The Path of Cheerful Despair: On Marguerite Duras’s “My Cinema”

By Isabella TrimboliJanuary 21, 2024

The Path of Cheerful Despair: On Marguerite Duras’s “My Cinema”

My Cinema: Writings and Interviews by Marguerite Duras

SUBMERGED IN SALTWATER, the rice paddies perished. The seawall built to keep the Pacific Ocean out had eroded, crabs having eaten away at its foundations. This land had been bought by a widowed French schoolteacher with her entire life savings—she saw the fields, near the Gulf of Siam, as an escape from unrelenting destitution. The locals knew her scheme was hopeless but indulged her, helping her to construct a doomed partition of dikes and logs, where only ruin could be reaped. Her children would suffer accordingly, subject to the brute whims of a woman who had believed she could subdue the sea.

The daughter—who grows up to treat childhood stories like this as inexhaustible, to be embellished and duplicated across novels, plays, and films—would never forget the ocean’s caustic will. “Water is the element of annihilation, of the end of the world,” says Marguerite Duras in an interview from My Cinema (2024), a collection of conversations and writings about her film work, recently translated into English by Daniella Shreir. In her books, but more saliently in her cinema, Duras’s aquatic attention is absolute. She would often plant her female leads at the water’s edge, in some purgatorial coastal town, all despair and floppy limbs. But the sea is also the shape of desire and memory in her cinema, an endless force that washes away borders, destroys and engulfs, drifts and edges us closer to the void. These are films interested in a particular type of haunting: of a story that is not entirely yours but which deposits itself onto the shores of your consciousness anyway, retreating and returning again and again.

Duras was in her fifties when she directed La Musica (1967), one of her more conventional films, in which Delphine Seyrig and Robert Hossein play a divorced couple who badger each other with their separate, incompatible truths. This directorial debut came nearly a decade after Duras had written the script for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and as her own work was getting spoiled on-screen. (In My Cinema, she calls Peter Brook’s 1960 Moderato cantabile a “drippy film” that was “the archetype of a phony adaptation.”) We often speak of Duras’s colossal literary output—more than 50 books—but her film career was similarly prodigious. In just two decades, she made 19 singular films, creating her own language of uncertainty and freedom in a medium so often tethered to the literal and conclusive.

Yet Duras as filmmaker and film theorist clarified the contours of her persona: a self-aggrandizer of the most glorious kind, committed to the extremities of the soul, who made work out of an indomitable belief in her own subjectivity and genius. (Edmund White has written of her delight in rewatching her own films, all of which she declared to be magnificent.) My Cinema overflows with this obstinate charm. Your tolerance may depend on your limit for contradiction and scorn.

I myself am always entranced by Duras’s sublime contempt (“talking about happiness is terrifying. It is the dustbin of language”; “I hate everyone who doesn’t give me money”; “I […] would like to destroy knowledge and replace it with the void. The complete vacancy of man”). And she was right when she identified the rot at the heart of the mainstream cinema of her day, where glossy perfectionism and a maintenance of order solidified social norms. This denial of improvisation or conflict neutered the form, making it an easy conduit for state power. Decades later, this “department store cinema: the cinema of fear, the cinema that smells bad” is even more rancid.

Elegantly translated by Shreir, My Cinema travels chronologically through Duras’s film work, collating interviews, production notes, notes to actors, articles, letters, and small essays. What emerges is a thick web of personal film philosophy. For Duras, cinema was the place of ultimate refusal, defined by “being trapped in the dark with an image.” The only films worth making were those that tore through the deceits and delusions of cinema. This meant vanquishing the synchronicity between image and sound, turning actors into vessels for absence, and unlatching voices from mouths, leaving them directionless and without a discernible source.

Her film’s audiences, and what they made of her experimentation, were of no concern to Duras. Rather, film was private fantasy made public, where she could assemble and inspect her own obsessions, some of which are glimpsed in the titles of interviews included in My Cinema: “The Path of Cheerful Despair,” “The Destruction of the World,” “I Hate Narrative in Cinema,” “Because Silence Is Feminine,” and “Love Is a Constant Becoming, Just Like the Revolution.”

Duras’s films are political films, even as they revolted against much of the political cinema being produced at the time. Speaking to this type of realist, observational documentary, where a director selects images that will illustrate the plight of the worker or the beggar, she was irate. “I see nothing, absolutely nothing, more pretentious than this approach,” she writes, “that of a guy—an exemplary activist, yes—who, for his own benefit, films an assembly line in a Renault factory, and who dares say: here, you see this, the film I’ve made, well through this film you can learn what a Renault factory line looks like.” In an essay about her then-new film India Song (1975), she detailed her outrage over the idea “that some bastard ‘leftist’ director would dare use a Portuguese man […] as he would an image of a landscape, of roads, of shops, etc. And what does this mean? Just one more form of exploitation; a monstrous, unqualifiable appropriation of the evil of this world.”

