Nathalie Granger, 1972. It would seem logical to characterize Marguerite Duras’ organic, elliptical anti-melodrama Nathalie Granger as a precursor of sorts to the implosive isolation and domestic violence of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Both films depict a silent ritualism to the performance of domestic chores through stationary shots and disembodied framing, and intimated acts of violence that surface within the perturbation of these rituals (in Duras’ film, the stoking of a bonfire in the backyard and the tearing of contractual papers that are then thrown into the burning fireplace correlate to Jeanne Dielman’s disorientation after accidentally burning potatoes on the stovetop). An early sequence of a radio news broadcast playing in the background that chronicles the manhunt for a pair of escaped convicts similarly establishes a sense of disquiet and foreboding in the quotidian ritual, as the two women, Isabelle Granger (Lucia Bosé) and an unnamed (and perhaps representationally identified) “other woman” (Jeanne Moreau) clear the breakfast table, wash dishes, and replace the dinnerware into the cupboards in silence. However, a subsequent telephone call to local authorities – an inquiry into the immigration status of their unexpectedly deported housekeeper – suggests that, unlike Jeanne Dielman who performs her tasks with a seemingly catatonic disarticulation from reality, their actions are borne of ennui, a self-created distraction to fill the empty hours of their domestic prison (note the repeated image of the window bars that overlook the street, a theme that is also aurally represented by the recurring sound of the radio broadcast on the escaped prisoners as well as the variations of a set of rudimentary notes played on a piano). Meanwhile, another domestic crisis plays out in the background as Isabelle petitions to get her young daughter Nathalie (Valerie Mascolo), already on the verge of expulsion for a pattern of misbehavior in school, admitted into another school in the resolute (if not over-magnified) belief that her daughter’s entire life prospect would somehow be irrevocably “finished” if she cannot gain admission and continue with her piano lessons. A final dynamic is added in the comical appearance of an ineffective door-to-door washing machine salesman (Gérard Depardieu) who misconstrues the women’s bored indifference as an open invitation to continue to insinuate himself into their company. In creating a tone of languid texturality, Nathalie Granger can also be seen a prefiguration to the cinema of Claire Denis, a visual convergence that is particularly evident in the tracking shot of Isabelle’s reflection in a pond that is reversed (and figuratively wiped away) in the subsequent match cut to Nathalie’s playmate, Laurence (Nathalie Bourgeois) trawling plankton as the rowboat slowly drifts away from the camera. This countervalent intertextuality of entropy and inertia, melody and dissonance, physical presence and mirror image (a metaphoric device that is also incorporated in Duras’ subsequent film, India Song) inevitably define the idiosyncratic affectation of the women in the Granger household – the internalized psychological warfare and violent revolution between identity and erasure.
India Song, 1975. The static shot of a sun setting in real-time on an eerily tranquil, desolate horizon is framed against the sound of multicultural voices interwoven into a curious – and strangely dissociative – chorus of traditional storytelling chants and third-person recollective dialogue. Recounting the story of a Laotian-born beggar girl along the Ganges River who, at the age of 12, had embarked on a ten-year journey that would eventually take her from Burma to India in a desperate attempt to lose herself in the unfamiliar landscape, the elliptical narrative then abruptly shifts subjects within the threaded element of common geography as a tale of lost love is revealed between a devoted suitor named Michael Richardson (Claude Mann) who had followed his beloved, a socialite named Lola Valérie Stein, to India, only to lose her in death. Meanwhile, the sunset has been replaced by languid, fractured images of the interior of an uninhabited, elegantly appointed colonial-era home: a grand piano in an empty hall that is reinforced with the sound of a melancholic jazz piano tune; a shimmering evening ensemble laid across the floor as an off-screen narrator describes the pageantry of past soirées once hosted in the Tunisian city of Thala that had served to uncover the hidden desires of its aristocratic guests; the illumination of an ornate chandelier that is set against a conversation of an unseen light that became a harbinger for a monsoon in Calcutta; the imprecise memory of the aroma of flowers that is answered with the recollected odor of leprosy. It is within this dramlike roundelay of opulence and decadence, passion and loss, that a failed love affair plays out between the Vice-Consul of Lahore (Michael Lonsdale) and Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), the wanton, neglected wife of a French administrator in Laos, as they live out their waning days of colonial privilege in the exotic, transitory paradise.
Marguerite Duras creates a sensual, yet abstract and enigmatic exposition on longing, isolation, haunted memory, and obsolescence in India Song. Duras integrates highly stylized, yet integrally personal (and relevant) impressionistic images of her youth in then-French Indochina and the radical nouveau roman structure that has come to define the novelist turned filmmaker’s mid-century avant-garde literature within the classical framework of tableaux imagery that redefines the syntax of traditional (and particularly cinematic) narrative. From the opening sequence of ambiguous, (but implicitly colonial) foreign landscapes, Duras establishes the dissociation between the visual and the aural through incongruous and aesthetically formalized tableaux juxtapositions that, in turn, reflect the film’s overarching themes of alienation and estrangement: exclusive use of non-diegetic sound to serve as a surrogate contextual (anti) narrative; visually distanced, non-confronting dialogue through mirrored angles (a technique similarly implemented in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad); pervasive musicality through a slow rhythm waltz that conveys the film’s paradoxical sense of displacement and stasis through its languid pacing, recursiveness, and melancholic tone; repeated references to leprosy that ingeniously evoke an implicit association between isolation (through disease quarantining) and colonies (lepers and imperialism). Inextricably bound in the performance of the empty social rituals of their class, these aimless, privileged colonialists embody the adrift and inutile fleeting vestiges of a crumbling empire, reduced to the imperceptible glow of an anecdotal setting sun against an inherently sovereignless – and unconquerable – eternal landscape.
Acquarello 2004-2005 [reprinted]