Marguerite Duras Duras, Marguerite (Vol. 20) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marguerite Duras 1914–

French director, screenwriter, playwright, and author.

Duras began filmmaking after a successful career as a novelist and scriptwriter. Prior to making her own films, she was best known for her screenplay of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour. Duras's filmic technique is based on her literary style. Her films are characterized by long silences, dialogue which conveys inner emotions, and an abstract conception of time. Her abilities as a writer enable her to, in her own words, "understand the import, the power of a word."

Raised in Indochina, Duras emigrated to Paris at age seventeen, where she studied law and physical science. In 1941, she began writing novels, many of which have been filmed by other directors. Duras now prefers not to film her own literature, feeling that the audience is otherwise more concerned with the transition to the screen than with the film itself.

Détruire, dit-elle (Destroy, She Said) established her reputation as an "anti-art" artist. In this film, Duras creates a world of interchangeable personalities and reduces life to a vacuum. The characters's blandness is intentional; Duras encourages the audience to interpret the film in a variety of ways. Like her other works, India Song is cold, austere, and ambiguously symbolic. Its plot is minimal, developing instead an interior conflict that is felt rather than seen.

Perhaps Duras's most controversial work is Le camion (The Truck). While earlier works frustrate and alienate viewers because of their unusual structure, many critics feel that Le camion antagonizes the audience. Lacking a plot, the work is a description of a hypothetical film. When Le camion was shown at Cannes, the audience shouted insults which, several critics noted, was most likely the reaction Duras desired.

Duras's films are not intended as entertainment. They are meant to be mulled over scene by scene. While some critics admire her adeptness in transferring verbal narrative to the screen, others have labeled her work boring and pretentious. It is generally agreed, however, that the formal structure of her films makes initial enjoyment difficult, since her techniques are intentionally anti-cinematic. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Roger Greenspun

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I'm not sure that I can reasonably explain the pleasure I take in Marguerite Duras's "Destroy, She Said," much of which I find unendurable, but an explanation on some level is worth trying….

Although "Destroy, She Said" avoids most of the vulgar conventional ties to place and character, and although it says very little once that it does not also say twice, it gives the impression finally of precision, eloquence and considerable wit.

The setting … might do for a low-budget remake of [Resnais's] "Last Year at Marienbad."…

Thor and Stein are "about to become" writers, a professional status that the movie accepts without comment.

I find that I also accept a good deal, not only in the film's genuinely brilliant scenes (a phony card game in which Elisabeth is entrapped by the others; a superbly poised mirror scene in which Elisabeth and Alissa more or less exchange personalities), but in its many less than brilliantly stylized dialogues and indirect confrontations.

The movies made from Miss Duras's novels, even "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," have in large measure depended upon an evocation of mood, a sense of dense and strange beauty foreign to the lucidity and simplicity of her own directorial decisions. She apparently means her film to portend revolution, holocaust, and rebirth (thus, the film's title), but she maintains her own sense of order and decorum to the end.

Roger Greenspun, "'Destroy, She Said'," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1969 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, p. 79.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Marguerite Duras's Destroy, She Said is an abomination.] Hitherto the author was content to write bad novels or bad scripts for other directors; here for the second time she combined writing and directing, and the result seems not so much bad doubled as bad cubed.

Two men and two women, in weirdly posed, arbitrary groupings, make endless, arcanely opaque statements past one another. It is supposed to take place in a hotel, but it is obviously someone's country house and backyard. You never see anyone else (though you hear the sounds of a ghost tennis game—Son of Blow Up?), except for the husband of one of the women who shows up at the end of the film to be pounced on by the other four; there is no action, minimal movement, and only that somnambulistic dialogue which, Mlle Duras proudly affirms, is interchangeable. In the end, there is the obligatory Bach fugue, by now indispensable to true avant-garde films, which is heard in a huge crescendo signifying, according to the author, the coming of the Revolution. It could as easily signify the rising birth rate or the devaluation of the franc. (pp. 386-87)

John Simon, "The Festival and Awards Game: Unmagnificent Seventh" (originally published as "Unmagnificent Seventh," in The New Leader, Vol. LII, No. 19, October 19, 1969), in his Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1971, pp. 382-98.∗

