Kingdom and United States.

Marguerite Duras

In 1955, Jacques Rivette famously wrote that Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy “opens a breach… that all cinema, on pain of death, must pass through.” For Rivette and many others, the film heralded nothing less than the arrival of a modern cinema—and not five years later, Alain Resnais, with a screenplay from Marguerite Duras, took up this challenge with Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Following the film’s seismic premiere, Eric Rohmer declared it either “the most important film since the war” or “the first modern film of sound cinema,” its overture of tangled, ash-covered limbs even echoing the embalmed couple Ingrid Bergman turns away from in Voyage to Italy’s memorable Pompeii-set passage. With her seminal script, Duras could thus claim to have widened the gap opened by Rossellini, readying the space through which her own cinematic practice would later glide. But in the end, perhaps the challenge of Voyage to Italy was, at least for her, no more than the challenge of writing itself. In her memoir-cum-essay “Écrire,” composed three years before her death in 1996, she speaks movingly of the solitude of writing, its silent scream, but also its singular inducements: “Writing was the only thing that populated my life and made it magic. I did it. Writing never left me.”

And indeed it didn’t—neither through the numerous books published during her lifetime, nor through the roughly 20 films she made from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. That Duras’s directorial reputation still lags behind her literary fame is undeniable, and the sight-gag in John Waters’s 1981 Polyester, of an American drive-in showing “Three Marguerite Duras Hits,” plays about just as well today. But rather than the proliferation of Durases that have emerged in sundry biographical/critical treatments of the artist—she is by turns “unintelligible,” “narcissistic,” “difficult,” and “obscure”—her cinema has gained the stature of an unapproachable edifice, forbidding and remote. An unfortunate state of affairs for an artist so gripped by, as she herself put it, the perpetual desire “to tear what has gone before to pieces.” Destroy, She Said, her fourteenth novel and second feature, both released in 1969, emerged for her from “the idea of a book… that could be either read or acted or filmed or... simply thrown away.” The conceptual pivot of both versions, set in a rural hotel that’s something more like a sanitarium, is a phony card game used as a vehicle for interrogation and entrapment of one of the players; as always with Duras, the rules of the game are never quite clear at the outset. But echoing the final scene of Blow-Up (1966), it is the periodic sounds of a tennis match—heard but not seen, and commented on throughout the novel/film—which lay the groundwork for the plays with image and sound that recur through the films of hers that followed.

“I don’t think the image can ever replace what I called ‘the indefinite proliferation’ of the word,” she declared to Jean-Luc Godard in one of their three conversations on the twined subjects of son et image (spanning 1979–1987 and subsequently collected into the volume Duras / Godard Dialogues). But just as the New Wave icon’s work would continue to grapple with such questions—his disorienting, staccato bursts of image/sound would intensify in the ’80s, beginning with Every Man For Himself, in which Duras can be heard but not seen—Duras’s own oeuvre, through rather different means, sought to challenge preconceptions and overturn cinematic orthodoxies. Destroy, she said—and so she did, continually questioning received filmmaking methods, and through a kind of discovery by dissolution, conceiving of how things might be otherwise. Likewise, her most famous novel, the Prix Goncourt–winning The Lover (1984), speaks to the “indefinite proliferation of the word” mainly in terms of difference, its autobiographical scenario having been treated previously in The Sea Wall (1950) and later in L’amant de la Chine du nord (1991). Fittingly perhaps, The Lover (whose sundry editions place the photo of a young Duras on their covers), offers up a particularly intriguing coinage not in its finished form, but in the working title of one of its manuscripts: “La photo absolue” (or the absolute photograph). The discarded phrase gives name to a notion—possibly illusory—from which Duras’s practice, with its penchant for repetition and revision, charts its own course of difference.

Above: Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977)

The nautical metaphor is not incidental, for the allure of the sea recurs time and time again across her cinema. It is there amid the Marxist musings of Le camion (1977) and the death-obsessed dolor of L’homme atlantique (1981), though between the two it crests in Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), where a tale of sexual jealousy and dependence becomes as if subsumed into the Atlantic, its glimmering immensity glimpsed in a series of liberating cuts away from the film’s glass-enclosed, terrarium-like interiors. Like many a seafaring raconteur, Duras favors the directness of speech—implicitly or explicitly, her films often take the form of a dialogue. The great difference is her willingness to futz with the usual hierarchies of image and sound: To step into her films, with their perpetual enfolding of narrative necessity, visual-aural abstraction, and sensorial impact, is to be set adrift in conflicting currents of obsessive prose and measured movement. An experience not entirely unlike attempting to converse with the ocean.

