Marguerite Duras (French Film Directors) by Renate Günther

In 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 dans 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’.

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