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like scènes à faire that should absolutely not be faites, there are inescapable questions which just should not be asked. With Détruire, Dit-Elle [Destroy, She Said], the fatal question is 'What's it all about?' It is reasonably easy to say what happens, up to a certain point…. In an extraordinary final scene [three characters] … plan a little visit, and listen to sounds and music, signalling the approach of some great, but welcome, perhaps even necessary, destructive force through the surrounding forest. Legitimate, obviously, to wonder who or what they are, what, if anything, they represent, what the forest, the famous view no one can ever find, the sounds in the final sequence, may signify. But fatal to expect any clear, unequivocal answer, and to make 'understanding' on this level a condition of accepting the film. It works—and powerfully, hauntingly—in quite another way: as a series of obscure rituals played out with the greatest seriousness by people who perhaps themselves do not even half grasp their significance, like the rather funny, rather sinister card game with no rules in which the three engage their victim (patient? initiate?). Very severely made, mostly in long-held, almost static shots, and impeccably acted, the film transfers to the screen with uncanny precision the special world of Marguerite Duras the writer: as in her novels, the outer form may be prose, but the inner life is pure poetry.

John Russell Taylor, "Festivals 69: London," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 1, Winter, 1969–70, p. 11.∗

Vincent Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because Miss Duras writes so elliptically, there is no special sense that she has padded [the original play of "La Musica"] until the confrontation in the hotel lobby. At that point, however, one realizes that all that has gone before has been rather superior but ultimately superfluous vamping…. (p. 215)

"La Musica" is intellectually chic moviemaking of the sort that is quite entertaining while it is going on but practically ceases to exist, even as a memory, when it's over. (p. 216)

Vincent Canby, "'La Musica'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1970 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, pp. 215-16).

Vincent Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most insidious thing about the nouveau movie, which is a polite way of describing Marguerite Duras's newest, most minimal film, "Nathalie Granger," is that it traps you in its own time, unlike the nouveau roman, which can be skipped through or read at leisure in an afternoon or a year.

You can't skip through "Nathalie Granger." To see it you are forced to watch it for as long as it lasts, while, in turn, it watches its characters, rather as if the camera were a Siamese cat whose feelings had been hurt.

Without betraying the slightest interest, the camera records the physical appearance of two expressionless women [Isabelle and The Other Woman]….

The camera paces through the house, looking into mirrors, down hallways, through windows. There is a report on the radio about a murder and a police manhunt. The telephone rings. Wrong number. "There is no telephone here, madame," [The Other Woman] says into the receiver. Funny? Not really. It's too pretty and solemn. A salesman calls. He tries desperately to sell a Vedetta Tambour 008 washing machine that comes in three colors. For a brief moment, the ghost of Pinter's wit walks over the grave of the film. [Isabelle] goes into the garden, again. [The Other Woman] falls asleep. A cat saunters through. The camera just stares. When a person or a cat leaves a room, Miss Duras seems to say, that room is empty. Such are the discoveries of "Nathalie Granger," a dead-end movie that, I confidently hope, few of us are ready for.

Vincent Canby, "'Nathalie Granger'," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1972 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 313).

Nora Sayre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stiff as uncooked asparagus, the figures who stalk through Marguerite Duras's "Woman of the Ganges" don't have to act, since the movie is narrated in English by two invisible women with lush French accents. "Soch loff, soch dee-sire!" they repeat, as they warble away….

[It] becomes quite difficult to tell who's alive or dead in this movie. (All of the performers behave like zombies, but some are probably supposed to be ghosts.) It's also very hard to know who did what to whom in the past.

Amid all the pacing through corridors, there's little spoken dialogue and barely any action. So it's an event when two characters bid each other good evening, when sand dribbles between someone's fingers, or when a muslin curtain stirs in the wind. There's some pretension to significant imagery here, but the result makes you want to yell or weep with boredom.

Meanwhile, the narrators sluggishly state their passion for one another—"You're so yonk, and I loff you ssso moch"—and some of the others say that they've lost their memories. Since Marguerite Duras neglected to give them any perceptible emotions the response seems healthy.

