The Need to Talk: On Marguerite Duras’s “The Darkroom”

July 30, 2021   •   By David Stromberg

The Darkroom

Marguerite Duras

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Marguerite Duras as a teenager, not on the page but on the screen. I stayed up late one night to watch on cable television the infamously graphic sex scenes in The Lover, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film adaptation of her 1984 novel. Almost 30 years have since passed, during which time I’ve engaged with Duras almost strictly on the page. And yet, after reading The Darkroom, first published in French in 1977, my first thought was to rewatch those love scenes online. I was curious to see whether they would still feel as scandalous to me now as they did when I was a child. The answer isn’t straightforward.


On the one hand, I was shocked to see how young the unnamed girl looked, especially in comparison to the man. This also made me realize how young I had been when I first saw those images — and how pathos-filled they now seemed to me as an adult. But what most surprised me was the talking: the long scenes after the two have sex in which the girl shares her innermost emotions and intimate impressions. I could almost remember the moment, as a child, when I sensed that the film was suggesting that sex wasn’t just about physical intercourse, but also about intercourse as conversation — about getting so close to someone that you feel compelled to open up and relate those aspects of your life that leave you feeling vulnerable.


The film is known for its gratuitous sex, but it left a powerful emotional impression on me as a child. When Duras published The Lover, she was 70 years old, and many of the romanticized images of the unnamed man in the novel were later revealed in her Wartime Notebooks (published in 2008) to have come from experiences of deeply violent trauma. At 14, she had been pimped out by her mother to a wealthy Vietnamese man, who was not only physically revolting to her but also wildly controlling. But Duras’s choice to transform her memories of disgust into fantasies of desire can hardly be seen as naïve — she’d already published over 20 novels by then — so it appears that she was interested in conveying something in the novel other than her traumatic personal experiences. And a clue to this “something other” may be found in The Darkroom.


The main text of The Darkroom consists of a screenplay for a film Duras made in 1977, Le Camion (known in English as The Lorry), in which the author plays herself reading out the script of a movie that, she explains, should have been made but was not. The only other actor is Gérard Depardieu, who reads a prewritten dialogue in which he asks Duras for details about the film she’d envisioned and responds to her inquiries about whether he can imagine the film she’d intended to make. There is nothing overtly sexual about their interaction. Yet, at its most basic, The Darkroom anticipates the intimate space of the lover’s den seen in the film adaptation of The Lover. The setup is similar: a woman, a man, and a dark space, away from the rest of the world, where they talk. And the text’s insinuative atmosphere — as well as the image of a young Depardieu sitting alongside an aging Duras — produces a subtle mirroring between The Lover and The Darkroom that is reinforced by our knowledge of the two works.


This doubling is effected in the script itself. Duras and Depardieu read out the parts of two characters who are never shown: a man driving a truck and a woman who has hitched a ride with him. Interspersed with close-ups of the two readers are scenes of a truck driving through industrial landscapes outside of Paris. The cab of the truck, where the two are supposedly sitting, is described as “dark,” the same qualifier used in the name given to the space in which Duras and Depardieu read out their lines, THE DARKROOM. Duras plays the hitchhiker and Depardieu the truck driver — except that they are neither, since the film was never made. The film that Duras did make is of her and Depardieu’s performative reading of the script, their voices heard at times over the image of a truck moving across dark spaces.


Duras had directed eight feature films by this time, so it would seem that, like her metamorphosis of traumatic experience into fiction, there was something more at stake than merely putting herself on the screen. At the center of the The Darkroom, as both a film and a book, is an attempt to remake what it means to make a movie in the first place.


¤


I call The Darkroom a book, but it’s really a literary package, featuring the texts of the original French edition — the film’s actual screenplay, four propositions outlining its theoretical framework, and a dialogue between Duras and Michelle Porte. There is also an introduction by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and a translator’s note by Alta Ifland and Eireene Nealand, both written for the English-language edition. These five texts offer readers a broad view of the artistic project that Duras pursued in this work — which involved undermining our cinematic expectations to make us aware of our own desires for the moving image.


But this aesthetic critique, which is the pulsating heart of The Darkroom as a work of art, is only half of the project. The second half is a critique of ideology, which is not to say an ideological critique. As a cinematic work, The Darkroom sets out to undermine our commitment to any overarching ideology by reminding us, again and again, that we are people moving in a world where other people are also moving. And while some may be driving the trucks, and others may be riding in them, we all end up passing through the same landscape, and none of us has more or less claim to the material possessions those trucks convey.


The Darkroom achieves this critique by developing its artistic and political sides in turn. We know almost nothing of the woman, just as we know nothing of the man, but we are privy to her speech and to his reactions. She points to the sea and calls it “the end of the world,” and she comments that “it wasn’t worth it,” but the man only gets frustrated by her distant and abstract half-phrases. “You’re speaking about what, in the end?” he says, and she answers, “I’m speaking.” It’s an elegant translation that brings across the poetry inherent in French. In plain English, he might have said, “What are you talking about?” And she might have replied, “I’m just talking.”


This talking is the core of the film just as it is the core of the scenes in the lover’s den in The Lover. It’s the intimacy, darkness, and liminality of the space that makes it possible to speak. And this openness brings us — as viewers, and with the woman as our avatar — closer to what Duras appears to want to critique in The Darkroom: namely, Marxism.


