“Sleepwalking Through the Mekong”


Still from 'The Sea Wall'

Marguerite Duras From Page to Screen

Isolation, loss, and self-denial form a common currency in modernist literature. But there are few instances in which these themes are so intimately related to the structure and essential fabric of one author’s work than in the case of French author Marguerite Duras. A prolific novelist and playwright, Duras gradually became involved in filmmaking after writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. In the late 1960’s she started directing films, either adapting her own texts or, at other times, using none at all.

Growing up in Cambodia in the early part of the 20th Century, Duras was very much aware of being on the periphery of the empire, part of a distant outpost, surrounding which was a world considered by most Europeans to be beyond the pale. Her family was doubly at a remove from the refuge of French society because they were poor, and later triply so because her father died when she was young. Duras’ early life informs much of her writing, both for its vivid reservoir of autobiographical stories and for the everlasting affinity for disconnectedness that acts as a common thread throughout a variety of scenarios. She relives certain past events over the course of many works, as if trying to go back and awaken her own consciousness at these times, and to organize, according to an internal logic, that which has already occurred and which continually defies reason.

Still from 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)

In truth there may be nothing else like her writing, which often avoids any recognizable narrative conventions. For her, a break from accepted ways of telling a story was an important, even feminist, statement. Susan Doll, in Not Your Mother’s Melodrama, asserts that, “she carved out a space and style that resisted masculine dynamics of narrative by rejecting the forward-thrusting linear structure and embracing the emotional complexities of memory.” Since recollections are by turns faulty and deceptive, sometimes brutally serpentine, they necessitate an approach that can somehow reproduce their form and tone. Duras not only captures memory but also the ways in which it intrudes into life, the strength of its imprint sometimes even more important to the moment than the oncoming rush of sensations. Her text is not altogether impressionistic – it can be coldly precise – but it achieves a similar effect; through concrete imagery and anesthetizing, hypnotic ambiguity, the resulting vibrations are paramount, above comprehension.

Duras devotes a lot of the page to explanation (at times mostly explanation, with little description). But in the end, still, very little is apparent, and we are left with a wealth of intimation and latent possibilities. Her writing is generally stark and monotone, sodden with signification. The contiguous elements that bind the works, their persistently recurring themes, give the false impression that there would be some master key to unlock her writing, a comprehensive revelation that would make it suddenly decipherable. But, in reality, it speaks of far too many facets of life in the 20th Century to feel as though it could be adequately tucked in. And at the same time it is too personal, too subjective, to entirely succumb to the rational. The contents of her books and screenplays seem to be all that is contradictory and perplexing about human relations in the modern age. One cannot sum up what they are about, only talk about the different things they deal with and the marvelously frustrating structural forms Duras employs. She uses details as tools against clarity, confession as a form of iconostasis between the world and the individual.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour

France & Japan / 1959 / French, Japanese & English

Directed by Alain Resnais

With Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas

Still from 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)

The first cinematic collaboration on which Duras worked was Hiroshima, Mon Amour, with Alain Resnais. The film focuses on two people, a French woman and a Japanese man, in the midst of a brief encounter that might be described as romantic. She has come to Japan to film a movie, and is really just passing through, and they both know that their two, distinct worlds are overlapping only for a short time. Over the course of a day spent together, each of them discovers more about the other through the action of memory, examining the inaction of time and the ways in which the shadows of history are replicated within each new experience. The central metaphor, a tragedy beyond comparison, underscores the ways that the two characters think of and look at one another, lingering at the back of each question and revelation.

The film begins with the lovers coated, as if lying in a ghostly snow globe, in the radioactive ash that falls throughout time, covering us all, rendering every warm embrace impersonal. They try hard to imagine themselves without it. At first she is at pains to express a kind of shared sorrow for the evils inflicted against Japanese citizens. “What was there for you to weep over?” he asks her. Not even those who were there to experience it cry about it. It is an event whose dimensions resist human emotional response; normal expressions of grief or anger bounce back as hollow echoes. The film in which she is appearing is about peace, and features people marching with banners and singing songs of brotherhood. All this is a public refusal of warfare, but what about the personal conciliation of sorrow, devastation, or finality? Such introspection can easily move the other way, forming more barriers the more we force ourselves to relive the past.

