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December 28, 2009

Marguerite Duras (French Film Directors) by Renate Günther

duras_gunther.gifIn Marguerite Duras, author Renate Günther examines Marguerite Duras's films from the perspective of interweaving politics and memory that runs through her body of work. Born in Gia-Dinh in French Indochina (now Vietnam), the only daughter of emigrant teachers Emile and Marie Donnadieu who moved to the colonies in search of a better life, Duras's early life would be marked by the intersection of the personal and political - first, as a member of the working class who better identified with the indigenes than with other colonialists in their exclusion from bourgeois colonial society (especially after the family fell into poverty following her father's death), and subsequently as a young woman in occupied France who became involved with the resistance and the plight of Jewish people in World War II. Indeed, even her adopted pen name of Duras, assumed from a childhood village where the Donnadieu family had resettled after her father's illness, reveals an element of autobiographic fictionalization that characterizes her work:

Although Duras transformed her experience into art, she did not do so by simply telling the 'story of her life', as she did not believe that the chaos of memory could or should be subjugated to the contrived order of a linear and logically structured novelistic or filmic narrative. Instead she isolated significant moments in her life and condensed them, in fictionalized form, into the recurring scenarios that run through the texts of her films. This repetition with variations of the same core material is one of the hallmarks of Duras's work, as she creates clusters of references through which texts and films mirror and transform one another.

A familiar instance of this process of fictional condensation and repetition is embodied by the recurring iconic character, Anne-Marie Stretter who appears in Duras's novels La Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, Le Vice-consul, and L'Amant, and also in her film, India Song. Inspired by Elisabeth Streidter, the wealthy, strikingly beautiful Swiss wife of a provincial administrator whose daughters were close to Duras's age (as well as the unrequited object of desire of a young man who committed suicide), Stretter not only represented the socioeconomic ideal of the colonial bourgeoisie that the Donnadieus were excluded from, but also Duras's ambivalent relationship with her mother, whose attention and devotion were largely lavished on her eldest brother, Pierre, at the expense of the younger children.

However, rather than creating fictionalized versions of autobiographical episodes, Duras emphasizes the disjunction through dissociation, desynchronization, and non-linearity, creating the aesthetic of voix off in which off-screen voices are used in lieu of synchronized sound to accompany the visual track and maintain separation between image and sound:

Duras's filmic technique, then, illustrates her view that cinema is not a transparent reflection of the world, but a highly complex construct which should be presented as such. But the gap between voice and image does more than merely show the artificial nature of cinema. It also creates an unsettling feeling of dislocation within the spectator's own sense of identity which, for the duration of the film, loses its usual cohesion and unity. Duras's films demonstrate that the notion of a stable coherent self or 'subject' is, in fact, an illusion which, in Western patriarchal cultures at least, has been used by dominant social groups to reinforce their position of power over those who have been defined as 'the object', 'the other'.

As with the fictional incarnation of Stretter, the composite autobiographical episodes from Duras's childhood would similarly form the recurring image of the beggar woman whose fictionalized biography is recounted in India Song and Son nom de Venise dan Calcutta désert: a desperate Vietnamese woman, near death, who had handed her equally gravely ill child over to Duras's mother (Duras ended up caring for the child who died a few days later), and an emaciated, screaming beggar woman known as "la folle de Vinhlong" who, for Duras, symbolized the fear of mental illness (and implicitly, the sense of helplessness) that she harbored throughout her life. But more importantly, the beggar woman also represents a stateless and disenfranchisement that expound on Duras's recurring themes of class and division, as illustrated in her transposition as a drifter in Le Camion and more loosely, by the unseen, immigrant sanitation workers who sweep the pre-dawn streets of Paris in Les Mains négatives:

The theme of racist oppression and exclusion in Le Camion is also reflected in the film's location, since the lorry's journey takes us through a region inhabited entirely by immigrants, including a large Portuguese community. As Duras explained, the latter used to live in caravans near the railway station at Plaisir, but were evicted and rehoused in the grandes ensembles, the blocks of flats which we occasionally see in the film. Exiled from their native country and subsequently excluded from mainstream French society, the immigrants are condemned to live in this desolate landscape, evoked in the text by the woman's repeated vision of 'la fin du monde', 'the end of the world'.

