Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 88, October 2018.
Towards the end of Marguerite Duras’ 1969 film Détruire dit-elle (Destroy, She Said) – adapted from her novel of the same name published earlier that year – a conversation between two of the characters takes on a strangely self-reflexive tone. Elisabeth Alione (Catherine Sellers), gesturing towards a book that she has attempted to read, comments to Max Thor (Henri Garcin), “The book, I’ll give it to you if you like.” Max’s reply – “No. You must throw it away. You must throw away the book.” – appears as a mischievous aside from Duras herself. In the original text, Max’s line of dialogue is notably absent, and is instead a simple “No.”1 As one of a number of inversions and textual perversions that proliferate Duras’ screen adaptation, her insertion of the reference to throwing away the book can arguably be read as her comment on the process of film adaptation, as well as on the entrenched practices of filmmaking. Indeed, throwing away the book is equally reminiscent of a statement Duras made in an interview on Destroy, She Said in which she proposes three solutions to a problem and finally recommends that, “you start from scratch, raze everything to the ground […] Let’s knock everything down and start again”.2
In a career encompassing literature, theatre and cinema, Duras’ sentiments of destruction and ruination are not isolated to her adaptation of Destroy, She Said, but are characteristic of her artistic sensibility as a whole. Initially linked to an experimental form of filmmaking associated with the Nouveau Roman (new novel), she made her foray into filmmaking out of “the longing to ‘paste written texts’ on pictures”3 and the somewhat impertinent view that she “could only do better” than the filmmakers who had attempted to provide her novels with a second life on screen.4 Moving between adaptations of her novels and works written directly for cinema, Duras’ intervention into the film medium across the 19 films that she both scripted and directed from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s work to defy the rules and expectations of film form to present a fluid and self-referential intermediality.
Refusing to be bound by conventional cinematic structures, her filmic ethos can be traced to a disdain for mainstream cinema:
“The type of perfection to which commercial filmmaking aspires (the use of its technical capabilities solely to maintain the established order) mirrors precisely its subservience to dominant social codes. One shows an act of incest, but cut up and rearranged, so that everyone recognizes it but no one participates; only a pornographic film will show it directly. Commercial filmmaking can be very clever, but rarely intelligent.”5
Indeed, Duras’ concern with transgressing the boundaries of narrative convention and medium is emphasised in her subtitling the text for India Song (1973) as a “texte-theatre-film”. However, Duras complicates the relationship that she creates between the manifestations of the text across different mediums. For example, in the “General Remarks” that open India Song, Duras acknowledges that the characters have been taken from her book The Vice-consul, but “projected into new narrative regions […] Even where a whole episode is taken from the book, its insertion into the new narrative means that it has to be read, seen, differently.”6 Bringing literary tropes to film and the audiovisual characteristics of cinema to literature, Duras nonetheless refuses to be bound by the expectations, techniques or theoretical frameworks of either medium.
In untangling Duras’ cinematic turn, this essay takes as its subject three films that originally existed as literary texts before Duras adapted them for the screen: Destroy, She Said, Jaune le soleil (Yellow the Sun, 1971) and Des journées entières dans les arbres (Entire Days Among the Trees, 1976). As a collective, these films can be distinguished from Duras’ other cinematic works that are either adapted from plays, written specifically for cinema or act as the genesis of a “film text”, a genre that involves writing the text “after the film has been made.”7 While Destroy, She Said and Yellow the Sun were adapted close to the publication of their source text (Yellow the Sun was adapted from her 1970 novel Abahn Sabana David), Entire Days Among the Trees was lifted from a short story of the same name published in 1954. They can be further distinguished by the sociopolitical context in which the two earlier films, as well as the novels upon which they were based, were conceived: in the wake of the civil unrest of the May 1968 movement in France. Destroy, She Said takes place in a hotel for convalescents where the surface veneer of rest and recuperation is slowly overwhelmed by the bizarre interactions between two men, Max Thor and Stein (Michael Lonsdale), and two women, Elisabeth Alione and Alissa Thor (Nicole Hiss). Principally taking place in the bucolic grounds of the hotel, an underlying violence and madness is hinted at in the presence of an unseen forest on its periphery.
