Of all the films seen I found Les Enfants (The Children-1985) the least interesting. It took great effort for me not to join the streaming line of people moving toward the exit from about 10 minutes into its running time. I think this is because it is the most conventionally structured of the films I watched. Scenes were established via master shots and then alternating close-ups and pov shots. Nothing quirky or unorthodox, just straight filmmaking by the numbers. This film to me revealed all her limitations. For Duras was not a filmmaker in conventional or professional sense. She was a writer, theorist and experimenter. A conventional filmmaker she was not. Her visual rhythms were off, scenes seemed to take forever to move from A to B and no sense of continuity of suspense ever emerged. The film just seemed to drone on for its entire 90 minutes. While leaving the theatre I heard a woman saying to her friend; “That was a movie I wish my children could see. They haven’t been good lately and need this kind of punishment.”
Now one of the fascinating aspects of watching a Duras film (for me) comes from trying to figure out how she got certain actors who have become familiar to us via the international cinema, to work for her. I’m speaking of actors like Jeanne Moreau, Gerard Depardieu, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale and Dominique Sanda among others. The reason I’m confused is that a Duras film requires none of the histrionic know-how other film projects need and demand. In any Duras film all they’re ever required to do is sit, sometimes move around in somnambulist fashion and occasionally say a line or two. In Le Camion (The Truck-1977) a young Gerard Depardieu is only asked to sit at a small table and listen while M. Duras reads the script of the film. Perhaps six times in 80 minutes he gets to ask some seemingly innocuous question like: “What is he feeling this time?” M. Duras would then answer the question and go back to reading the script. In spite of this the film wasn’t bad. In fact it was quite good once one went along with the conventions she had established. It was perhaps the best of all the films shown at this retrospective but hardly a vehicle for actors to practice or show their skills. Duras used the actors as props, moveable props as they used to refer to them in the old days of the Hollywood Studio System. But the actors didn’t seem to mind, they seemed to lend themselves enthusiastically to her purposes. Often all they do is stand or lie looking vacantly off into the distance as the camera lingers on them, sometimes interminably and we are invited to study and penetrate the surfaces in an attempt at finding out what’s going on in their minds. Difficult or impossible as this might seem Duras is surprisingly successful in getting us to participate in this endeavor over and over again. In the films Agatha Ou Les Lectures Illmitees (Agatha and the Lectures Unlimited – 1980-90 minutes) and Le Navire Night (The Ship Night – 1979-94 minutes) she manages this with great success.
It should be noted that it only takes a few minutes into the running time of a Duras film for one to realize that you cannot approach it with conventional expectations. All of our practiced history of viewing motion pictures in a certain way must be put aside and we have to attend to it the way we would at look at an abstract painting or listen to a piece of music, chamber music especially. It is not going to come to us; we’re going to have to go to it. And we’re going to have to work with it as well. A Duras film doesn’t give, it takes. Not only does it take, it demands. And if we’re not willing to give then we should leave the theatre promptly because the experience will be an annoyingly frustrating one.