India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)

I have been teaching exclusively online since March 2020, and I will continue to do so until at least the end of 2021. This means, among other things, that I have to write out all my comments that might otherwise have just been delivered verbally, during class discussion. Last spring, I posted some of my remarks on music videos on this blog, but I haven’t posted any class notes since. But I wanted to post my notes on Marguerite Duras’ movie India Song (1975), since I think this film is still under-discussed (though revered by many cinephiles).

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was one of the major French novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Her movies are not as well known as her prose fiction, but she directed close to twenty films, wrote the screenplays for several others, and had a lot of her novels adapted into movies by others. Duras was a white French woman, but she was born in Vietnam, which was a French colony (part of French Indochina) at the time (Vietnam only became an independent country after World War II; it then went through decades of war before the Communist north and the pro-US south were finally united in 1975). Duras’ parents were schoolteachers, which is to say they were minor bureaucrats in the French colonial apparatus that ruled Indochina at the time. Duras moved to France itself in 1932, when she was 18 years old, and lived there for the rest of her life. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, she was active in the Underground resistance. She started publishing fiction towards the end of the War, and continued prolifically from the 1950s through the 1980s. Her first involvement with cinema came when she wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), one of the key works of the early French New Wave. She started directing her own films in the late 1960s, and continued doing so right through until the early 1980s. Often her work crossed genres and used the same characters and situations in different works; thus India Song was first written as a play before it was made into a movie, and it contains elements and characters from a number of Duras’ novels from the previous decade (most notably The Vice Consul from 1965, but there are others as well). India Song itself was further transformed in a later movie by Duras, Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta d├ęsert (1976), which used the identical soundtrack but had entirely different visuals.

The most surprising and challenging thing about India Song, in formalist terms, is the separation between the images and the sound. We see the main characters of the story — Anne Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband and various lovers, as well as the Vice Consul (MIchael Lonsdale) who is in love with her — but they never speak on screen. (Besides these main characters, the only other human figure we see is that of a single Indian servant who turns on lights and passes out champagne glasses on occasion). On the soundtrack, we hear a number of disembodied female and male voices who tell us (or tell each other) the story of these characters. We also hear music (the song called “India Song”, which the voices at times refer to directly, as well as a number of other 1930s-style not-quite-tango dance numbers, all composed specifically for the movie by Carlos d’Alessio), and some background ambient sounds, plus the untranslated speech and singing of the Laotian (? – it seems) beggar woman coming from outside. The music may or may not be diegetic; the story includes at its center a big party at the French embassy, but we never see this event, since the camera remains in a different room, with an unused piano and a gigantic mirror, into which some of the characters occasionally wander). There is also, from time to time, in addition to the main voices, barely discernible background murmuring, in both French and English, which is perhaps the chatter of the guests at the party (we cannot tell for sure whether this is diegetic sound or not; part of the effect of the movie is to make the diegetic/non-diegetic distinction itself break down).

The voices recount to each other the story of Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul; sometimes this is in the past tense, and sometimes in the present. Sometimes the voices describe what they see: but this is not always the same scene that we see on screen. At other times, the voices speak the characters’ own dialogue, instead of commenting on the characters in the third person. These dialogue sequences seem to coincide more or less with what is happening visually on screen at the time, but we do not see the actors’ mouths moving; we don’t really know for sure if the characters are actually saying these things, or only thinking them. At a climactic point in the film, there is a dialogue between Anne Marie Stretter and the Vice Consul, in which he tells her of his love for her; she responds that she feels the same way, but will not stay with him. The offscreen dialogue starts as they are dancing together on screen; but they soon move offscreen as the dialogue continues. After this, the Vice Consul starts screaming (he has already said to her that he will do this); apparently (as far as we gather from the voices) he is kicked out from the party for acting this way, but he still continues screaming from outside afterwards. We hear the screaming, on the soundtrack, on and off for a good stretch of time, but we never see the Vice Consul making a scene or actually screaming. After he has left, we only see him in a single shot where he is walking down the road away from the camera (and not screaming).

As for the images, most of the film takes place in the French ambassador’s mansion in Calcutta. The setting is a lavish mansion, but crumbling into decrepitude. Most of the interior shots are set in a single room, with a piano and an enormous ceiling-to-floor mirror. The camera never moves when it is in this room, but Duras gets amazing effects from the mirror, as we sometimes see characters only in the actual room, sometimes only in the mirror, and sometimes both. All this energizes our sense of space, although the room’s decrepitude and gloomy color scheme (sort of a pukey green, which is contrasted with Anne Marie’s red dress) conversely makes the room feel dead. There are some other shots in other rooms of the mansion, which are also fairly dark and often show the characters in nearly motionless tableaus. Early in the film, we see Anne Marie and several of the others lying on the floor, nearly passed out from the heat; closer to the end, there is a tableau of her and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) standing on a sort of verandah, as the light varies from murky to bright and back again. Interspersed with these fixed-camera shots are a number of sequences of the ruined mansion from outside, or of the park surrounding it; these are usually left-to-right tracking shots.

For the last half hour or so, the setting is different; we are told that the ambassador and his entourage have moved from Calcutta to the Ganges delta. Here the indoor scenery is lighter and brighter. There is one extraordinary shot where Anne Marie and the five men walk through the central corridor of the empty hotel restaurant, the camera tracks backwards as they walk forward. They continue walking, left of the camera and out of the frame. The shot continues, with the camera now motionless. as the Vice Consul comes in, tracing their steps, walks all the way to the camera, and then out of the frame on the right. (I am not sure, but I think that this is the only time the camera moves in an indoor shot).