We learn that the man, having been personally touched by the war, is not the only one to have experienced immense pain. The woman, in the rural French village called Nevers, fell in love with a German officer, whom she later found murdered and, driven over the edge by grief, was forcibly locked away in a cellar for the remainder of the war. In the fourth, more confessional part of the film, she speaks directly to him, through him (like she would a medium) as though he were her dead lover from the war. Over the course of Hiroshima, Mon Amour we learn about the French woman in depth, but details about the Japanese man remain elusive. He partly functions as a reflection of her, the simultaneous longing to come to terms with regret and to forget altogether. But that is not the whole story; he is also a receptacle for secondhand memories – first and foremost the memory of the atomic bomb, and then also the story of her past that he absorbs with devoted fascination. To him, her recalling represents “the pain of oblivion.” Continuing to live is the process of forgetting – but there is no permanent escape. Besides the obvious one, of course.

Still from 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour'

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)

The theme of experiencing events vicariously figures prominently here, as it does in such later films as 10:30 PM Summer and India Song. The two people want to feel a certain pain, precisely and acutely, and in a way that is direct and without contravention, as though it were an electric current being conducted through them. But, importantly, they want pain that is not their own, that could never have been their own, to supplant that which has devoured and occupied so many aspects of their lives. They walk through a museum with exhibits about the decimation of Hiroshima. In the text Duras calls for imagery of the horror, playing back in the character’s imaginations and whispered exchanges. Resnais inserts reenacted footage from Japan of the fiery horror and people climbing from wreckage, followed by the real, more sober imagery of the aftermath, radiation scars and deformed feet. The ordering of chaos and the reduction of immensity seen in the museum become the primary experience of the event for a great many people as the years wear on. It seems instinctual – seeking to replace the personal experience with a mediated one if it is too much to assimilate.

In her text Duras does not distinguish between characters’ internal monologues and what they say to each other. There is no separation, as their rapport becomes as aqueous as sexual union. The author is imagining a momentary connection between two worlds, crossing boundaries of such definitions as victims and aggressors. By focusing on a specific, traumatic, untold instance in the past, each is able to feel the other’s sacrifice and process of self-invention. A well-known and widely experienced event seems useless by comparison. However there still exist blockades in the minds of the lovers, and they are strictly personal. She walks away and he follows her through plazas, lounges, and bus stations. She wants to forget him, angrily, in an act of resentment at not being able to forget the German. But the word Hiroshima, if not the image of her nameless lover there, is branded indefinitely.

10:30 PM Summer

U.S.A. & Spain / 1966 / English, Spanish & French

Directed by Jules Dassin

With Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider, Peter Finch

Director Jules Dassin makes the attempt at bringing Duras’ writing into the realm of the torrid psychodrama with 10:30 PM Summer, which at first seems like a departure from the icy meditation of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The milieu and characterization certainly are very different from the film that Duras did with Resnais, however it too looks at people attempting to connect with one another from behind emotional dams, through the canals of shared experience, with whose power they seek to relate only indirectly, either out of fear, anguish, or existential isolation.

Still from '10:30 PM Summer'

10:30 PM Summer (1960)

Maria and Paul are a couple in the midst of their holiday in Spain, accompanied by their young daughter and their friend Claire. Initially we find them traversing the driving rain in their car – Claire is in the front seat with Paul, Maria dozing in the back. This arrangement sets the tone for the rest of the story. They arrive in a small, cobblestone town that is in a stir over a double murder that has just taken place; a young man named Rodrigo Palestra, having caught his wife with her lover, shot both of them and then went into hiding. Our tourist family enters the local hotel to find it teeming beyond capacity with people stranded by the storm, as well as intermittent power outages and police searching the premises for the missing killer.

This is the Buñuelian backdrop for the first part of the film, blasted by rain and darkness, with people crowded in the hallways on cots. They listen to reports of Rodrigo’s deeds and the ongoing hunt for him with a kind of morbid and privileged excitement. The whole place is abuzz with it. Meanwhile Maria observes her husband and her friend, hoping to catch signs of desire between them. The setting seems to only magnify the tension existing between the three of them, each fearful of acting on his or her feelings.