Yellow the Sun also limits its action to a small space with a house at the centre of the action where David (Gérard Desarthe) and Sabana (Catherine Sellers) stand guard of an unnamed Jewish man (Diurka) whom they have been sent to kill. They are later joined by two more unnamed Jewish men (Sami Frey and Dionys Mascolo) whose questioning disturbs and eventually unravels their ideological beliefs. While Entire Days Among the Trees could potentially be read as a departure from the narrative extremities and political overtones of her previous films, Duras weaves disquiet into the private politics of a mother-son relationship when a son (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and mother (Madeleine Renaud) regain contact following ten years of separation. The film, however, takes on a more reflective tone that matches the temporal distance between the writing of the short story and the production of the film. In a covert rejection of her earlier interest in sociopolitics, Entire Days Among the Trees features a scene in which the mother reads through the newspaper, before casting it aside and stating, “War. War everywhere. Again, all the time. What a bore!” What links the three films is an aesthetics of entropy that marks not only the displacements and departures between the original texts and the films, but also the textures of the film imagery, which is precariously constructed through gaps, absences and ellipses. In Duras’ desire “to tear what has gone before to pieces”, she embeds the unpredictable rhythms of her writing into her cinematic imagery, while simultaneously obfuscating their textual origins.8
In moving her narratives from the page to the screen, Duras emphasises the claustrophobic enclosure of her characters within the boundaries of the cinematic frame. In this sense, her visual representation of the spatial configurations of her texts centres on entrapment. For example, the beginning of Abahn Sabana David unfolds as follows: “Night comes. And the cold. They are on the road, white with frost, a woman and a young man. Standing stock still, watching the house.”9 In contrast, the action of Yellow the Sun begins and remains within the confines of the house, so that the viewer is as much held captive as the Jew is. As the film progresses, Duras teases the viewer with lingering close-ups looking through the house’s windows; however, the view reveals nothing beyond the darkness outside. The exterior is instead represented through the intermittent howling of dogs, which are identified as belonging to the Jew. Although he is given a name (Abahn) and dialogue in the novel, he remains silent in Yellow the Sun, such that the howls of the dogs come to articulate his unspoken pain. The double threat that exists both within the house (through the presence of a gun in David’s possession) and outside (an extremist group that is closing in on the house) infuses the scenery with an overwhelming disquiet. The inability to ascertain where the real threat is located – either within or beyond the frame – creates an ambiguity and uncertainty that aligns with the characterisation of Duras’ texts and films by theorists such as Julia Kristeva as non-cathartic.10
The treatment of space in Destroy, She Says shares a similar sense of restraint, with the setting mapped in relation to what the viewer cannot access: the tennis courts, which are intimated by the sound of bouncing tennis balls, and the forest to which the characters continually refer. The panning shot that opens the film takes in the vista of – according to what we hear from two unseen female narrators – the grounds of the hotel; the exact time and location are “not important”. Set against the dull thud of a tennis ball from a game played off-screen, a random arrangement of deck chairs lay empty, except one in which Elisabeth lies sleeping. While this shot initially conveys a sense of peace and mobility, it is immediately undercut by a close-up of Stein directly addressing the viewer: “I tremble all the time … in a sort of trembling uncertainty.” The breaking of the fourth wall and the sudden disjuncture of the film image from expansive panning shot to still close-up sets up a pattern in the film, in which the camera appears to caress the views of the hotel’s grounds, while it uses a different visual strategy to frame, and arguably interrogate, the characters – who, it is implied, are all suffering from various forms of madness. This aligns with the conversations between the four characters that take place throughout the film, in which their constant questioning of each other’s views and subjectivities fill every interaction with unease.
