India song, Marguerite Duras
Courtesy of Criterion

Duras, Marguerite Duras: Two 1970s Musings from the Cinematic Mist

The women in Marguerite Duras’ India Song and Baxter, Vera Baxter present images and rumors to the world but retain a core of adamantine mystery.

Two Films by Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras
28 February 2023

Marguerite Duras is one of those intriguing filmmakers whose work is hardly known in the US. Perhaps an appreciation of her films will arise with Criterion’s Blu-ray of India Song/Baxter, Vera Baxter: Two Films by Marguerite Duras. Both films star the exquisitely beautiful, intelligent, mysterious, and graceful icon of adventurous cinema, Delphine Seyrig.

India Song (1975)

The calm radical nature of India Song begins with the opening shot during the credits. Bruno Nuytten’s camera observes a red ball of setting sun for nearly four static minutes. The first thing we hear on the soundtrack is a woman laughing and talking in her native language. The voices of two Frenchwomen (billed as “voix intemporelles” or timeless voices) comment on this woman, identifying her as a mad beggar who somehow made her way from Burma to the shore of the Ganges in Calcutta, India. Along the way, she bore and lost several children.

The gossips are mistaken, however. This Burmese beggar is somehow associated with the late Anne-Marie Stretter (Seyrig), identified as a very pale blonde white woman, the wife of the French ambassador. Both women are foreigners in this land.

We learn that 17 years prior, the previously married Anne-Marie had lived in the same Burmese city as the beggar woman, and that’s where the never-shown Stretter married Anne-Marie. We’re never informed whether the Burmese woman follows Anne-Marie or perhaps she follows Stretter (a former “husband” who abandoned a local woman?), but we surmise that she follows like somebody’s bad conscience or past crime, periodically laughing or singing offscreen.

Thus India Song hints at the theme of colonial rule, with references along the way to Indochina or Vietnam, where Duras was raised as a poor semi-orphaned child among poor locals, speaking Vietnamese fluently and knowing only Vietnamese friends, as she explains in a bonus one-hour profile. Indeed, her early life has been fodder for some of her novels.

India Song is a sequel or spin-off of one of these novels, 1964’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein (Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein), whose title character is the fiancée of English businessman Michael Richardson. He drops her after he attends an embassy ball and meets Anne-Marie. This incident is part of the gossip the women’s voices provided during the first 30 minutes of India Song. More gossiping voices will join at that point, and much of the offscreen dialogue will be in the form of questions and answers. The voice of Duras herself provides the most authoritative answers as events unfold.

Do events unfold? Can we say that about this largely static memory movie? India Song is the conjunction of two spheres of reality, the images we see and the soundtrack we hear. These parallel tracks are semi-independent, coinciding almost tangentially. Sometimes it seems the voices are watching the film and asking questions about certain details. Sometimes it seems like the languid images, often of unusual length, belong to a collective memory or dream being invented on the spot by the voices.

This disjunction between material image and verbal analysis in memory is very much a Duras thing. She’d explored the idea in her screenplay to Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), in which a cross-cultural sexual relationship expressed in memory and image symbolizes the complex relations between East and West and the legacy of warfare. An emphasis of memory, analysis, and concrete physical details also belongs to the wider legacy of the French nouveau roman, a movement about which Duras hovered.

While the intemporal voices of India Song babble in more than one language, the highly sensual, fetishized, richly colored images allude to a yarn of scandalous gossip while being presented in dance-like movements that almost reduce the characters to statues or figures in a classic painting. This approach links the film to Resnais’ 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad) and somewhat to Resnais’ memory-film, 1964’s Muriel. Both of those films starred – wait for it – Delphine Seyrig! We’ve mentioned that she’s the goddess of adventurous French cinema, and the thread of her presence is never coincidence.

Seyrig’s Anne-Marie Stretter spends most of India Song in a red low-cut gown like a woman out of a portrait by John Singer Sargent. She dances sedately with various men to 1920s dance music provided by Argentine composer Carlos d’Alessio. Sometimes they stand making slow, dreamlike gestures. A huge mirror-wall expands and duplicates the space in many shots.

In one image of several minutes, Anne-Marie lounges across an uncomfortable-looking settee as though posed for a painting, perhaps for Diego Velázquez; she’s surrounded by four tuxedoed males who alternate between observing her and glancing toward the camera, and the light slowly darkens and lightens and darkens and lightens as though they’re holding the pose for days.

The impression of decadent ennui we receive from all this conveys Duras’ notion that privileged outsiders in a colonized country are afflicted with a “leprosy of the soul” that deadens and enervates them, driving them to madness, boredom, dissipation, self-disgust or suicide. This idea seems expressed more directly in her next film, Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta (Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert, from 1976), which is more than a sequel to India Song. Affixing different images to the same soundtrack, with Seyrig and Michael Lonsdale reprising their roles, it’s an even more radical conceit. Too bad this companion film isn’t included in this set from Criterion.

India Song introduces Lonsdale as a glowering vice-consul identified by the voices only as “the male virgin of Lahore”. They indicate he’s in disgrace over a suicide attempt, and his assignment to Calcutta is punishment. He broods and obsesses over Anne-Marie but seems to be the only man who can’t sleep with her, while her unseen husband pacifies or distracts her by encouraging all sorts of men to do so. Besides Michael Richardson (Claude Mann), these unnamed other men are played by Matthieu Carrière, Didier Flamand and Vernon Dobtcheff.