Indeed, inasmuch as Duras's films all contain a political dimension, Le Camion is perhaps the most overtly personal response to a political autobiography - her own estrangement from the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) - featuring a truck driver whose hardline membership in the PCF unconsciously perpetuates the artificial divisions inherent in a monolithic identity:

This denunciation of political power in Le Camion begins with Duras's vehement criticism of the PCF which can be traced back to her resignation and subsequent expulsion from the party in 1950, after her seven-year experience as a fervent activist. The sense of loss she experienced following this episode was exacerbated by the fact that for her the PCF had become a substitute family, creating a strong personal identification in addition to her political commitment.

Similarly, Nathalie Granger also represents a personal and political convergence, this time, within the context of the post 1968 French feminist movement, the publishing of the solidarity petition in Le Nouvel observateur in 1971 to protest outdated abortion laws from the 1920s, and the 1972 mass demonstrations in Paris against the trivialization of rape in the French judicial system. Citing the duality intrinsic in the women's insular environment, suggesting both imprisonment and utopia, repression and violence (reinforced through the broadcast news of escaped convicts that accompany the extended shots of domestic chores), Günther provides an insightful and exhaustive deconstruction of the film's structure and its process of illustrating, diagnosing, and finally refiguring the mechanics of social class and gender roles.

The notion of gender as performance is clearly relevant to Nathalie Granger, as Depardieu's slightly exaggerated gestures and facial expressions constantly remind us not only that he is an actor, but also that the male figure he represents is acting out the role of the salesman as part of this gendered spectacle. The sharp contrast, furthermore, between the man's initially confident performance and his subsequent vulnerability in front of the women also foregrounds this discrepancy between his spurious masculinity and the fundamental humanity he shares with Isabelle and her friend. It is evident, then, that the women's implicit violence is not directed at the man personally, but rather at a society that imposes such a rigid prescription of gendered behavior on a multitude of different individuals.

...At the end of the film then, Duras transcends the barriers of both gender and class by creating a relationship of mutual understanding between a working-class man and two middle-class women. The oppositional categories of the Symbolic order become irrelevant, as the man reconnects with his 'femininity', just as the women's anger and violence are an expression of their 'masculinity'.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 28, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

December 16, 2009

Los Condenados, 2009

condenados.gifThe delineation between reality and mythology, ideal and application also provides the catalyst for Isaki Lacuesta's first fiction film, Los Condenados (The Condemned). The rupture is prefigured in the opening image of a gaunt, Argentinean expatriate, Martín (Daniel Fanego) undergoing a CT scan at a Spanish hospital, the implication of cancer suggesting a hidden, indefinable turmoil that continues to haunt the consciousness. For Martín, the sickness resurfaces in a message from longtime friend and former guerilla fighter, Raúl (Arturo Goetz), inviting him to an excavation of mass graves under the ruse of a university-sponsored archaeological dig in the remote countryside to search for the desaparecidos, in particular, a comrade named Ezequiel who went missing after being kidnapped by the state some thirty years earlier during the "dirty war". With Ezequiel's widow, Andrea (Leonor Manso) and mother, Luisa (Juana Hidalgo) in tow, Raúl has also enlisted the aid of Vicky (María Fiorentino), a dissident who, like Martín, had been held captive in a network of undisclosed jungle prisons. Idolized by the younger generation, especially Vicky's son Pablo (Nazareno Casero), Martín's complacency and distraction proves a stark contrast to his reputation as elusive rebel leader and ideological godfather - a friction that forces them to re-evaluate their own imperfect memories over their mutual, buried past. In its elliptical, organic structure and images of the jungle as a metaphor for interiority, Los Condenados suggests kinship with Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Moreover, inasmuch as Vargas's homecoming reframes the intrigue of his past into the banal in Los Muertos, Martín's journey also represents a demythification. Curiously, it is this dismantling of the heroic myth that also resolves the mystery of the disappearances, confronting the romanticism of failed revolution and, in the process, reconciling the hidden spaces between history and memory.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 16, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Spanish Cinema Now