Nora Sayre, "'La femme du gange'," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 7, 1974 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p. 220).

Michael Tarantino

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Woman of the Ganges] is a deliberate journey through a self-endowed world, in which cinema itself, as a means of expression, is alternately questioned, denied, and finally affirmed….

It is explanation itself which functions as the principal theme of Woman of the Ganges. The plot is ostensibly concerned with a group of people who have returned to a scene from their past. Entering into this void, they try to re-establish the relationships which had originally failed. What the film presents us with, however, is a series of "plot elements", as it attempts to recreate the past through the characters' present….

Duras builds images of painful simplicity, which resemble paintings set into motion—but not emotionalized—in the far regions of the frame. Characters, in trying to re-create or reevaluate the past, emerge as still-life objects….

For its characters, the space of Woman of the Ganges is a utopian wasteland. It is a feeling more than an area, which Duras illuminates through a negation of cinema as a formal property….

In this decidedly static atmosphere, the characters's movement is slow and deliberate. No one runs. No one yells. They are presented to us on the same plane as the revolving door, which leads into and out of the hotel standing at the center of the (non) narrative. The camera, in attempting to deal directly with time and space, utimately gives the impression of flattening out the subjects through its gaze, and extending the objects from within by treating them "equally"….

Woman of the Ganges is a fascinating achievement whose success ultimately lies in the mind of the viewer—a mind which must be cleared of nodding affirmations or denials.

In Pour Un Nouveau Roman, Robbe-Grillet talks of the artist's need for the reader's co-operation—one which would be active, conscious, and creative. The reader must "invent" the work and the world in which it is situated. Duras extends this plea to the cinema…. The space is deep but the action is shallow. The viewer must fill in the blanks. We occupy the off-screen space.

Michael Tarantino, "'Woman of the Ganges'," in Take One (copyright © 1974 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 4, No. 6, November 4, 1974, p. 28.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rather than attempting a detailed realistic evocation of a resort hotel such as those in Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad or Visconti's Death in Venice, Duras' setting is reduced to bare essentials [in Destroy, She Said]: a building with plain white interiors, a broad lawn surrounded by trees and a tennis court, no bell-boys, desk clerk or elaborate interiors or exteriors…. The building is obviously a private chateau rather than a hotel and the women wear black dresses despite the references to summer heat. The result is a disconcerting feeling of subtle disparity.

The concern for abstraction is also reflected in the emphasis on simplicity, order and balance in the composition of the shots. Figures are carefully posed within the frame, often at oblique angles to each other and to the camera, suggesting their inability to communicate. (p. 267)

The few references to specific times, either days or hours, which occur in [Duras'] novel have been removed from the film. The temporal experience of viewing the film is thus both more abstract and more durational: time does not mount or ascend towards any resolution or goal but merely accumulates oppressively. Duras has exploited the unprecedented control that a filmmaker can impose on the viewer's sense of durée. Unlike the reader of a novel who can read fast or slow, skip or reread pages or even put the book down and take a break, the filmgoer moves through the narrative at the exact pace determined by the film's editor. Add to this the camera's power of focussing our attention exclusively on one or more characters and we see how the film artist can merge the time experience of the viewer outside the narrative with that of the characters within the film. (p. 268)

Dean McWilliams, "The Novelist as Filmmaker: Marguerite Duras' 'Destroy, She Said'," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1975 Salisbury State College), Vol. III, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 264-69.

Molly Haskell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "India Song," Marguerite Duras's] most perfectly realized film, the present is in a constant state of deliquescence. As in her previous films, the voices function as an echo chamber whereby the past is imprinted and repeated to infinity….

The fact that it is possible to enjoy [the] characters, to come under the film's spell, and not see it as a parable about the imminent demise of the bourgeoisie is perhaps as much a function of Duras's ambivalence as the audience's, and a triumph of style and an instinctive woman's empathy over strict ideology….

"India Song" is the most feminine film I have ever seen. This is not just in the obvious details of decor, the gauzy,...