There is a certain jealousy to their condescending obsession with this crime of passion. Both the youthful and the poor appear to have a free ticket to the brink of unravelled existence, while they, the ordinary,  must experience it through police surmise and secondhand gossip. Its ripples surround them, inescapable as the pounding rain – it is in the flickering candles, the seething confusion, and their own stolen glances. There is a sort of connection that Maria feels with the young man, after only having heard his story, an identification with the lawlessness of the emotions brimming over the barrier of social limits. While she talks freely and ignores many taboos, as is de rigeur for a character played by Mercouri, she would never discard stability. She and Paul reminisce about Venice, presumably referring to a less predictable time in their lives, in a way that suggests Claire would be their key to recapturing it.

At last Maria glimpses Rodrigo, and he is not the dashingly cut, lightning-lit figure that we have hoped for. He is a black lump, like a slumbering bat, pressed against the rooftop, trying to evade the searchlights. A cowering lamb on the lam. And this is in the midst of her watching Paul and Claire embracing on a balcony. The two are undoubtedly connected, and both appear as though they could be visions. She wants to receive both the fulfillment of her latent desire for Claire (through Paul’s extramarital affair) and the satisfaction of killing both of them (derived by way of sympathizing with Rodrigo), neither of which are direct experiences, only an approximation thereof.

Still from '10:30 PM Summer'

10:30 PM Summer (1966)

Pauline Kael felt that the premise is a dulled, diluted rehash of Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) for decadent older people, examining a similar sort of triangular sexual dynamic but not daring to explore it to the fullest. While the accuracy of this assessment may seem unfortunate for the movie, Kael is (perhaps unknowingly?) delving into the heart of Duras’ methodology. The disconnect that the story describes, both superficially in the couple’s fixation on Rodrigo and more pervasively in their desire for Claire, is what the writer is choosing to examine, which is to say: the open treatment of that which they at once actively stifle within themselves. They populate their ruminations, both private and shared, with figments and intangible signifiers rather than acknowledging their fantasies.

It is when Maria decides to seek out Rodrigo, to break from the cerebral, carefree enjoyment of violence, and actually take a risk, that everything else gets transformed. She is repudiating the double entrendre (the parallel entendre) that is her married life, the self-deception masquerading as mutual deception that is pushing it along. She bravely puts her money where her mouth has trespassed and, having previously asserted her solidarity for the condemned man, shields him from harm. For her Rodrigo is a sort of attainable release, one that Claire and Paul do not give her, but one to which she has no actual responsibility.

Most interesting is how, after the intrusion of the real, we find that their attitudes aren’t really changed – the characters just become too frightened to suffer them any longer. Their perilous, delicately positioned ascension above the messiness of the world is revealed to them as a true and malignant hazard or, even worse, an illusion whose brief moments of transparency give way to thin air beneath them. After being apprised of Maria’s adventure with the killer, Paul becomes absorbed by it, never to return fully. Meanwhile Claire continues to be Claire, alluring but unwilling to make a move, as though challenging Paul or Maria to step forward and proposition her. Maria has watched her husband in a passionate embrace with the other woman. But what did she really see? Nothing that she did not wish to have happen, and thus nothing that could transcend the limitations of her imagination. The desperate Rodrigo presents them all with something beyond their experience or comprehension, a frightening personification of what desire can do when no longer suppressed.

Nathalie Granger

France / 1972 / French

Directed by Marguerite Duras

With Lucia Bosé, Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Depardieu

India Song

France / 1975 / French

Directed by Marguerite Duras

With Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Carrière

Two films that Duras directed, Nathalie Granger and India Song are among the most effective realizations of her ideas concerning memory, her probing transformation of the superficial world, and her rejection of conventional form and structure. (Even beyond rejecting them, she seems not to have lived in even the same neighborhood as those things). In the essay Apocalyptic Desires, Charles Coleman describes how, “Duras’ films evoke narrative, rather than presenting a linear, clear-cut sequence of events, and like her novels, they are more concerned with the intensity of an event rather than the event itself.” Looking at her directorial work, viewers may instinctively project a narrative sensibility onto what they see. But the films themselves rely on suggestion, association, and omission, rather than order and the arc of a plotline, to communicate what is happening.

