India Song, 1975

The static shot of a sun setting in real-time on an eerily tranquil, desolate horizon is framed against the sound of multicultural voices interwoven into a curious – and strangely dissociative – chorus of traditional storytelling chants and third-person recollective dialogue. Recounting the story of a Laotian-born beggar girl along the Ganges River who, at the age of 12, had embarked on a ten-year journey that would eventually take her from Burma to India in a desperate attempt to lose herself in the unfamiliar landscape, the elliptical narrative then abruptly shifts subjects within the threaded element of common geography as a tale of lost love is revealed between a devoted suitor named Michael Richardson (Claude Mann) who had followed his beloved, a socialite named Lola Valérie Stein, to India, only to lose her in death. Meanwhile, the sunset has been replaced by languid, fractured images of the interior of an uninhabited, elegantly appointed colonial-era home: a grand piano in an empty hall that is reinforced with the sound of a melancholic jazz piano tune; a shimmering evening ensemble laid across the floor as an off-screen narrator describes the pageantry of past soirées once hosted in the Tunisian city of Thala that had served to uncover the hidden desires of its aristocratic guests; the illumination of an ornate chandelier that is set against a conversation of an unseen light that became a harbinger for a monsoon in Calcutta; the imprecise memory of the aroma of flowers that is answered with the recollected odor of leprosy. It is within this dramlike roundelay of opulence and decadence, passion and loss, that a failed love affair plays out between the Vice-Consul of Lahore (Michael Lonsdale) and Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), the wanton, neglected wife of a French administrator in Laos, as they live out their waning days of colonial privilege in the exotic, transitory paradise.

Marguerite Duras creates a sensual, yet abstract and enigmatic exposition on longing, isolation, haunted memory, and obsolescence in India Song. Duras integrates highly stylized, yet integrally personal (and relevant) impressionistic images of her youth in then-French Indochina and the radical nouveau roman structure that has come to define the novelist turned filmmaker’s mid-century avant-garde literature within the classical framework of tableaux imagery that redefines the syntax of traditional (and particularly cinematic) narrative. From the opening sequence of ambiguous, (but implicitly colonial) foreign landscapes, Duras establishes the dissociation between the visual and the aural through incongruous and aesthetically formalized tableaux juxtapositions that, in turn, reflect the film’s overarching themes of alienation and estrangement: exclusive use of non-diegetic sound to serve as a surrogate contextual (anti) narrative; visually distanced, non-confronting dialogue through mirrored angles (a technique similarly implemented in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad); pervasive musicality through a slow rhythm waltz that conveys the film’s paradoxical sense of displacement and stasis through its languid pacing, recursiveness, and melancholic tone; repeated references to leprosy that ingeniously evoke an implicit association between isolation (through disease quarantining) and colonies (lepers and imperialism). Inextricably bound in the performance of the empty social rituals of their class, these aimless, privileged colonialists embody the adrift and inutile fleeting vestiges of a crumbling empire, reduced to the imperceptible glow of an anecdotal setting sun against an inherently sovereignless – and unconquerable – eternal landscape.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.