It is easy to lose oneself in the resultant flux. So alongside Godardian strategies of sensorial bombardment, we might well speak of Durassian drift. Her gliding camera in the first half-hour of Le Navire Night (1979), a film comprised largely of exchanges between Duras and then-apprentice Benoît Jacquot, is enough to demolish any lingering preconceptions of her directorial austerity. The film’s challenge is not so much an arid aesthetic of alienation, but a bewildering multiplicity of sensuous attractions and compulsive mysteries, here centered on the ambiguous relationship between a dying young girl and a man she knows only through a series of intimate phone calls. By the end, one has to sort through a set of nullities: between the absences and gaps of ultimately no consequence at all, and the voids around which one might center an entire existence. 

So it goes too with the spectral spaces of her most celebrated feature, India Song (1975), starring Delphine Seyrig as the wife of the French ambassador in a Calcutta of the colonial imagination (shot in the Château Rothschild in Versailles). The film’s narrative framework had been laid in her previous novels The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) and The Vice-Consul (1966), though from the cinema, there is also Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story (1968), with its particular, perverse interplay of material decadence, sexual domination, and stories told under the sway of the sea. For India Song’s entirely asynchronous soundtrack, though, filled in mainly by the composer Carlos d’Alessio (one of Duras’s closest collaborators), one has to look forward to something like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), which likewise draws the viewer into a dispersed atmosphere of lush sorrow, and pushes its story scaffolding to extremes of aural detachment and spatial alienation. It is between these poles, in the dead heart of India Song, that one finds an earlier instance of la photo absolue: a framed portrait sitting atop a grand piano, and the point about which the film’s currents of desire eddy and swirl. Behind it, a mirror spanning the height of the wall. At the far end, an unused fireplace; to its right, a staircase. At the zenith, a crystal chandelier. At the nadir, a supine body—languid, lusty, and lacquered in sweat.

Above: India Song (1975)

Before it was a film, India Song existed as a play (commissioned by the National Theater in London in 1972, albeit never staged), an act of artistic doubling that was, for Duras, far from exceptional. (Le Navire Night opened on the stage the same week the film version was released in cinemas, while Baxter, Vera Baxter preceded the publication of Vera Baxter ou les Plages de l’Atlantique.) But whereas this cross-media tendency might, for some, have signaled some implosive synthesis of various art forms, what it revealed in Duras’s hands was the sticky stubbornness of medium specificity. If anything, these myriad excursions from page to screen to stage only made her more acutely aware of the indissoluble boundaries between each. There’s no precise analogue in cinema for the declarations of “silence” that recur like timed explosions throughout Duras’s writing, and there’s likewise no corollary in literature for the ceaseless celebratory thrum of the music that echoes throughout the near-entirety of Baxter, Vera Baxter, bringing to mind images of a pre-colonial paradise lost. Seyrig’s character calls the music an “exterior turbulence,” and apparently wary of the avowed certainties of her age, Duras seemed intent on seeking out or indeed creating such disturbances—in cinema and literature both.

Given her prolificity and predilection for creative destruction, any attempt to encapsulate Duras’s cinematic sensibility can seem counterproductive. But at the risk of bringing in an even more ill-defined concept, it should be said that her practice shares something with the essay film. There are certainly worse ways to describe Duras’s work than with Jean-Pierre Gorin’s definition of the film-essay as “the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or has been elected by). It is surplus, drifts, ruptures, ellipses, and double-backs.” Not the most conventional of artists, Duras often dispensed with explicit argumentative frameworks, even in her written essays. But if her works nonetheless manage to persuade or convince, to challenge or affirm, it is through the coiled force of their assertions, their apparent disregard for established pieties, and their perpetual drive to decenter and upend expectations. Unafraid to scavenge and repurpose, to reimagine and reinvent, she cycled through familiar memories and anecdotes and twice-treated tales, unabashed about producing works that might be considered adjunct, subsidiary, or otherwise incomplete. Which is to say that she did in the open what most artists do in secret. You could dismiss the results as mere exercises in style—but as in the case of fellow French literary giant Raymond Queneau, whom Duras famously interviewed in 1959, and with whom she shared a taste for judicious repetition, to do so would be to miss the distinctive, enduring appeal of her art. 

By the 1980s, her work in cinema was all but behind her—perhaps due to a general disillusion with the form (the Durassian paradox, per Jacquot: “She detested cinema but adored making films”), though more likely, her deteriorating health and alcoholism made the physical demands of the camera impossible. At the nadir, a supine body, hospitalized in 1982 for disintoxication treatment. At the zenith, the Prix Goncourt and renewed international acclaim. 

Towards the close of Le Navire Night, after the narrative proper (insofar as one exists) has concluded, Duras and Jacquot continue to converse on—what else?—the sea, and then on an uncompleted film, its creation stopped by death or by doubt. Certainly, Duras doubted many things before her death: the cinema, the fixity of the completed work, perhaps even the very notion of completion. But for a time, at least, the act of filmmaking remained—over nearly two decades, she picked up the camera again and again and again, finding worlds of difference with each repetition. For the cinema that she so doubted, that repetition made all the difference.

Above: Le Navire Night (1979)

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