Full Bloom: Dormant Plants in Marguerite Duras's "Agatha and the Limitless Readings"

At an off-season hotel on the English Channel, plants hibernate for the winter and Maguerite Duras makes an unclassifiable film.
Patrick Holzapfel

Ivana Miloš, Agatha and the Limitless (2022), monotype, gouache, and collage on paper.

Summer in Winter

What would we do without air, without light?

—Marguerite Duras, Agatha and the Limitless Readings

The hotel Les Roches Noires was located in Trouville-sur-Mer, France, and, as with so many hotels, its fame came from its visitors, in this case Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, Claude Monet, and Marguerite Duras. In 1981, the foyer of the hotel was decorated with several intriguing, almost otherworldly plants whose type it is difficult for an amateur to classify. I know of these plants because Duras used the abandoned off-season, Second Empire-style hotel, which served as her temporary home, as a location to film Agatha and the Limitless Readings in March of that year. With different texts and films (L’homme atlantique, for example) set in Les Roches Noires, this should not remain the last time Duras looked through its huge windows towards the English Channel but the plants are most visible in this film.

I hesitate calling this work’s effacing movements between words and images a film but since film theory has not come up with satisfactory terms to describe Duras’s approach I shall stick with it. Agatha and the Limitless Readings is an adaptation of her own written theatre piece Agatha (1981) and one of the few films that make me feel as if I held my breath for its entire dura(s)tion. Its protagonists are alive and dead. They do not really exist but they are all that exists. She is a sister (Bulle Ogier, sleepwalking in utter grace) and he is her brother (Yann Andréa, then Duras’s partner). She is about to leave. Where to, it doesn’t matter, it’s the leaving that hurts both of the protagonists and fuels their dialogue. They loved each other, purely and incestuously. Now it’s over but it’s not over. We can hear their dialogue (spoken by Duras and Andéa) circling around the unspeakable while we see incredibly beautiful, almost abstract, Whistler-like images of the sea, empty streets, the beach, and the mentioned hotel lounge.

In the film, everything grows hazy; it’s almost as if the rooms are floating in the sea. Inside the foyer, between its lofty but cold pillars, pale green plants in flower pots sit silently and wait for a sun that might never return. It’s hard to believe in the sun through all of Trouville-sur-Mer’s mist but in the dialogue there is some mention of surprisingly mild weather and sometimes I could spot a light peaking through the clouds. Duras described Agatha and the Limitless Readings as a summer film shot in winter. This may sound unusual to some, but cinema, the art which invented nighttime shot during the day (and vice versa) is rather familiar with such contortions. So are plants.

It’s quite normal for a hotel like the Les Roches Noires to move the plants adorning its terraces and balconies during the summer season inside their big entrance halls once autumn falls. There they are protected from storms, rain, and colder temperatures while still getting enough light through the huge windows. Many of those plants go dormant and exist in suspended animation. Some might stretch out towards the light; others will lose some leaves. There are also those that die—it’s difficult to know about each plant’s needs. You have to observe them closely and even then it’s important to know that you can also kill with kindness, for example by watering too much. It’s essential to create a smooth transition from outside to inside. Too much shade is bad; too much light, as well. It’s a bit like cinema. 

I don’t think Duras spent many thoughts on the hotel’s plants. There is no mention of them in the theatre text, which also appeared as a book. In the film, Duras frames them as if she doesn’t care. The actors ignore them; they only care for the window, the pillars, and a divan. It’s quite possible that the plants were just there, like the sea. Their subtle presence adds to the suspended atmosphere of the film. Nevertheless, they also strongly correspond with the characters and Duras’s way of working between image and sound. Nothing is really at home; everything misses the light or love or a touch or youth. Everything is too late or too early. One leaves but hasn’t left yet. One remembers in order to finally forget; or shows in order to listen. In the voice-over, a garden is remembered. It’s supposed to be on the other side of the hotel, the side not facing the sea. The side we are not seeing.

As one can describe plants that are not dead yet as acherontic plants, one could speak of acherontic people inhabiting the world of Duras. Or are they all just in dormancy? They seem in a constant transition. Duras films during the moment you are about to fall asleep but are still awake. The in-between is more interesting than anything that appears final. Neither the plants nor brother and sister are really in the hotel. They are exiled ghosts. Once spring returns most of the plants will move outside again. They might appear as green shapes, like in Monet’s allusive 1870 painting of the hotel. But I am sure Duras’s camera was switched off during summer.   

In living beings and very prominently in plants there exists a concept of cell suicide. Simply put, it refers to the ability of a system to extend its longevity through killing off certain parts in itself. In Duras’s film, the sister needs to leave her brother because of that. She has to kill a love inside her that belongs to her just like a cell—it’s part of her DNA but it harms her. In Agatha and the Limitless ReadingsDuras does not film scenes, she films senescence(s), the biological aging in which each element piles up above the other until everything sinks underneath. It’s layers of memories, the present, desire, fear, hope, words, images, voices and silences that the filmmaker piles up until her protagonist sinks underneath. Underneath what? Underneath the ability to see or speak any longer. Thus Duras’s films and her writing work a bit like certain plant’s cell structures in which repetition and variation renew the organism while moving it closer to death at the same time.

no more the sweet metamorphoses of a silken girl /sleepwalking now on the edge of the mist / her awakening as hand breathing / as flower opening to the wind

—Alejandra Pizarnik, Diana’s Tree (1962)

Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees, or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.

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