Attention Duras

by William Caroline

from Film Quarterly Summer 2015, Volume 68, Number 4

for Tarek

The Centre Pompidou in Paris recently celebrated the centenary of Marguerite Duras’s birth with minimal means and quiet panache: an exhibit, “Duras Song,” occupied a corner of the Centre’s public library while a complete retrospective of all her films was shown in the Centre’s movie theaters. Both were well attended, and the films often sold out.1 On December 7, a man and a woman waiting in line behind me for the program of two 1979 shorts and L’Homme Atlantique (1981), strangers to each other and to me, began to chat about a recent screening of Le Camion. The man confessed to seeing Le Camion upon its original release in 1977. All these years later, it was still “too much” for him. In contrast, everyone I sent to the exhibition reported back feeling refreshed, as if they, too, without quite realizing it, had somehow been missing Duras’s voice and eye all these years as much as I have been.

Conceptualized by the Franco-Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran, the “Duras Song” exhibition was divided into two parts, the interior gallery and its exterior walls, referencing in its very design the Duras volume Outside, a 1981 collection of her journalistic writing that also provided several of the coordinates for the constellation of documents organized on the two “outside” walls of the exhibit. There, in the form of archived copies, several of her original publications were featured: “The Algerian’s Flowers” (1957), her first published piece of journalism, for example, or “Racism in Paris” (1958).2 Painted a vivacious, clear-water blue, these outside walls centered on the politics of Duras and her friends at key moments of her life, crystallizing around a series of pivotal years.

Marguerite Duras on the set of Jaune Le Soleil in 1971
Photo courtesy of Jean Mascolo

After several photos from her childhood in what was then French Indochina and her first book, L’Empire français, co-written with a certain Philippe Roques in 1938 (and the only one she would publish under her birth name Marguerite Donnadieu), a sequence of postwar dates ranges across the walls:

1945: the end of the Second World War, when her lover Jean Mascolo went with a friend to retrieve her husband, Robert Antelme, from Dachau, whose surviving prisoners had just been freed.

1960: the publication of the September 6 manifesto arguing in favor of the “right to insubordination” for citizens and soldiers at the key turning point of the Algerian War, written mainly by Mascolo and Maurice Blanchot, and signed by 121 prominent figures— including Duras—at a moment when it was clear that Algeria was in a position to win its independence.

1968: the famed student and worker strikes, some of whose anonymous slogans were scribbled down by Duras in an almost illegible frenzy: “the Revolution will be done through the verb and not the substantive” and “fuck happiness.”

1981: the election of François Mitterrand, the Fifth French Republic’s first socialist president and Duras’s friend from the days of the Resistance.

Just before rounding the corner from one “outside” wall to the other, the visitor would encounter an August 1945 letter from Mitterrand to his “amis” Marguerite and Robert [Antelme]. Mitterrand complains of how dutiful the Libération festivities have come to feel and wishes Antelme the best on his way to recuperating his “allures of a Benedictine who knows the ways of sin.” At the end of the second wall, just before the “inside,” there hung a photograph of an aging Duras, sitting and dutifully smiling along with other supporters of Mitterrand’s 1988 campaign for reelection. Through headphones, the visitor could listen to a short excerpt from an interview Duras conducted with Mitterrand early in his first presidency, a moment when she tells him he is, alongside Leon Blum and Pierre Mendès-France, one of the rare “presidents of clandestinity.”3 “I don’t see them as being like the others,” she observes. With such well-placed documents, the exhibition was rich in resonance.

The walls of the “outside” differed markedly from their “inside,” which was constructed to recall the lobby of one of Duras’s several homes: the one at the Hôtel des Roches Noires on the Normandy coast, where she had a room on the second floor (her “darkroom,” or “chambre noire,” as she called it). This hotel, thought to be the model for Marcel Proust’s Balbec, the resort where his narrator would have sat “in the shadow of young girls in flower,” according to the title of the second volume of his À la recherche du temps perdu (Search for Lost Time), was the setting for several of Duras’s final films and books. These included Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981), the last of her full-length movies, which in its full two hours ran in a loop on a video screen in one corner of the exhibition.