Favouring medium and long shots to create distance between the viewer and the action, Duras enables a slippage from the alienation of her characters to the viewer’s isolation from the action on-screen. This is established from the opening of Entire Days Among the Trees, in which the camera films the son and mother walking towards each other at the airport. As they approach one another, however, the camera remains fixed on a wall rather than panning to capture their reunion. This constant disappointment of emotional identification with the films’ characters and scenarios plays out in all three films. It is most heightened in Destroy, She Said and Yellow the Sun, in which the actors’ performances take on an almost Brechtian tone. Playwright Bertolt Brecht’s veneration of the “estrangement effect” is principally used to distance theatre audiences’ emotional connection from what they are viewing to emphasise the political and moral messages at the core of the play. While Destroy, She Said and Yellow the Sun are politically engaged, the estrangement in each of these films arises from Duras’ blatant rejection and consequent destabilisation of the relationship between sound and image. Destroying the very architecture of cinema and playing with the conventions of movement and sound, Duras has her characters across all three films often occupy the frame like still portraits, compositions appearing more like photographs than moving images. The disembodied female voices that open Destroy, She Said, and that locate the viewer within the film’s diegesis, haunt and unsettle the trajectory of the film with their omniscience, as it is never revealed who they are or what their relationship is to the film or its characters. In not taking on the role of narrator and disappearing after the first sequence, they shatter the viewer’s expectations not only of cinema, but also of narrative continuity.
Regarding Duras’ prose, Marcelle Marini argues that, “To write for Marguerite Duras is first to make silence […] and empty space, to kill ready made discourse.”11 Translated to cinema, the silence woven into the texts coalesces into the breakdown of audiovisual relations. Going against established techniques, the opening credits of Yellow the Sun are announced via voiceover against a black screen rather than being presented in text. Moreover, the camera rarely privileges the character who is speaking, creating a further disconnection between image and sound. In particular, the final scene of Yellow the Sun, which features the characters repeating the same lines over and over, not only creates a sense of entropy but also collapses the distinctions between the characters, until their individual voices recede into a collective echo:
Sabana: They’ve left.
Jew: Where did they go?
Sabana: Where they went. The colour is back!
Jew: The sun?
Sabana: Yes. There’s an extinguished fire.
Sabana: A thousand years.
This final sequence, which does not occur in the novel, recalls a line of dialogue from Destroy, She Said in which Stein tells Alissa, “You’re part of me, Alissa. Your fragile body is part of mine.” This link between the two films through the merging of characters’ identities emphasises Duras’ lack of interest in emotional character development in favour of using cinema to present a call to action for revolution. As Catherine Rodgers writes, “Feelings, emotions, and psychological states are sometimes envisaged in Duras as being detached from individuals.”12 In the absence of emotional identification and the stability of conventional film construction, Duras’ focus is on the “empty space” to which Marini alludes. For Duras, cinema becomes the ideal site through which to contemplate her obsession with what she refers to as the “zero point”,13 a concept that is uncannily articulated by the mother in Entire Days Among the Trees as the space “between being and not being”, and in the novel of Destroy, She Said as “erosion by desire”.14
In discussing the evolution of Entire Days Among the Trees from novel to theatrical play to film, Duras distinguishes the film from the earlier incarnations by its insistence on suffusing its scenes with silence.15 Her privileging of absence and lack has, however, caused controversy in critical circles. Alan Williams posits that “her films so deliberately reject the intelligibility of well-made cinema that often the viewer has little direct sense of what they are about […] one suspects that the events depicted are incidental to an unnarrated, more tragic story which the film refuses to tell”.16 While it is tempting to state that Duras positions meaning in a state of impenetrability, that would ignore the dialogic and visual clues that imply otherwise. For example, the tension between mother and son in Entire Days Among the Trees underlies all their interactions; however, it is never explicitly broached until later in the film, when it is revealed that the mother stunted her son’s development as a young boy by not waking him in the morning to attend school so that he would instead remain with her. The film hints at this tension via two silent flashbacks of the son as a boy, which he recaptures in reminiscence: “Sometimes I remember, in summer we used to sleep anywhere in the house. The shade of blinds …” Notably, in the second flashback, he is filmed on the outside looking into the house through the blinds, conveying an isolation that underlines his dysfunctional relationship with his mother. The spectres of the past haunt the characters in Entire Days Among the Trees to the extent that the lack of ties to either place or time in Destroy, She Said and Yellow the Sun are ultimately presented as liberating in contrast with the burden of memory.