December 15, 2009

Torero, 1956

torero.gifRefining the theme of documented reality and reconstructed history introduced in his earlier film, Moroccan Romance, Carlos Velo's reflective and ecstatic Torero is equally an autobiography on charismatic Mexican bullfighter, Luis Procuna, and an unvarnished examination of bullfighting culture. Presented as an extended interior monologue as an anxious Procuna prepares to return to the ring after a prolonged absence caused by injury, as well as the unexpected death of cerebral, renowned Spanish bullfighter and admired contemporary, Manolete, the film seamlessly interweaves past and present, archival footage and re-enactment. Chronicling Procuna's rise from abject poverty (underscoring the correlation between bullfighting and escapism that also runs through Llorenç Soler's 52 Sundays), makeshift training, inauspicious debut, and personal and professional milestones, Velo incisively captures the ambivalent, often contradictory nature of the collective spectacle, where the relationship between the bullfighter and the audience proves to be as fickle and mercurial as the bulls themselves. Velo illustrates this ephemerality through two near real-time sequences that figuratively bookend Procuna's career - first, as a third-billed performer who emerges from the shadows after injuries cut short the main attraction, then subsequently, as a famous bullfighter nearing the end of his career who is goaded into returning to the ring, only to be jeered when his performance proves to be cautious. Juxtaposed against images of Procuna's humble aspirations - his childhood home, his mother's memorial, his loving family - Velo presents as thoughtful allegory for the fragile, often arbitrary delineation between humanity and mythology, where transcendence, like truth, lies in the inconstant eye of the beholder.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

December 14, 2009

Almadrabas, 1934

Carlos Velo and Fernando G. Mantilla's quietly observed documentary, Almadrabas loosely prefigures Agnès Varda's La Pointe courte in capturing the rhythm and rituals of a small fishing village. Ostensibly titled after the Moorish word describing the structure of nets, the film follows the product cycle of canned tuna - from the fishermen who go out to sea to trawl the ocean, to the fishmongers who clean and dress the fish for curing and sale, to the cannery workers who cook, season, and package them in tins for export. As the title suggests, Almadrabas also illustrates the interconnectedness of the village, both as a close knit community and as workers contributing to the town's primary industry. In a way, Velo and Mantilla's idiosyncratic use of amplified ambient sounds, most notably in the cadence of water droplets and the undifferentiated white noise of machinery, anticipates Ritwik Ghatak's use of allusive sounds as a reflection of internal states. However, rather than imposing a psychological framework, Velo and Mantilla allude to an integrally sociopolitical context in their juxtaposition of village life and commerce, figuratively aligning the circumstances of the villagers with those of the hapless fish captured in their highly efficient nets, destined to feed the insatiable appetites of an anonymous, consumer-driven global economy.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now

Moroccan Romance, 1939

moroccan.gifFilmed during the Spanish Civil War, Carlos Velo and Enrique Domínguez Rodiño's Moroccan Romance (Romancero marroquí) bears the imprint of Robert Flaherty's ethnographic documentaries in its distilled (if manipulated) images of a distant, exotic - and exoticized - culture. Part colonialist travelogue on aspects of life in contemporary Morocco (and implicitly, the benefits of imposed western culture on the native population in such areas as medicine and the local economy) and part recruitment propaganda extolling the virtues of a franquista revolution, the film reflects what author Marsha Kinder describes as the idiosyncrasies of Spanish documentary in its malleable fusion of real and constructed history. Composed of seemingly disparate segments - a panorama of Morrocan customs, a human interest story on a Moroccan farmer, Aalima, who volunteers to serve in Franco's army, a youth march in Spain - the film's fractured construction invariably reflects its complicated production history, specifically, Carlos Velo's precarious role as a leftist republican covertly working on a commissioned project that promotes a nationalist agenda. Forced to flee the protectorate before the editing of the film to avoid exposure (Velo would eventually live in exile in Mexico), Velo nevertheless asserts his unmistakable aesthetic in the spare compositions and textured landscapes that capture the quotidian, even as jingoistic sermons on colonialist unity, romanticized images of war, and a sobering epilogue depicting youth military exercises that trivialize warfare as a series of role-playing exercises undercut the film's essential, humanist tone.

Posted by acquarello on Dec 14, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Carlos Velo, Spanish Cinema Now