Several cases interspersed throughout the room displayed editions of Duras’s books as well as elements of her manuscripts. On the room’s back wall, for example, an entire case was devoted to Duras’s most widely read novel, L’Amant (The Lover), published in French in 1984 and translated since into almost fifty languages. Its working title was noted on a folder that held the manuscript’s pages: “La photo absolue” (or, the absolute photograph). According to Sylvie Loignion—one of the editors of the third of the recently released four volumes of Duras’s spectacular complete works in the Pléïade—the working title arose as a response to Jean Mascolo, Duras’s son, who had asked his mother to compose captions for some of their family photos.4 The task had plunged Duras back into her childhood, back once again to her pleasures at the scenes of her quasi-prostitution as a teenager in Indochina to a much older Chinese man, already the basis for her 1950 novel The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le pacifique). Incensed by the sentimentalizing take on the social and political aspects of her story in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992), the feature film based on her novel of the same name, Duras undertook the writing of a third novel based on this very same event. Her L’amant de la Chine du nord (1991) was an attempt to tear the public’s attention away from a certain regime of images associated with her name and life story and back to language’s ability to provoke each person’s irreducibly singular capacity to imagine a world, a couple of characters for example, on the basis of words.

This is one of the paradoxical lessons Duras seems to have drawn from her experience as a filmmaker: language always matters. Duras would theorize this lesson in 1979–87 in a series of three dialogues with Jean-Luc Godard. At the beginning of the first dialogue, in 1979, Godard says he sees them as “enemy brothers,” with him on the side of the image and Duras on the side of the text, or “the written,” as she says she calls it.5 Later, she explains further. “I don’t think the image can ever replace what I called ‘the indefinite proliferation’ of the word.” When Godard asks her why she feels the need “to eliminate the fact of seeing without saying,” Duras answers that she doesn’t: “I still make films.” But she acknowledges that she has indeed been able to eliminate at least one thing over the course of her last three or four films: the actors.6

The “last three or four films” would have started with India Song (1975) or Son nom de Venise dans le Calcutta desert (1976). The soundtrack to both is exactly the same. In the first film, the fiction of characters, whose voices are heard even though their lips never move to speak, is sustained through the presence of their actors’ bodies (Delphine Seyrig and Michaël Lonsdale most prominently, alongside five other men). The following year, for Son nom de Venise, Duras and her team returned to India Song‘s set, the Château Rothschild in Versailles, to film the palace in ruins once again, but this time without the actors.7 By the time Duras gets to Le Camion in 1977, the actors in her cinema have literally disappeared, replaced by two people without names, M.D. (Duras) and G.D. (Guillaume Depardieu), sitting at a table in Duras’s attic in Neauphle-le-Château, reading the film that, according to the script, “would have been” (aurait été). In the film that does exist, footage of this reading alternates with shots of the terrain around Duras’s house, seen either from the window of a truck (referenced in the title) moving through it, or from elsewhere as the truck moves through the land. The characters are a truck driver and a hitch-hiking “dame” described merely as “déclassée,” both pure figments of the spectator’s imagination.8 In the dialogue with Godard as in other interviews whenever the “dame du camion” comes up, Duras proclaims her love for her:9

But this woman who has no name, this hitch-hiker in the Yvelines, the elderly woman, I like her very much. I have a real love for her. Especially her gaiety…. That gaiety—and then her guts, the way she picks up the driver. She just makes herself at home.10

“What else does she say, the lady?” G.D keeps asking in Le Camion. “She says,” M.D. answers at one point, “everything is in everything. / Everywhere. / All the time. / At the same time.”11 Sometimes she sings.

Her songs seem to echo the nervous laughter of Elisabeth Alione, one of the main characters in the first film Duras directed alone, Détruire dit-elle (Destroy, She Said, 1969), a projection of which concluded the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, as if to underline all that had been liberated on the paths through Duras’s cinema by returning the audience to images from her earliest adventures in film.12 In the beginning, Duras turned to the cinema to film a novel she had written that had come to her in a form she didn’t fully understand. She needed to make the film and convene its collectivity in order to see and hear what she had written.13

Following so close on the heels of Duras’s resolute engagement alongside Mascolo, Blanchot, Bataille, and countless anonymous others in the manifold initiatives of May 1968, her turn to film, in its essence a collective art, was itself a political gesture, in the demanding sense she and her friends gave to the term.14 Film provided an occasion for instigating and sustaining something common, something shared among all those present on the set; like the theatre, it was a collective act of creation.15