Indeed, while destruction and implicit violence are woven into the fabric of Destroy, She Said and Yellow the Sun, Entire Days Among the Trees hides its insidiousness behind a disconcerting narrative linearity. The atmosphere of unease, however, manifests in other subtle ways: while long takes and silence occur, as they do in her early films, the use of music, while almost entirely absent from the earlier two films, is significant in Entire Days Among the Trees. One particularly long scene that unfolds in the nightclub where the son works replays the same jazz motif to the point that it becomes nauseatingly repetitive. The intimate relationship between trauma, repetition and memory is played out in the rambling monologues of the mother as she sits in the corner drinking champagne and watching the mechanical slow dancing of the couples. The circularity of the scene – through the repetition of the music, the changing of dance partners and the volatile rhythms of the mother’s behaviour – mimics the passage of trauma, highlighting the damaged relationship between the mother and the son.
As memory is rendered a source of anxiety and trauma, Duras envisages nothingness as an ideal state. This is particularly evidenced in a scene in Yellow the Sun in which Sabana tries to understand the motivations of the Jew:
Sabana: You came here to break the unity.
Sabana: To introduce disorder into the unity.
Sabana: A division.
Sabana: A problem.
Sabana: In order to divide.
Sabana: To shatter.
Sabana: And replace it with what?
In the original text of Destroy, She Said, Duras goes so far as to visually and textually embed the presence of nothingness in the composition by formatting the paragraphs to create large recesses and gaps on the page. This manifests in the film through the now established Durasian motifs of long takes and extended silence. However, the final sequence undercuts the viewer’s expectations of silence by introducing music in the form of Bach’s fugue no. 15 from The Art of Fugue, which shockingly invades the scene as though it is emanating from the forest. As the music increases in volume, its cadence is destroyed by the crash of the lid of a grand piano. Duras has described the butchering of the music as “revolution”, further highlighting that her idea of progress – both artistic and political – does not result from the status quo, but from ripping to shreds everything that has come before.17
To return to her description of her interest in cinema through the metaphor of collage – pasting written texts onto images – Duras suggests that the relationship between her novels and films is one of a palimpsest, caught in a tension between revealing and effacing the original text. This anxiety extends to her treatment of her characters and space in her films, whereby her preoccupation with the “zero point” results in her characters existing within liminal, in-between spaces. Whether they are on the precipice of madness, as in Destroy, She Said; on the brink of revolution, as in Yellow the Sun; or attempting a futile reconciliation, as in Entire Days Among the Trees, they are bound by inevitable annihilation.
- Marguerite Duras, Destroy, She Said, Barbara Bray, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1970), p. 59. ↩
- Jean Claude Bergeret, “Marguerite Duras à propos de Détruire dit-elle,” Institut national de l’audiovisuel, 30 November 1969, http://www.ina.fr/video/I05125289 ↩
- Marguerite Duras, cited in Tijana Mamula, “Metaphorically seeing: the place names of Marguerite Duras,” Screen 53.1 (Spring 2012): p. 45 ↩
- Marilyn R. Schuster, Marguerite Duras Revisited (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), p. 63. ↩
- Marguerite Duras, quoted in Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 373–374. ↩
- Marguerite Duras, India Song, Barbara Bray, trans. (New York: Grove Press, 1976), pp. 5–6. ↩
- Schuster, op. cit., p. 77. ↩
- Marguerite Duras, cited in Jacques Rivette & Jean Narboni, “An Interview with Marguerite Duras,” in Destroy, She Said, trans. Helen Lane Cumberford (New York: Grove Press, 1970), p. 91. ↩
- Marguerite Duras, Abahn Sabana David, trans. Kazim Ali (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1970), p. 3. ↩
- Julia Kristeva and Katharine A. Jensen, “The Pain of Sorrow in the Modern World: The Works of Marguerite Duras,” PMLA 102.2 (March 1987): p. 140. ↩
- Marcelle Marini, cited in Susan D. Cohen, Women and Discourse in the Fiction of Marguerite Duras (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 150. ↩
- Catherine Rodgers, “Hijacking the Hunter: Duras’s ‘La nuit du chasseur’,” in Revisioning Duras: Film, Race, Sex, James S. Williams, ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), p. 72. ↩
- Duras cited in Rivette & Narboni, op. cit., p. 120. ↩
- Duras, Destroy, op. cit., p. 82. ↩
- Fabrice Callens, “Des journees entieres dans les arbres de marguerite duras,” YouTube, 16 February 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvPyCiUgaw8 ↩
- Williams, op. cit., p. 374. ↩
- Duras, cited in Rivette & Narboni, op. cit., p. 107. ↩