One intoxicating segment finds Anne-Marie stretched on the carpet, a single breast exposed amid graceful perspiration on this sweltering night, as two bare-chested lovers repose languidly beside her. The scene is witnessed by the tearful vice-consul, who then goes out to caress Anne-Marie’s red bicycle. This scene summarizes the film’s erotic torpor.

As though India Song is a species of silent film, there’s no onscreen dialogue. In the handful of moments when characters absolutely must speak, they either wander offscreen to do it discreetly, as though it would be vulgar to perform such an act in front of us, or else they dance with closed mouths as we eavesdrop on their conversation via telepathic voice-overs.

The fact that this film is entirely an act of imagination is underlined by the fact that, as a making-of explains, the two-week shoot took place in Paris. Various locales, such as the Chateau Rothschild and Grand Trianon, combine with offscreen sounds and dialogue to suggest murky memories of a far country, as the past is said to be another country. Not only is the idea of India a fabrication, but the India Song is a synthetic western dance piece. This reinforces the idea that “les Indiens blanches” (“the white Indians”) live in their own artifice with almost no points of contact to the reality from which they insulate themselves.

Seyrig made India Song in the same year she starred in another monumental experiment by a woman filmmaker, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and that film bears at least some resemblance in theme and style to an earlier Duras film, Nathalie Granger, from 1972. Akerman’s film has slowly gained in reputation until it managed to be named Greatest Film of All Time in the 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll. Criterion released it years ago. Maybe the same growth in reputation will now attend India Song.

I’ll tell you a secret, Dear Reader. After I visited Criterion’s Chicago office in the ’90s, I sent them a list of things they ought to put out, including Akerman’s film and many others they’ve since released. I even suggested they start regular box sets on certain themes and directors, and within a few years they launched their Eclipse series. I’m not necessarily claiming responsibility for these developments, but in case I deserve any, you’re all welcome.

Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977)

Baxter Vera Baxter (for the pedantic record, the onscreen title has no comma) begins with several shots of its title character that emulate the classic tradition of female nudes in painting, such as Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or Goya’s Naked Maja.

The fact that she’s languid and reclining echoes Anne-Marie Stretter of India Song, and at first Vera shares with Anne-Marie the quality of a character more analyzed at third hand than known directly. As Vera Baxter, Claudine Gabay’s performance is opaque, impassive, understated, almost somnabulist. She rarely gets up and walks.

The first scene of Baxter Vera Baxter introduces Seyrig plays a passing stranger whose name isn’t given. In a hotel bar, she’s fascinated by gossip about Vera, a married woman who’s traveling with journalist Michel Cayre (Gérard Depardieu) and renting a summer house nearby. Seyrig’s character may be analogous to Duras, and the majority of this play-like drama will be her dialogue of questions and answers with Vera in the sparsely furnished house.

Carlos d’Alessio’s score, in the manner of South American dance music with ethnic instruments and prominent flute, begins just after the opening scene and continues in a never-ending loop for the rest of the film, only getting softer or louder. The music becomes the atmosphere, along with the gorgeously foggy exteriors seen through the huge window-walls and shot by Sacha Vierney in soft focus.

Vera Baxter has three conversations. The first is with the unnamed realtor (Noëlle Châtelet) who reveals herself as one of many mistresses of Vera’s wealthy husband Jean. The second conversation is over the phone with Jean (voiced by François Périer). Since he’s never seen but is frequently discussed and analyzed, he becomes Baxter Vera Baxter‘s “absent presence” as we learn more about Vera’s life with him, the shadow he casts, and her function as one of his possessions.

Vera’s third and longest conversation is with Seyrig’s character, who just sashays in and starts quizzing her about life. Perhaps because the visitor is a stranger, and perhaps because Vera’s just had fraught conversations with others, and perhaps because she’s feeling an existential crisis about her marriage and life, complete with indication that she might have been considering suicide, Vera opens up to the stranger and discusses the paradoxes of life with a rich philanderer.

All this time, the score’s jaunty and repetitious loop of exotic festivity supposedly emanates from a nearby party as diegetic music heard by the characters. In a bonus interview, Duras expresses the idea that the music secretly emanates from Vera’s soul, that her arrival has manifested it. The final exchange of dialogue has Seyrig’s stranger expressing the notion that Vera Baxter might be reincarnated from a medieval woman of the same name burned as a witch, and that women whose husbands were away at the Crusades occupied their time learning the secrets of the forest.

Despite its opening nudity, Baxter Vera Baxter is less voluptuous and enveloping than India Song. It feels more intellectual and play-like, even though India Song is the one first incarnated as a play. Even so, both films clearly emerge from the same aesthetic and intellectual sensibility. Both explore the lives of women in unsatisfactory marriages, both feeling displaced and unfulfilled, both considering suicide, and both framed in exquisite compositions against mirrors and windows in vast buildings.

Both India Song and Baxter Vera Baxter, like several of Duras’ novels and some of her other films, see their heroines’ lives as an enigma that can be talked around endlessly, whose histories can be rehashed and speculated, whose choices can be analyzed and judged, all without being finally explained. The women present images and rumors to the world but retain a core of adamantine mystery.

These 2K restorations performed by Technicolor in Paris, supervised by cinematography Bruno Nuytten, look enchanting, exactly as you want dreamlike French films of the ’70s to look. It’s good that at least two examples of Duras’ cinematic legacy are now on Blu-ray in Region 1. Let’s hope her other films follow.