India Song (1975 France 120 mins)
Prod Co: Sunchild/Les Films Armorial (France) Prod: Stéphane Tchalgadjieff Dir, Scr: Marguerite Duras Phot: Bruno Nuytten Ed: Solange Leprince Mus: Carlos D’Alessio, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations No. 14”
Cast: Delphine Seyrig, Michel Lonsdale, Mathieu Carrière, Claude Mann, Didier Flamand, Vernon Dobtcheff
How do you keep from lying?
I don’t talk.
– Marguerite Duras, The North China Lover (1)
Of all the films that Marguerite Duras wrote and directed over two decades – from La Musica (co-directed with Paul Seban) in 1966 to Les Enfants in 1985 – India Song was the only one to enjoy any sort of popular success. A small box-office hit in France in the mid 1970s, it remains a minor cult movie to this day. Hence, it is tempting to see India Song as somehow easier, more straightforward or more accessible than overtly challenging or “difficult” movies like Nathalie Granger (1972) or Le Navire Night (1979).
It is easy or, rather, impossible not to be seduced by the film’s lustrous visual surface and its deceptively hummable tango-inflected score. A quintet of swooningly gorgeous actors, led by an impossibly chic Delphine Seyrig, drift about in a lavish Art Nouveau villa. They sip champagne from crystal goblets, puff languorously on cigarettes and dance sedately to Carlos D’Alessio’s catchy tunes. They slip, at odd moments, out of their clothes (courtesy of Cerruti 1881) to pose in some vaguely eroticised tableaux vivants. None of the actors speak; instead, voices from off-screen comment on the action in hushed, reverent tones. Whoever these unknown speakers may be, they seem to enjoy the wondrously outré spectacle as much as we do. To quote David Thomson, India Song has “levels of nouveau roman and fashion show” (2) that no fan of hardcore cinematic glamour could hope to resist.
Or that, at least, is the trap that Duras sets for us. The visual surface of India Song glows like a flamboyant Byzantine reliquary as it encases a saint’s putrefying corpse. The drama of the film – albeit unseen and only half spoken – is one of surpassing emotional agony. Seyrig is cast as Anne-Marie Stretter, the bored wife of the French Ambassador to Calcutta in the 1930s. (This, like so much else in India Song, is a deliberate and conscious fabrication. Marc Saporta points out: “There has been no French Embassy in Calcutta since 1912.”) Frustrated by her marriage and her failed career as a concert pianist, she whiles away her life with a harem of readily available men: her official lover, Michael Richardson (Claude Mann); an attaché from the Austrian Embassy (Mathieu Carrière); an anonymous young guest (Didier Flamand); and an old friend of her husband’s (Vernon Dobtcheff). All her liaisons are comfortably impersonal, apart from one. The off-screen voices inform us how she and Richardson once tried (and failed) to commit suicide together.
Into this icily elegant daisy chain stray two outsiders. The first is a French consular official from Lahore (Michel Lonsdale) – now on suspension after a suicide attempt and a diplomatic scandal over his shooting at lepers from his balcony. (His story was originally told by Duras in her 1965 novel Le Vice-consul.) Besotted with Anne-Marie, he tries to seduce her but she rejects him. Ejected from the ambassador’s reception, he screams her name (her maiden name, Anna Maria Guardi) into the stifling Indian night. The second intruder – heard on the soundtrack, but never seen – is a mad beggar-woman who has made her way to Calcutta from Savannakhet, the town in French Indochina where Anne-Marie once lived.
It has been academically fashionable to interpret both these characters as alter egos of Anne-Marie, as mirrors (this movie is full of them) for her own tragic alienation and ennui. As Leslie Hill insists, “What the three characters have in common […] is less a positive predicament than a negative state; each is an exile, but from a world that bears little resemblance to the society from which either of the others has been banished.” (4)
It’s a neat but overly facile analysis. In fact, Anne-Marie and the Vice-consul come from very much the same world, while the poor beggar-woman has hardly belonged to any society at all. Worse, it flies in the face of Duras’ own view of “the Beggarwoman as her film’s only non-tragic character; the only one to escape the constraints of predetermined fate” (5). For all her blood-curdling cries of suffering, the beggar-woman survives the film and goes on (presumably) to beg outside other embassy balls across the length and breadth of Asia. Anne-Marie – so the voiceover informs us early on – adjourns to an island resort with her lovers, throws herself into the surf one morning and drowns.