Nathalie Granger is expressive without being articulate, and it finds an unorthodox vocabulary of restraint. The film is rich with domestic imagery, given a new kind of weight and purpose, in spite of the overall minimal approach to presenting it. In it two women, one the eponymous girl’s mother, the other a family friend, sit in the latter’s house around midday. On the radio we hear the developing news story of two teenaged murderers who are hiding out in the forest. The women listen without much interest, and do household things. There is little dialogue. They seem traumatized, but of what? There is a perpetual silence, pregnant like that following a tragedy. Duras describes things in disjointed arrangement, suggesting flashbacks, going between the house and the school, interior and exterior.

Still from 'Nathalie Granger'

Nathalie Granger (1972)

The daughter, Nathalie (8), who has been kicked out of school for displaying unusual violence toward other pupils, seems like a distillation of the women’s terminal but latent frustration, and the solitude and torpor of the time they spend together in the house. Dressed in a mini skirt and knee-high socks she looks a miniature protegé of her mother,  indecently fashionable, and to a greater degree than someone playing with a baby carriage in the backyard should be. Her mother, while locked in the sinuous, spirited clothing of the bourgeoisie, is contrastingly made statuesque by her sullen poise, her commanding aloofness. She talks to Nathalie’s school principle about enrolling her in a different school, where she can focus on learning to play the piano.

The film was shot in Duras’ house, a typically rambling but cozy, 18th Century affair with a dark and forbidding pond out back. It seems both to be facing a quiet street and set at the edge of a forest. The house was the initial element in the process of the film, the catalyst even, coming before any written text, and really informing what happens on the screen. Its numerous mirrors and doorways function in much the same way as one another, leading the eye to a person or an action in a physical space that is separate, while also enclosing them, describing them in the surrounding geometry. There is little in the way of action; there are activities, but precious few defining moments within those activities that seem to hold some kind of important meaning on their own. The two women clean the table, burn a pile of leaves in the backyard, drink tea dispassionately, languorously, exchanging few words with one another.

As Nathalie plays we are keenly aware of the violence in her actions, the danger of the pond, and the thrill in the air brought on by the young killers somewhere out there. She and Moreau’s son take piano lessons in the house, both of them attempting to play Bach but seeming lost in an eternal spiral of meandering scales. Outside, and throughout the house, and reflected on the faces of their mothers, there is a powerful sense of stillness and disquiet. The periodic intrusion of the radio reports recall the rumor-fascination of 10:30 PM Summer, a sort of envisioning of the outside world that replicates, rather than engages directly with, the passions and desires that enthrall the subconscious. But here it is received with utter desensitization, rather than false empathy.

Still from 'Nathalie Granger'

It is unsettling to see Moreau with blonde hair and almost no makeup, as though she were playing a remote look-alike of herself. Depardieu appears from out of nowhere as a door-to-door salesman who shows up at the house. His stilted train wreck of a pitch goes on and on as if he cannot stop himself, as if he only wants to be there to see them, these two ferally beautiful, middle-aged women (who don’t seem to inhabit his reality or any adjacent ones either) in their natural habitat. They only look at him with cold curiosity, and finally tell him that he is not a salesman.

In one sense Duras is placing the film in the center of her world – that is to say, her own house – and her consciousness, but at the same time she leaves out any ordering instinct she may have had. As a result we sense things in the film more than read them, see them as brief impressions, rather like the interrupted encroachments of memory overlaid onto our perception. Duras avoids specificity and description, and there is only ambiguity left over. There is an overarching feeling of dread, of things being on the verge of collapse or change, even though the slowness of the imagery, the sense of perpetuity in the hanging, persistent piano notes, suggests otherwise. It is dreamlike in the truest, most mundane sense.

Black and white cinematography has the two-fold effect of essentializing the image, confining it to a particular and austere visual regime, while also drawing our attention, in a more concentrated way than color does, to the various elements of the picture, things like composition and depth. We become somehow more aware of space than in a color film, which fairly pitches us into the world, sculpting and analyzing the image as we would our own experience. The visual acuity through which we experience Nathalie Granger is a distracting element that lures us away from most analysis; things that are amiss, incomplete, unspoken remain so. The depiction of dimensionality is integral to the film, as the characters, appearing more apathetic than even the audience most likely is, move with amnesic uncertainty through the different rooms, as though passing through layers of reality and through memory itself.

