Tributes: Marguerite Duras

By Jill Forbes

Several years ago Antoine Compagnon, a French professor at Columbia University, observed that whenever he was invited to a dinner party he inevitably met someone who was writing a book on Marguerite Duras, and he complained bitterly about the disproportionate esteem in which a minor writer and film-maker appeared to be held in the United States.

Died 3 March 1996.

Disproportion – démesure – is, however, the key to Duras’ art, and it is perhaps seen at its most extreme in Le Camion, the ultimate Durassian ars poetica. This is a film ‘not about film-making’ in the way that Shklovsky wrote letters ‘not about love’. In it the film-maker herself, elderly, frail, diminutive, is seen hunched up in her armchair, reading the scenario of her film in her rather dry voice with its strangely syncopated rhythms. From time to time the eponymous lorry is glimpsed in a cut away from the reading woman, a noisy, dirty, articulated vehicle, swinging round the intersection on a busy highway. The encounter between the two is incongruously dramatised as a pick up or a hitchhike – incongruously, because the idea of respectable women in late middle age hitching their way across the Paris region is inherently improbable. But the audacity of a film which is based entirely, or almost entirely, on a flatly spoken script, is only matched by the implied obscenity of the physical congress between lorry and woman. Duras is, of course, that woman – a romantic novelist, a writer of pulp fiction which somehow manages to be cast in avant-garde form, an artist of exorbitant ambition and excessive minimalism, of extreme discipline combined with extreme excess.

Duras’ film-making debut was the still extraordinary screenplay of ResnaisHiroshima mon amour (1959). The unforgettable opening sequence is quintessential Duras with its montage of apparently unconnected, and ungendered limbs accompanied by Emmanuèle Riva’s voice-over commentary, with its curiously theatrical diction lending the sequence a poetic quality which seems misplaced in a realist fiction. Can this be a political film? Yes, because for Duras all politics is sexual politics (in this sense American feminists have understood her well), even though her women are rarely politically correct. Hiroshima, for example, is, in part, a tale of adolescent sexuality, of uncontrollable lust much like that of the autobiographical heroine in the early novel Un Barrage contre le pacifique. These works are overwhelmingly about desire – for the other, for the forbidden, for the different – whether a poor white girl’s desire for her Chinese lover, or a French girl’s desire for a German occupier. In fact, Duras based her artistic commitment and her form of heroism on what others might call prostitution which she presents as the means by which women reclaim the initiative, embracing the worst that can be said of them and done to them.

Women’s need for sexual and social adventures takes them, in Duras’ novels and films, beyond the bounds of social convention into the kind of oxymoronic existence exemplified in Moderato Cantabile which dramatised a confrontation between the discipline provided by the practice of music (shown in the metronome, and the repeated scales) on the one hand, and the excesses of alcohol, sex and death on the other. Sometimes excess can be that of silence, unexpected in women and unexpectedly effective in Nathalie Granger where a girl’s refusal to speak paradoxically becomes an eloquent condemnation of patriarchy. But the most typical protagonist, as well as the one who most readily represents an alter ego, is the Anne-Marie Stretter of India Song – Stretter who spends the entire film in evening dress surrounded by men whom she fascinates, Stretter whose constant pose is one of orgasmic transport, Stretter whose pampered lifestyle in the colonies depends on the unseen labour of dozens of native servants represented off screen by the wailing voices of women. Outside Western Europe, before decolonisation, some women, in Duras’ imagination, had the leisure to be as solipsistic as Stretter and to achieve a form of self-realisation.

India Song (1975) was a challenge to virtually every aesthetic and political orthodoxy. It is a film of compelling and haunting beauty made at virtually no cost; it succeeds in recreating the atmosphere and appearance of colonial India in a sparsely furnished house outside Paris; it celebrates a life of indulgence and futility based on the exploitation condemned by the left-wing intelligentsia of which Duras was a member; it is a writer’s film in which music virtually replaces dialogue; it was made at the height of the women’s movement but celebrates everything that movement rejected; and it is an erotic film in which there is no sex whatsoever.

In interviews and, to an extent, in her film practice, Duras went along with a feminist interpretation of her film-making which saw her heroines as problematical bodies unable to achieve totality. The heroine of Hiroshima is first seen as a set of disjointed limbs and later her head is shaven; in subsequent films women lose, or choose not to exercise, the power of speech. On this view, the expressiveness of Anne-Marie Stretter’s body, her beauty and her grace, her clothes and her movements, are all limited by the silence that derives from the film-maker’s imposition of a musical score and, ultimately, by the aesthetics of representation itself. The fact that even as a woman film-maker Duras could not – or did not want to – allow her heroines the plenitude implied by the coincidence of body and mind, or movement and speech, was interpreted as confirmation that film is always already gendered.

Twenty years later this approach seems no less convincing but perhaps less important. One of the reasons Duras failed to be welcomed by the film establishment was that she proved big budgets unnecessary; another was her working methods, interestingly illustrated in a TV film made by her son Jean Mascolo, which turned making a film into a large house party and herself into a glorified hostess or chatelaine. Moreover, Les Enfants underlined her uncomfortable taste for the grotesque. Courage, perseverance and self-confidence bordering on arrogance, were all qualities without which Duras could never have made films, but those films will survive because they are radically different, they disorient the viewer, they make us lose our normal bearings. Some of those bearings, or spectatorial assumptions do, naturally, derive from expectations about the representation of women. But that is only part of Duras’ radical reordering of time and space. She is therefore closer to the Surrealists than is often suggested and profited from the tradition of avant-garde film-making which they established in France and which, miraculously, has hitherto managed to survive the encroachments of TV. In this way, although she was not well liked by establishment film-makers and though she often appeared to have created a completely alternative world in order to retreat into it at a comfortable distance from others, Duras was important because she had a different eye, made all the more remarkable for being that of a woman and because her minimalism, by a strange paradox, expanded the boundaries of post-war European cinema.

Jill Forbes is Ashley Watkins Professor of French at the University of Bristol and author of The Cinema in France After the New Wave (London, 1992; Bloomington, 1994).

Ken McMullen writes about India Song on p.58