If the fate of Anne-Marie is emblematic in any way, it is as a memorial for France’s (and, by extension, the whole of Europe’s) doomed and misbegotten dreams of colonial empire. As Jane Bradley Winston astutely points out, “the pale blond Delphine Seyrig” can be seen as “the object of French colonial desire for a westernised and Aryan Asia” (6). (One might say the same for Aurore Clément in the “redux” version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) or Catherine Deneuve in Indochine (1992), a more ideologically problematic colonial melodrama by Régis Wargnier.) Winston sees the death of the white (anti-)heroine and the dogged if precarious survival of the Asian woman as reversing the pattern set by George Sand’s 1832 novel Indiana – where the white heroine successfully escapes her stifling marriage, while her mixed-race foster sister drowns herself.
There can be no doubt that Marguerite Duras knew the tragedy of colonialism from her own life. Born in French Indochina in 1914, she was a child in Savannakhet when she became fascinated by Elizabeth Striedter, the beautiful wife of a local colonial official. (Saporta relates how, at 93 years of age, the real-life Anne-Marie Stretter “claimed to remember the little daughter of the teacher at the local school” .) It was rumoured, even then, that a young man had killed himself out of love for her. “At eight years old”, Saporta writes, “Marguerite discovered how one could die for love. She never forgot it.” (8) Repatriating to France in 1932, she landed a job at the French Colonial Office. It was for them that she produced her first published work, and the only one bearing her real family name, Marguerite Donnadieu – “a volume of didactic nationalist propaganda called L’Empire français“ (9).
Her politics would change radically through her experience of World War II and the German Occupation of France. By the time Duras shot India Song, even her choice of location had become part of an anti-colonial polemic. Faced with the impossibilities (logistical, political and financial) of shooting in Southeast Asia, she filmed India Song in the derelict Palais Rothschild in the Bois de Boulogne just outside Paris. Once home to the Jewish banking family, it had been confiscated by the Nazis and used as a residence by Hermann Goering. As Duras herself stated, “the face of the French in Indochina is the face of the Germans in France” (10).
Two years after India Song, Duras would use its soundtrack as the basis for a second and more radical film, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976):
Filmed actorless amid the palace’s broken mirrors and crumbling ceilings, walls and fireplaces, it pushed the era of French colonialism into a more remote and unavailable past, as if to erect putrefaction as an obstacle to any residual and nostalgic French colonial desire. (11)
As the camera prowls about the derelict space, we hear the off-screen voices whisper like ghosts. Duras, we feel, is laying her phantoms to rest in this film. Along with them die 300 years of French colonial history.
Assuming we can penetrate its glossy exterior (or, perhaps more to the point, assuming we choose to do so) the spectral fashion parade that is India Song becomes every bit as autobiographical as Duras’ most popular novel, L’amant/The Lover (1984). Considerably more so than its thick-ear film adaptation, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1992 (the result so outraged Duras that she promptly rewrote the story yet again!) As its exquisitely-coutured ghosts drift from mirror to mirror, and from cocktails to bed – as the piano echoes its last few silver notes – Duras bids her own farewell to a fantasy of a past that never was. Once it is dead and buried, she will move on to more plainly radical, more starkly experimental work. A place, alas, to which her audience has yet to follow.
- Marguerite Duras, The North China Lover, trans. Barbara Bray, Flamingo, London, 1994, p. 34.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 800.
- Marc Saporta, “L’existence inévitable de Marguerite D”, Marguerite Duras, L’ARC 98, Editions LE JAS, Paris, 1985, p. 20. Translation from French by the author.
- Leslie Hill, Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires, Routledge, London, 1993, p. 99.
- Jane Bradley Winston, Postcolonial Duras: Cultural Memory in Postwar France, Palgrave, New York, 2001, p. 65.
- Winston, p. 61.
- Saporta, p. 18. Translation by the author.
- Saporta, p. 18. Translation by the author.
- Hill, p. 3.
- Quoted in Winston, p. 65.
- Winston, pp. 65-66.