But overall the film resists memory and shuns reasoning. This is what sets it apart from much of Duras’ works that seem to dwell on the twists and turns that connect our present to our history. While there are similarities in tone to India Song, this is an altogether separate world. Gone is the usual litany of details that only confound, the half-recollections that torment and swirl about the characters, and the iterative style that defines much of Duras’ writing. Here there seems to be a conscious push towards imprecision, creating a place that is no place, and people who are bereft of individual will. Everything is seen through the vague gauze of ambiguity, the talk and preoccupations of the characters in 10:30 PM Summer given a new tangibility.

Still from 'India Song'

India Song is an adaptation of the novel The Vice-Consul, which she wrote nearly a decade earlier. The main character in the story, Anne Marie Stretter, is one of the many springing from Duras’ childhood in French Indochina and continuing in a speculative trajectory. She is a woman who has lived all of her life in the European colonies, first in Cambodia, and now, as an adult, is married to a senior official in India. To deal with an emotionally destitute existence with the wealthy ruling class, takes lovers – any man, it is said, who seeks her company – to the islands South of Calcutta. In doling her attention out to different men she is attempting to multiply herself, to perhaps find some truth or wholeness among the bodies. She is not secretive; she only wishes to evade self-awareness for as long as she can.

The colonial mansion of the setting is decrepit, eerie, with weeds that poke through the cracked pavement outside. Although the film shot entirely in France, Duras successfully evokes the putrefaction and the vaguely haunted air of elegance gone to seed, qualities that can only be properly exuded from the monuments to European colonial power that have shrivelled away to husks. At first the scenery is deserted, but then, on the grounds at dusk, characters emerge like phantasms. At the party in the embassy where much of the film is staged, Anne Marie and her lovers mingle and talk discreetly, acting out a night that goes beyond ritual, and that seemingly stretches out into infinity. Like a rehearsal or a pantomime, it lacks an element of reality.

In the outside world, somewhere in the night, a woman, mad and unkempt, mirrors Anne Marie, stalks her. Having walked, over the span of years, to India from Savannakhet in Cambodia, she is an echo of the places Anne Marie left behind to arrive where she has. We never see this ghost, only hear her voice, as she represents the filth, tragedy, and disorder that we hope could be denied, or at least drowned out. The mad woman’s “Song of Battambang” is surprisingly pure and melodic. But then it is broken by hideous laughter. The song is both unclean and childlike, invoking memories of Anne Marie’s past that travel with her, tardy but insistent, dwelling somewhere beyond the embassy walls.

Newly introduced to the community of Europeans in Calcutta is the former Vice-Consul of Lahore. He was sent there because of misconduct, having gone on a shooting spree in the city of his posting. The victims were natives, however, and lepers at that, so the colonial administration has treated him as an embarrassment rather than as a criminal. He wanders through the party, obviously brokenhearted at having lost the city that he loved, and longs for Anne Marie. Everyone else keeps their distance from him, as they are in a place where each person’s history precedes them. His sadness becomes so overwhelming that he cries out for her, unsettling the other guests and further alienating himself.

Conversations overlap. The image is beholden to the sound, rather than the other way around. In one sense the film comes out of the text because the voice-over foregrounds all else. The picture is at once tied to and disconnected from the narration. In another sense the film resists the explication and image-building repetition of the book. What, in the text, sometimes seem to be heated exchanges take on a more incantatory character. Anne Marie and her lovers talk in detail about themselves and about the Vice-Consul’s life, like omniscient gossips reporting on his failure and longing. But theirs are as clear, if not as broken and unseemly as his.

Still from 'India Song'

India Song (1975)

Like Nathalie Granger, India Song is not dictated by a succession of events, but transpires by way of slow, forlorn description, like the seeping of a realization or the persistent drip of emotional abjection. Both films rely on a strong sense of monotony, but while the earlier film dwells on banal minutia of daily life, the India Song has characters who seem entranced, choreographed, revolving on a tragic gramophone record that has a crack traveling into its center. Like Duras’ house in Nathalie Granger, the embassy has many mirrors in it, enacting a similacral effect on the characters within the frame; their immediate presences are seen but equated with, or subordinate to, the flat reflection.