It should be said that this critique seems aimed less at classical or neo-Marxist theory than at the role Marxism played in the French cultural landscape Duras experienced as a student, writer, and public figure before, during, and after World War II. Having earned a master’s degree in political economy and joined the French Communist Party before the war, then joining the Resistance in 1943, and later penning the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, Duras was writing from the perspective of someone looking back at a life of social, cultural, and political engagement. Her takeaway — expressed in the voice of the woman whose words she reads in the script, as well as in her own voice in the propositions that appear afterward — seems to be that we should all just “let the world meet its end.” This, Duras tells us both on and off the screen, “is the only politics.”


It’s a sobering message — and it’s worth considering for a moment how she goes about bringing it across. The first step is to turn the truck from an intimate space into a symbol: the conveyor of commodities. “What are you transporting?” the woman asks the truck driver. He answers, “Packages, already done up. (Beat.) Ready for shipping.” All at once we arrive in the material realm, which is subject to Duras’s most critical language. She now speaks of “political intelligence” as “catastrophe,” refers to “the proletariat” as “the latest avatar of the supreme Savior” and “a sacred God,” and mocks the idea that “the responsibility of the activist should never be called into question again.” This is Duras’s central critique: no one should be able to justify any action by claiming that it may save the world. This is the meaning of her adage, “Let the world meet its end.” Don’t claim to be the world’s savior — neither you alone nor as a part of a larger movement — because you may end up doing it more harm. You may turn out to be advancing the end of the world, whereas you could just let the world end itself without hurrying the process along.


¤


This political critique ends with a tense exchange: the woman asks the driver if he’s a member of the French Communist Party, and he calls her a reactionary; she laughs, and he decides that she’s escaped from a psychiatric asylum — which she doesn’t deny but also doesn’t confirm. Then she changes the subject and begins to talk about her daughter having just given birth to a son she is going to see, a son named Abraham.


What began as a critique of film aesthetics and then turned into a critique of Marxist ideology now becomes a cultural critique of postwar Europe. Referring to her daughter giving birth to a son, the woman comments that her son-in-law “said they had to forget all those names, those Jewish words.” The words are pronounced in Duras’s own voice. “He said that naming a child Abraham encouraged the worst kind of collective psychosis,” she adds, “all the pogroms and discrimination. […] He said he saw no point in calling a child such a name, a non-Jewish child.” The post-Holocaust condition of a Europe trying to move past its darkest days comes to the fore all at once — and, almost as quickly, it is repressed, producing a lingering sense of guilt that leaves what really counts unsaid. And this is also the moment when the need to speak reveals itself as being closely associated with a forced silence: we are told to shut up about certain topics, which are often exactly the ones about which we need to talk.


The screenplay comes full circle, turning again into an intimate space in which two people sit in the dark. Duras speaks to Depardieu — but it’s supposed to be the woman speaking to the man. They supposedly exchange a few more words, and then the driver stops at a truck stop. Duras describes the moment. “She watches him very carefully as he eats, and she talks to him about his hands. She says: I couldn’t bear it if a man touched me with hands like that, so worn out, so dirty, never, never.”


The image recalls the trembling hands of the wealthy man who molested her as a 14-year-old girl, revealed in her Wartime Notebooks, more than it does the romanticized hands of The Lover. The sentiment in The Darkroom, it seems, represents another variation on Duras’s enduring motif: a man, a woman, and the intimacy of darkness, where the couple, forced together, speaks of things unmentionable. And at this moment, the disparate themes come together, as the man asks her again whether she is from a psychiatric asylum. She doesn’t answer this question but instead says, in Duras’s voice, “I can begin to love. To love you. At any moment. To cry. To love. Abraham. Or you. Everything. (Beat.) Or nothing. (Beat.) Nothing.” All the critiques — of aesthetics, politics, and culture — dissipate in the face of the real situation linking these two people. Their time together is over. They’ve said all there is to say to each other. They’re done talking. This marks the beginning of the end of the film — or, rather, the script that is being read aloud.


¤


Duras has achieved her effect — at least for those who might have watched the original 1977 film. But the book, The Darkroom, gives readers several additional ways of engaging her artistic project, and reflecting on what it may mean to them. Jean-Luc Nancy’s introduction develops what he sees as the script’s three main motifs — “The Truck,” “The Conditional,” “Abraham” — suggesting that, for Duras, the situation in the film “represents our modern condition” and so is still “entirely relevant” today. Duras’s own “Propositions,” as well as her interview with Michelle Porte, bring us that much closer to the author’s voice, not in its literary mode, reading aloud the evocative text, but rather speaking her mind on the topics at hand: film, politics, culture.


The “Translators’ Note” brings the book back to its epigraph, which is taken from a French grammar book, and reflects on Duras’s usage of the conditional and its challenges in terms of translation. Ifland and Nealand expose the problematics involved, explaining their decision to translate the conditional literally rather than idiomatically — an alternative solution that would have worked in some sections but not in others. When an author like Duras determines, from the outset, that the text will carry its mood across with a single grammatical choice, the translators’ hands are tied in advance. The hermeneutic approach to translation, which has its adherents, meets its limits when faced with an author like Duras, whose artistic vision is so thoroughly holistic that one is left with no choice but to stick as closely as possible to the text and ensure it conveys the right mood.


But beyond their contribution to the discourse surrounding this unique literary artifact, these additional texts are themselves expressions of the need to talk, to discuss, to bring out into the open what has been left unsaid. The man and the woman may have nothing else to say to each other, but we, Duras’s readers, yearn for more. We want to hear her speak, we want to hear others speak about her, and these others, too, express their need to talk about her. In this sense, Duras’s project is not only expressed, but also embodied, by her work.


¤


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar based in Jerusalem.