The film was also an allegory: Elisabeth Allione, one of Destroy‘s four main characters alongside Max Thor, Stein, and Alissa, can be read as just that. In the film, set in a hotel at the edge of a forest, Elisabeth is the object of a fascinated analysis undertaken by the three other characters. In an interview with Jean Narboni and Jacques Rivette in Cahiers du cinema shortly after Destroy was released, Duras insists that there is one moment, a mirror scene with Alissa, when Elisabeth escapes the terms of their analysis by lowering herself to participate in it. “For a few seconds, the identification operates. You can call it love. Or the communist demand.”16

Duras on the set of Agatha et les lectures illimitées
Photo courtesy of Jean Mascolo

Between Destroy, She Said in 1969 and Le Camion in 1977, Duras found a way to liberate a woman like Elisabeth Allione from everything that kept her from responding to this communist demand. India Song: “The most feminine film I’ve ever seen,” read Molly Haskell’s October 1975 review on display on one of the exhibition’s “outside” walls. Inside, an entire mural case was devoted to the colorfully marked-up typescript of the play Duras sent to Gallimard before it was published in 1974. Originally written for the theater, India Song picks up a few threads left hanging in Duras’s 1964 novel, The Ravishment of Lol (V) Stein and weaves them into a new context.17 Often a justifiable favorite among her novels, the Ravishment recounts the roundabout fulfilment of the title character’s desperate hope that she would find a way to describe the joy of being abandoned by her fiancé, Michael Richardson, after he falls in love with Anne Marie Stretter at a ball in the mythical town of S. Tahla.18

Through the polyphonic voices of its soundtrack and the haunting air Carlos d’Alessio composed for the film, India Song delivers ambassadress Stretter to her fate: the film’s painfully beautiful closing images trace her silhouette as she stumbles to suicide. This narrative of a bourgeois woman’s self-destruction was the step Duras’s writing needed to take in order to emancipate Elisabeth Alione into the shape of the infinitely lovable, and nameless, “dame du camion.” In a preliminary “general remark” to the text that led to India Song, the film, Duras theorizes the film’s essential discovery of “the voices outside the narrative.” For Duras, this discovery plunges the narrative into “oblivion” (“l’oubli”) and makes it “available for memories other than the author’s.”19

Three years after Le Camion and her return to language, in the summer of 1980, Duras was hired to write a series of weekly chronicles for the daily newspaper Libération. On the Normandy coast, Duras’s attention in these chronicles is divided between that summer’s rain, a heart-rending misfit love affair on the beach between a melancholy boy and his camp counselor, and, starting with the sixth chronicle, the general strike in Gdansk, Poland, that would lead to the foundation of the Solidarność movement. That same summer, Duras would fall in love with a longtime correspondent of hers, a much younger gay man she renames Yann Andréa when he enters her life.20

Duras along the Atlantic coast on the set of Agatha et les lectures illimitées
Photo courtesy of Jean Mascolo

The Atlantic Ocean was their Thing.21 Together, they would look at and yearn through it. They filmed it and she described it. They contemplated it together, and he typed up what she said. They wrote books, together in a way—The Malady of Death (1982), Blue Eyes Black Hair (1986), Emily L (1987), Summer Rain (1990), Yann Andréa Steiner (1992), Cet amour-là (signed in 1999 by Yann Andréa and written to mourn Duras’s 1996 death)—and created others gleaned from scraps of the scattered things Duras had once written in notebooks or newspapers or said in interviews, things that found thereby a new grace in the dark light of their love after having been forgotten, remembered, cut up, and remembered again— Summer of 80 (Eté 80), Outside (1981), The War (La Douleur, 1985), Le Monde extérieur: Outside 2 (1993).

This new perspective on her previous life and work undoubtedly nourished the shape and content of the exhibit. “The Algerian’s Flowers,” for example, opens Outside and was hanging on the exhibit’s blue walls as a yellowed page from a 1957 France Observateur. “Eisenstein isn’t there, nor is anyone else,” reads the text; there’s only Duras en personne “to pick up this image of those flowers on the ground.”22 The image didn’t last long in the street. Two policemen had scattered the flowers from the young Algerian man’s basket after asking him for a permit he did not have. One woman watching alone applauded the policemen. From the nearby market, another, younger woman, a worker, began a wave: she leaned over to collect a few of the fallen flowers and placed a few francs in the Algerian’s hand. Another woman followed suit. And another. And so on until the flowers were gone. Flowerless but now richer by a few coins and the pleasure of conspiratorial smiles, the Algerian was taken away.