Smell is important to them – “the smell of mud… insipid” – because it is something that pervades the head and imagination (there are always cigarettes and incense burning), and because it is the strongest trigger of memory. Pathological associations concerning impurity, so integral to colonists’ attitudes towards their subjects and to one another, are embodied in their resistance to the smells of the place they inhabit. It speaks of what they perceive as their ties . What is tragicomic about these people is that they do not realize that the moorings have long since been severed, perhaps even before they were all born, leaving them to drift forever towards the Sunderbans.

To Duras Calcutta is something of a frothing-over point for colonial malaise, a center where undesirable things flow in, round the bend in the Ganges, and drain into the sea. There is a sense of inevitability to the Cambodian woman’s journey, as there is for Anne Marie’s. Both seem helpless, wanting. In The Vice Consul the function of the insane woman’s voice is as a confrontation to the saturnine Europeans, but in the film it joins the quietly disconcerting mélange of the soundtrack. The jazz song of the title plays over and over, and, as innocuous as it is, comes to represent that which it covers up, what those within the embassy wish to keep on the other side of their walls. Like smell, sound surmounts the barriers in one way or another, and can be strangely indelible.

At the reception being held in his honor, the Vice-Consul is being spoken about and not to, largely by Anne Marie while she is alone with George Crawn.  Anne Marie tries not to acknowledge that the Vice-Consul is there, merely walking past. The music is incongruously gay because its presence recalls the possibility of love, and because the silences are rather lonely, the characters attempting to supplant it with discussion of suffering and death. Duras resists synchronous sounds, instilling more a sense of passivity than alienation; no one’s words are their own here. Even when characters appear to be speaking in intimate murmurs, it is in fact offscreen narration. The lips do not move. They cannot even speak directly to one another, intimacy being an illusion, or perhaps just not worth the effort.

“She can’t stand those who have gotten used to India,” some people Because if they have gotten used to India, if they have settled into the slow waste of their life there, then she presents them with nothing especially interesting. She is the draw of the colonies, their seductive languor and aimlessness personified. To desire it they must not realize that they are steeped in it. This seems of particular importance for the French characters, who really have no idea why they are there. They talk fearfully of leprosy, “the colonial disease,” as though they ran a chance of contracting it. But they are already afflicted with something native to their circle. The Vice-Consul is the one she doesn’t fall for. In the absence of a woman he began to love India, and that was fatal. His love became violent, inexplicable, thus making him utterly reproachable to other Europeans, the pariah in a cantonment of immortal loss. The leprosy of which they speak is symbolic of the diffidence that imprisons them, as well as the hollowing rot that has overcome their ceremony and privilege.

The Lover

France / 1992 / English, French, & Chinese

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

With Jane March, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Frédérique Meininger

The Sea Wall

France & Cambodia / 2008 / French & Khmer

Directed by Rithy Panh

With Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Astrid Berges-Frisbey

Still from 'The Lover'

The Lover (1992)

Two later adaptations of Duras novels, The Lover and The Sea Wall, represent somewhat divergent interpretations of her adolescence in French Indochina. The earlier film, by Jean-Jacques Annaud, focuses on a real-life affair that Duras had with a wealthy Chinese man, portraying the story with slick and atmospheric romanticism, suffused with deep gestures and breathless melodrama. In the film Duras is a lithe teenager who wears a man’s fedora (possibly a trophy from an admirer or a memento of her father). Her harried, controlling mother and two brothers live on a farm that they can barely afford to maintain, while she herself spends most of the year boarding at a convent and attending a local school downriver from them. On the boat one time, returning to school from a visit, she meets a man in his 30’s, the son of a Chinese businessman, and accepts a ride from him. Thereafter he pursues her, showing up outside her dormitory in his chauffeured car. She begins ducking out frequently to spend time with him, accompanying him to an apartment he keeps solely for entertaining women.

She is poor and European, he is rich and Asian; the two lovers are both beneath the ruling class, their subordination meeting somewhere in a shared middle ground, what amounts in the colonial world to socioeconomic hybridity. The film shows their private relationship with refined and stylized exhibitionism. Their amour fou is so intense and sudden that it ceases to be interesting early on, fizzling down to a repetitious delighting in lonely climaxes and bodily restraint.