Duras’s approach is best understood by a line in her 1977 film Le Camion, a two-hander starring Gérard Depardieu as a communist truck driver and herself as a “déclassé” hitchhiker: “Let the world go to ruin, that is the only politics.” My Cinema foregrounds Duras’s strident faith in demolition, to be followed by emptiness, as a creative and political solution: “After destruction, we will be able to talk about revolution, real revolution.” Duras, a member of the French Resistance and a “besmirched” lifelong communist who detested the party, would have liked to have seen all the floundering ideologies and failed states disappear down the garbage chute of the 20th century. When everything had finally been razed, a blank slate—“ground zero,” as she called it—would be the only way to give form to true freedoms and new feelings. The young understood, she thought, embracing nothingness on an “international scale,” aborting responsibilities and careerism, preferring to loiter and laze about. Her declarations turn toward the cruder edge of political idealism, but they achieve a noble aim: to devour any legitimacy that might be given to a strategy of gentle, gradual progress.

Duras found great and generative emptiness in the mad who had left behind decorum and rationality. “We are told that there are more and more maniacs. Madmen. The asylums are full to the brim. I find this to be incredibly reassuring,” she told Jacques Rivette and Jean Narboni in a long interview about her 1969 novel-turned-film Détruire, dit-elle (Destroy, She Said). “This is very real proof that the world is unbearable, and that people are experiencing it as such.” This is the experience her cinema barrels towards: a poetics of the insane and despondent, swallowed up by sorrow, entombed in country houses or empty villas, in desperate need to communicate their grief.

When she first began making films, Duras was unequivocal that cinema was the lesser art, unable to reproduce the intimate relationships found in literature, where images remain undefined until a reader’s inner life filled in the gaps. But her prose—searching, brittle, tracing the fracture lines of language—found a welcome home in film. Cinema gave her an excuse to stretch old stories into new forms. From the outside, this impulse may appear like indulgent repetition, but Duras’s constant reimagining is more like papier-mâché. With childlike relish, she plasters over the smooth lines of a story, enlarging the narrative and making it something stickier, more misshapen.

Take India Song, about a doleful ambassador’s wife in Calcutta named Anne-Marie Stretter, who is afflicted with a “leprosy of the heart,” surrounded on all sides by decay and disgrace. Its origins are Duras’s 1965 novel Le Vice-Consul (The Vice-Consul) and her subsequent, unproduced theatrical adaptation, the script of which became India Song. A year later, convinced that she hadn’t gone far enough in her experiments with nondiegetic sound and its relationship to the image, she took the voices of India Song and placed them over entirely new shots—of the same crumbling chateau, this time completely empty—for another film, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta, 1976). The story of Anne-Marie is also relayed by the disembodied voices of La Femme Du Gange (Woman of the Ganges, 1974), a kind of tasting platter of Duras’s literary characters (including the famous Lol V. Stein), chewed up and spat out on a beach in Trouville, where ghosts and loss fill the winter air. Duras remained tormented by Anne-Marie; she exists in so many of her characters who inhabit deteriorating corners of colonial glory, floating in and out of different bedrooms, caught somewhere between the living and the dead.

The way Duras attends to her own echoes is similar to how My Cinema functions. Each extravagant articulation—Duras is always her own most interesting critic—illuminates and refracts her films, without deadening their languorous mystery.

At the end of Duras’s filmmaking career, mystery doubled and took over, transforming into a spectacular inscrutability. She was intent on loosening the chain between story and image. This is particularly true of L’Homme atlantique (The Atlantic Man, 1981), one of  her final films, its images limited to those of Yann Andréa, her young, gay boyfriend, and the sea. But L’Homme atlantique is best described in terms of what it lacks: most of the film is a black screen, with Duras’s voice emanating from the abyss.

This is Duras at her most elliptical and fatalistic, putting words to the unmanageable gulf left by a lover’s departure. Mortality scalds her fragments. For Duras, no image was sufficient. She needed something that was everything and nothing, traceless and reflective. Utter darkness—and the sea:

Black can be scratched and damaged, just like the image. But, unlike the image, it has the ability to reflect the shadows that pass in front of it, like water or glass. What we sometimes see on the black surface are glimmers, shapes, people going in and out of the projection booth, objects that have been forgotten there, and unidentifiable shapes, purely ocular ones, that arise from the immensity of the respite that happens when eyes are allowed to dwell in darkness, or, on the contrary, that arise from the terror that necessarily befalls some of us when we are given the opportunity to look without being given an object to see. Colour cannot harness all of that. Streams and rivers, lakes and oceans, have the same power as black images. Like images, they flow.

When L’Homme atlantique had its limited, two-week release at L’Escurial cinema in Paris, Duras issued a warning to the public in Le Monde. This was a film made in complete disregard of the regular cinemagoer, who believed that entertainment and pleasure were owed to them. She wished that she could bolt the theater doors shut, imprisoning the audience for the film’s 45-minute duration (to her displeasure, safety regulations prohibited her from doing so).

Duras need not have worried. She claimed that, of the 2,000 audience members, no one walked out. Apparently, some even stayed for four screenings in a row, transfixed by the unfathomable depths on screen, trapped in the dark with no image.

LARB Contributor

Isabella Trimboli is a critic and essayist living in Melbourne, Australia.


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