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Michael Tarantino

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

India Song is a film which simultaneously represents a departure from, and a codification of, Marguerite Duras' oeuvre. The narration introduces characters who have appeared frequently in Duras' films and novels…. However, their position as protagonists is extremely tenuous. They do not develop in the traditional sense from work to work. Rather, they remain elusive, representing a constant flux of just "being". The acts they encompass pale in relationship to their reactions to same….

The narrative employed in India Song is common to Duras' work. However, the manner in which the film unfolds stylistically represents a significant variation. The past is witnessed through the unfolding...

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Richard Roud

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The ostensible subject of Le Camion is a film-maker (played by Mme. Duras herself) going over the script of a film she wants to make with the other leading player….

[The] device of discussing an unmade film is only a device; it is not the real subject of the film. True enough, for much of the time we do get Duras reading lines to [Gérard] Depardieu, and the actor asking questions about the characters each would be playing (this is a film in the conditional tense). Who would she be, asks Depardieu of the woman he, as truck-driver, would give a lift to. Declassée, says Duras; that's all one can say about her. But of course there is much more to be said, because this woman is a...

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John Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have slumped through India Song twice. It does not improve on closer acquaintance. To be fair to Mlle Duras, she is quotably her worst enemy: 'I make films to kill time. If I had the courage to do nothing, I'd do nothing … That's the most sincere thing I can say about my activities.' At this rare moment in time, reviewer and film-maker join hands. A more killing way with time—I talk about mine—it would be hard to conjure. Calcutta (maybe), 1937 (perhaps), a doomy love-affair (who knows?). That is the plot. But against whom is it engineered?… To relieve the visual tedium (it looks as if it were shot in an aquarium in need of dusting), many voices say hinting, dislocated things over. Leprosy, heat and...

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Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The control in Duras's] new film, Le Camion—The Truck—suggests that she has become a master. But there's a joker in her mastery: though her moods and cadences, her rhythmic phrasing, with its emotional undertow, might seem ideally suited to the medium, they don't fulfill moviegoers' expectations. Conditioned from childhood, people go to the movies wanting the basic gratification of a story acted out. Many directors have tried to alter this conditioning, breaking away from the simplest narrative traditions, and they've failed to take the largest audience with them. Duras doesn't even get near the mass of moviegoers, though somehow—God knows how—she manages to make her own pictures, her own way. Hers is...

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Janet Maslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "The Truck," the director and novelist Marguerite Duras plays a woman whose lips curl into a joyless, knowing half-smile every time she makes mention of despair. Her film should appeal most strongly to those viewers who are similarly attuned to the romantic possibilities of gloom. However, even those who have little patience for Miss Duras's preciousness may find her work as haunting and determinedly self-possessed as it is quietly infuriating….

"The Truck" is full of exasperatingly banal interchanges, which are in no way improved or illuminated by Miss Duras's admission of her character's banality. It is also rather coyly self-pitying, because Miss Duras and her character seem to overlap, and...

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Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The last thing I felt like doing that Tuesday was see a film by Marguerite Duras. I'd been exhausted by festivaling all day. The rigors of The Truck were, I feared, more than I could take. By film's end, I found myself exhilarated, ready to dance, party, take the long walk home. Not that The Truck is any less rigorous than Duras's usual fare. Just that The Truck is such a joyous expression of rigor it leaves you energized, heady from the motion of the rolling beast….

For all her devotion to cinema, Duras has always been a novelist who makes films. The closer she is to novelistic form, the more successful her films. India Song, in which images and dialogue have no...

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William F. Van Wert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marguerite Duras has pioneered what she calls the "multiple work of art," a text which is simultaneously a novel, a play, a dance, a film, an opera. Duras has broken the "rules," the long-standing codes which separated the various art forms, in order to provide a bridge from one to the other…. Duras's sense of the multiple work of art stems from her growing disillusionment with writing and reading as obsolete forms. She writes, she says, from compulsion, maintaining a love-hate relationship with phrases, reading very little herself, acknowledging that others don't read anymore. The solution seems to be a mass art form, a form which blends into each medium, an answer to mass reproduction, a multiproductive text. That...

(The entire section is 690 words.)