On Viewing Duras
Diary notes; New York 1995
Marguerite Duras is a novelist, playwright, essayist, thinker and perhaps visionary whose works have always held my interest even though I often found them to be baffling, contradictory and sometimes impenetrable. I knew that she had dabbled in filmmaking but had only seen one of her films, India Song (1974). This May while visiting New York City I managed to catch up on several that were being shown at The Museum of Modern Art: Department of Film and Video. I had read her work and viewed one of her films, so of course I knew what to expect. That was the idea. But I was wrong. One should never anticipate what one will get from Duras. She is unpredictable but in the oddest ways. She is either more exciting or duller.
Before going on I should talk about the movie theater where these films are being shown. It’s called Titus #2 and is located one short escalator ride below the street level of the museum. It’s a pleasant room that seats around 150 to 200. The audience at most showings that I attended numbered around 80 to 100. Seventy percent were 50 years or older while the other twenty five percent seemed to be mostly students. And there must’ve been some stragglers who didn’t know what they were in for because 10 to 15 minutes into each film somebody in front or behind would rise and mutter aloud; “What the hell kind of movie is this?” and leave. Then later 20 to 30 more people would leave, some quietly, some not so. This happened at every show I attended. Many in the audience were French or spoke it. But there were many like me who didn’t speak the language. We read the subtitles and were content. Between films I asked one young lady who was sitting next to me if she understood French or had read anything by M. Duras. To both questions she answered no. Then I asked why was she there, she said she had seen The Lover (1992) a film directed by Jacques Annaud based on Duras’, prize winning bestselling novel. That film with a screenplay by Gerard Bach was very popular but Madame Duras had said publicly that she felt no connection to it whatsoever. So I was not surprised that it was not among the titles selected for this retrospective. But the young lady sitting next to me said that she was surprised it wasn’t included.
La Morte Du Jeune Aviateur Anglais and L’Ecrire
The first program I attended included La Morte Du Jeune Anglais (The Death of a Young English Aviator-1993- 36 minutes) and L’Ecrire (To Write – 1993- 43 minutes). Both were directed by Benoit Jacquot and both featured an 83 year old Duras responding to questions being asked by someone behind the camera. The first leads her to telling a story about an English pilot whose grave she says she discovered in a small village not far from where she lives. It was not clear if she was telling a true story based on direct experience or something elaborated on just by looking at the grave. But that wasn’t important. What was important was the business of looking at Madame Duras moving about her house and speaking with utmost calm and clarity. Obviously the woman was comfortable before a camera. And obviously she was aware of her own importance, or what she perceives to be her own importance.
She told her story in a fragmented fashion not ever trying to make a coherent narrative out of it. All she gives are facts and impressions leaving it up to us the viewers to make what we will out of it. It is not just left up to us but demanded of us. Of course we could refuse to be involved in the enterprise but then the question becomes; why go to a Duras film?
The truth is, the story isn’t important, its lack of coherence isn’t important, the artless filming technique isn’t important either. It is the presence of Duras that is important. That presence is not only important but privileged. The very casual nature of the film is what gives it its intimacy. In that brief and virtually uneventful 36 minutes I had the impression that I had gotten to know M. Duras somewhat. That the barrier of the medium had been stripped away. She talked, I listened and it was pleasant as well as informative. The septuagenarian charm of Duras had captured me. And it was then I realized that she was not only a writer and filmmaker but a performer as well. A sly and skillful performer who knew how to captivate an audience and in the most artless manner intrigue them into listening. When the lights came up I sat back in my seat and thought “This is remarkable. In my 40 years of film viewing I have never been so quickly disarmed intellectually and yet so curiously engaged.”
The next film L’Ecrire (To Write) continued the business of her talking to someone off camera. This time she’s not telling a story but talking about writing. Not other people’s writing, her own. Again it’s disconnected and off center. Sometimes the questions being asked seem designed to get her back on track when she wanders off. That’s how informal and unplanned it all appeared to be.
I listened and was engaged but what I was really doing was watching that very old lady (she seemed very old indeed) and studying every line and every wrinkle on her face, trying to look closer, wanting to see even more. She talked about her alcoholism, how it stimulated her and why she stopped. She talked about solitude and the various books she wrote in the house she now occupies. “Here is a woman who has seen and experienced life,” I thought all the while I was looking and listening. It was all there on her face, in her eyes and on her hands. Two very old hands, two very wrinkled but very expressive hands as well. She kept her neck hidden with scarves restricting our view to only her face and hands. I kept wanting to see her neck. I don’t know why, I just did. But I never got to see it. One only gets from M. Duras what she wants to give us, no more, no less.