The man is an aristocrat but not in her family’s eyes, not in the European world. He has (or at least, his family has) surpassed them in their own striving. To them he is more reprehensible than a coolie because he puts on airs. But of course we see that he is better than them because he is polite, deferential, while they are beastly to him and lacking in refinement. As much as it pains them to do so, they encourage the girl’s relationship with him, in order to help them rise out of dire financial straits. He appears all to happy to oblige them, as long as the girl’s two bigoted brothers leave the two of them alone to pursue their fantasies.

Director Annaud sets up the film with a labyrinthine visual sensibility composed of minute close ups, crystalline and abstract, a motif he returns to later on. He seems preoccupied with the attractiveness of the lovers, the opiated atmosphere of the city, and steaming newness of their relationship, as alien and unaccustomed as it is for both of them. He is not attempting any great statement with his adaptation. Each of the two characters is using the other to transcend and reverse what bogs them down in the inequality of a colonial system, correcting the injustices of final barriers they could not overcome in the present situation. The man is of a merchant class, similarly out of place as she is, although in a literal sense they are both natives of Indochina. They both enjoy certain privileges, but also suffer from endemic limitations. Her family wishes to live as brahmans but cannot seem to ascend as high as other beneficiaries of imperialism; they remain bumpkins.

Still from 'The Lover'

The Lover (1992)

On the film’s release Duras eschewed its literalism, its pandering and shallow eroticism, and composed her own adaptation of the book as a response. In spite of the time-worn social complications that rest on the two main characters’ affair, the tragic and intertwined histories of the colonials and their subjects (and in the case of the Chinese, their ancillary go-betweens), things outside of the affair is sketchily envisioned. The character of Duras, narrating the story decades after the fact, recalls her lover’s strength and ferocity when it was just the two of them, as though she has sought for him to negate her prejudices of weakness and femininity, and that rich people make poor lovers. To him she is a momentary taste of something that he can conquer that is more substantial than Western clothing and colonial money.

Rithy Panh’s adaptation of Duras’ 1950 novel Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique tells a similar story through a local, more somber. The film is considerably more naturalistic than The Lover, situating the events of Duras’ youth in a somewhat broader context, focusing more on the family’s plight due to overpowering socioeconomic factors. Its portrayal of the grim reality of their lives, as opposed to a burnished fantasy of forbidden love, imagines the same events with an altogether different outlook.

The story begins on the recently-purchased land on which the family have started their farm. It is right next to the ocean and the tides have washed over the sea wall and ruined the crop of rice. Facing financial ruin, the mother works through red tape and corrupt bureaucrats in order to extend her claim on the land for another year and have a second chance. A far cry from her corresponding character in The Lover, the character of the mother is sympathetic and works with the locals who are supporting her by helping her till the bitter earth. She gives them medicine and later becomes involved in their land disputes with the French colonial government, which treats her almost as heartlessly as it treats the peasants. Both she and the proletarian population of the village are disenfranchised. This family of poorer European settlers seem more equal to the Cambodians than their non-laboring contemporaries, as they have to experience many of the same problems with both the land and the land-owning system. As the government loses its grip, it clamps down ever harder on what it does have, becoming all the more petty, squalid and cruel.

Suzanne, the teenaged daughter, has gained the attention of a wealthy member of the landed elite, who is named Mr. Jo. Dressed in a crisp, white suit, he makes his intentions known to her, as well as her mother and brother. However she resists his moves, perhaps recognizing for the first time her own power and potential for economic advancement. Her mother, the nearest example of independence and survival, is foundering with the intractable rice fields, relying on her children to help her. It is no wonder Suzanne sees her wealthy suitor as a way out for all of them. And her mother encourages her to do so, slyly, but still perhaps too forwardly for Suzanne, who takes a while to fully warm to the notion. All other social indicators say that she shouldn’t.