How lucky that Marguerite Duras was there that day, “ten days ago,” she writes to date it, at the corner of the rue Jacob and the rue Bonaparte, humming along to the tune of all those innumerable ones who have been, are being, and will be taken away. Paying attention. Attention Duras.

1. The “Duras Song” exhibition was curated by Jean-Max Collard and ran from October 15, 2014 to January 12, 2015. Alongside it, a retrospective of all the films directed by Duras ran in the Centre’s movie theatres and concluded with a projection of Duras’s 1969 film Détruire dit-elle.
2. Marguerite Duras, Outside: Selected Writings, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Beacon, 1986).
3. Léon Blum (1872–1950) was France’s first socialist and first Jewish prime minister when he headed the left-wing “Popular Front” coalition in the late 1930s that would eventually split under pressure from conflicts of alliances within the Spanish Civil War; and, he was president, from December 1936 to January 1937. Also Jewish, Pierre Mendès-France (1907–1982) was prime minister of two different governments in the 1950s, at which time he directly contributed to creating the political conditions for the decolonizations of Tunisia, Morocco, and, close to Duras’s heart, Vietnam. The “clandestinity” cloaking these politicians in Duras’s mind is certainly related (in my mind) to Judith Butler’s observation that “the public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard.” See Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 119.
4. Oeuvres complètes in four volumes under the direction of Gilles Philippe (Paris: Gallimard), “La Pléïade,” vols. I and II, 2011, vols. III and IV, 2014. Here OC III, 1850.
5. “l’écrit,” Duras / Godard: Dialogues, ed. Cyril Beghin (Paris: Post-Editions / Centre Pompidou, 2014), 16, translation mine, cited hereafter as DG followed by the page number.
6. DG, 23.
7. Thanks to Stéphane Bouquet for his vision of this film. See his careful delineation of the “bramble of voices” (fouillis des voix) in “Duras Transgenre” in Filmer dit-elle, a collection of essays on “le cinéma de Duras,” published in conjunction with the exhibit and retrospective (Paris: Capricci, 2014), 176, translation mine, cited hereafter as FDE followed by the page number.
8. OC III, 279.
9. See, for example, the recently released Livre dit: Entretiens de Duras filme, ed. Joëlle Pagès-Pindon (Paris: Gallimard, 2014).
10. DG, 45.
11. When she says “everything is in everything” (OC III, 276), Duras may be citing Eugène Pottier, the author of the Internationale who summarized his emancipatory education with this saying. See Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury (London: Verso, 2015).
12. The novel behind the film was translated as Destroy, She Said by Barbara Bray (New York: Grove, 1969).
13. OC II, 1792.
14. For a measure of just how pervasive the May 1968 mobilizations in France were, see Kristin Ross, May 68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
15. Speaking in January 1968 of Yes, peut-être, a play she had recently staged and signed only months before revolutionary desire would overtake Paris in May, Duras proclaims her debt to the actors she works with: “Today, you cannot write for the theatre away from the stage. For me, the actors’ acting is as theatrically creative as the author’s writing” (OC III, 921).
16. FDE, 67. For other formulations of this demand, see Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (London: Verso, 2012).
17. For whatever reason, Richard Seaver’s translation (The Ravishing of Lol Stein [New York: Grove Press, 1966]) drops the French letter « V ».
18. S. Tahla in The Ravishment, the hotel and its grounds in Destroy, the embassy in Calcutta in India Song, the truck’s cabin in Le Camion…: the spaces in Duras’s different works seem to provide further names for what Jack Halberstam has followed José Esteban Munoz’s in calling the “wild” or “wildness.” See Halberstam, “Wildness, Loss, Death,” Social Text 121 (Winter 2014): 137-148
19. OC II, 1522.
20. See Michael Lucey, “On the Contexts of Marguerite Duras’s Homophobia,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 19, no. 3 (2013): 341–79.
21. See the conclusion of “The Thing,” the interview Duras did with the recently established Gai Pied (freshly reprinted in Les Années Gai Pied—Tant et si peu: l’homosexualité il y a 30 ans, ed. Thomas Dupuy [Paris: Des ailes sur un tracteur, 2014]): “Do you know what I call the sea? I call it: the thing. What we were just talking about, this vacillating, rambling notion, I could also call it the thing. Your sex. Mine. Our difference. And this third term, this incessant triangulation through which we join together. The Thing.”
22. OC III, 873.