Still from 'The Sea Wall'

The Sea Wall (2008)

The mother represents the holding on of the last colonists, even after the ground has spoiled. These are regular people, not born to be movers and shakers. But they have held on, and they are too impoverished to be able to survive in France. Meanwhile their adopted home is becoming, day by day, no longer theirs. There is more pushing her along then merely survival of her family. They are desperate, but a long way from going completely under.  Her health starts to fail and she becomes more disengaged from the reality of what is happening to the land and the people around her. Consequently her speech becomes more abstracted, more preoccupied with death and violence than it had been before, reflecting a degree of concession to the strains of life in the colonies that she had before refused so deliberately. As her power over the family’s situation diminishes her children become stronger and more worldly as they drift away from her. Like in Panh’s earlier film, The Rice People (1994), the younger generation picks up the responsibility when their parents are pummelled past sanity by the prevailing conditions.

Joseph, Suzanne’s older brother, is the unhappy performer of work around the farm that would normally be the job of a native overseer. It is he who must fend off the government agents with his rifle, and he is also the member of the family most influenced by imperial wisdom concerning other races. While he is tired and the most resentful at not being wealthy like the other Europeans he meets, he still has pride, so much so that he is the most resistant when Jo comes calling. The situation seems too much for Joseph to bear, and his mother doesn’t complain. As a result he adopts a greater degree of independence, himself starting a relationship with a married woman who lives in Saigon. His flaunting of his burgeoning sexuality has the opposite effect as Suzanne’s does, pulling him away from the family, and potentially exerting a ruinous effect on their material situation.

Unlike his mother, Joseph is not wedded to the land, and hopes for something more. His sister has gotten that in the form of the fawning older man. She recognizes the power that Jo’s attention grants her and she pushes him away. Holding out is easy for her because she actually despises him, a fact that sets her apart from the main character in The Lover. By extension, Panh’s approach is comparatively pragmatic, dispensing with the possibility that romance could exist in such a socially inverted situation, thereby undercutting the complexities and implications of imagining that it could.

The calculated exploitation that the family enacts on the wealthy suitor is prominent in both films, as is his acceptance of such conditions. However in the case of The Lover, this compromise gets channeled into a kind of violence, as the shame that the Chinese man feels at not being able to escape the domineering of the Europeans – something from which he felt immune – becomes humiliation that he inflicts on his lover in private. The heroine of the film, however, never seems to give in to the ruling-class instinct that her family would wish her to exhibit. Although clearly galvanized by the control that the affair grants her over her social status and her destiny, she already seems, from the very start of the film, a person apart, strong-willed and as independent from her family as is possible. This contrasts with the coquettish, sometimes diffident girl in The Sea Wall. In that story the family is kept afloat, rather than demeaned, by the mother.

Still from 'The Sea Wall'

The Sea Wall (2008)

In these two stories Duras is working through things that happened to her in her early life, extracting that which made a lasting impression on her and emphasizing it. Indeed, elements of both can be traced towards preoccupations that permeate the rest of her writing, with distinct, but at times converging, ways of looking at the past. Her attitude towards Annaud’s adaptation of her book L’Amant shows her disinclination towards an overly dramatic way of depicting the past. And although it was made after her lifetime, the film The Sea Wall appears to much more adequately capture the banality and frustration of her memories of growing up in the colonies. Suzanne’s stringing along of her wealthy suitor shows the need to redirect, to re-inflict those feelings wherever one can, reacting to the barriers with which many of Duras’ characters meet by externalizing, rather than taking in, latent sorrow.

The condition of alienation is, at its heart, the separation from our essential selves that is exacted by the world and by circumstances – our minds from our bodies. Through others, and by way of substitution of experience, one seeks a way out of such separation. But we are forever faced with the impossibility of transcending the entirety of oneself through union with other people, rendering a desire for such a thing trivial, an intellectual exercise. In Duras’ world, people strive to substitute their memories, longings, and the experience of individuality by using others as conduits to another existence. Both the wistful lovers in Hiroshima, Mon Amour and the regret-filled holidaymakers in 10:30 PM Summer embody a kind of end to experience, a roadblock of middle age and the remoteness of change that causes people to want to double back and seek a way out in reverse. They variously wish to neutralize trauma and surmount stasis. The struggle to do so forms both a palliative for, and a root cause of, the distinctly modern condition that Duras’ writing, through its intensely frozen narrative and logic-defying forms, evokes so convincingly.



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