India Song could be regarded as what is now known as slow cinema, though the term hadn’t been invented yet in 1975. What’s certain is that there is nothing random about any of this; everything in the movie is quite planned and deliberate. Duras produced the soundtrack first, and then shot images to accompany it; this is a procedure that is almost never done in cinema (usually the images come first, and the soundtrack is calibrated to match the image track). (Music videos, which didn’t exist yet in 1975, are the only contemporary form in which images are matched to pre-existing sound, instead of the reverse). In any case, because the movie is not shot naturalistically, it invites us to think of the juxtapositions between sound and image in a new way. Most movies naturalize the relation of sound to images; when we hear people speaking, we see their lips moving, and the non-diegetic music matches the mood of what we see happening on screen. Other movies deliberately mess with image/sound coordination in certain ways, in order to get certain reactions from us (in some classes, I have shown a sequence from Takeshi Kitano’s 1989 film The Violent Cop, in which a vicious fight between a cop and a gangster is accompanied by music that sounds like it belongs in a softcore porn film instead; his whole point is to blow our minds with the incongruity). But India Song doesn’t take either of these approaches; the relation between what we see and what we hear is oblique, but always meaningful.

Since the people on screen never actually speak, we mostly respond to them by interpreting their body language. Mostly, they seem bored, enervated by the heat; their lives seem sterile and repetitious, drained of meaning. It is as if they share the decrepitude of their surroundings. Delphine Seyrig, as Anne Marie, dances listlessly and without energy, handled by whichever man she is dancing with at the moment; the dance postures are always sterotypically correct. Sometimes she breaks into a smile, but we don’t get the impression that this does much to alleviate the monotony. We are told by the voices that Anne Marie has sex with any number of men, with the tacit approval of her husband — it seems that the Vice Consul, who is the only man who is truly aroused by her, to the point of obsession, is the only man she will not sleep with. Often we see these people smoking, though they usually just hold the lit cigarettes, without actually taking a puff.

The decrepitude of these characters’ lavish surroundings is a powerfully anti-naturalistic feature of the movie; we would have to presume that the mansion was not decrepit like this when it was actually being lived in in 1937. Usually, because of the intensity of the action, movies seem to take place in a heightened present (regardless of the year or historical period in which they are set). India Song amazingly goes against this; because of the decrepitude both of the setting and the characters, it seems to be played out in the past tense (in other words, it is not just that it takes place in 1937 when the movie was made in 1975, but everything we see and hear radiates pastness, over-and-done-with-ness, instead of the present tense featured alike by historical epics, futuristic science fiction, and movies set in the present moment). This in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am inclined to think of the voices we hear on the soundtrack as ghosts: they are not really present; and the now that plays out for them, when they describe what they see and what the characters are saying, is an already long-past now, which for that reason can only be revived in this ghostly form of images without substance, and sounds without bodies to produce them. (Gilles Deleuze, who we will read later in the semester, is the only film theorist I know of who conceptualizes the idea of films not in the present tense; though he develops this idea independently of his discussion of Duras).

India Song works as a political commentary on European colonialism in Asia, something that Duras was concerned with, and all too familiar with as a result of her childhood as a French colonialist in Vietnam. The film shows us the lives of white European colonialists, bureaucrats of colonial occupation, who are rich and powerful but have no knowledge of, or connection to, the people whose lives they control, and who they oppress. The colonized masses are never seen in the film: they are represented only by the voice of the beggar woman, whose ongoing life, in conditions of extreme poverty, contrasts with the vapid existence of the white colonials. (There is also, as I have already mentioned, the discreet presence of the one Indian servant who we see briefly). The colonial rulers live in ignorance and isolation. The men are involved either in bureaucratic governance or in making money through business; the women (of whom we see only one, Anne Marie Stretter herself) have nothing to fill their lives, but are kept as trophy wives or mistresses by the men. We are told that Anne Marie Stretter has already tried to commit suicide once, with a lover, but the attempt failed. We also learn that Anne Marie used to be a concert pianist, but she has stopped playing and now basically does nothing. The abandoned piano (with the music of India Song, and a photo of Anne Marie in her youth) is prominent in the mise en scene, and it notably remains unplayed. (We are told at one point that it is out of tune, due to warping as a result of the heat).

There is a remarkable moment, in the latter part of the film, after everyone has gone to the islands. We see a tableau of Anne Marie and the five men (all but the Vice Consul) seated around a dining table, dressed mostly in white, and brightly lit (as was never the case in the mansion). The camera pulls back slowly from the group. The offscreen voices tell us, for the first and only time, that it is 1937. They add by cataloging what is going on in the world at this time. Japan is waging war against China, and they have just bombed Shanghai. In Spain, the civil war goes on, and the Republic is on the verge of being destroyed by the fascists. In Russia, the Revolution has been betrayed by Stalinist terror. In Germany, the Nazis have just held the gigantic Congress of Nuremberg rally, consolidating their power. Suddenly it all gets crystallized for us: these people live in a bubble, a sort of vacuum, unconnected to and unaware of not only their colonial subjects (the very people they oppress), but all the horrible things that are going on in the world. I find this an absolutely stunning moment, because of how it emerges from the otherwise even tone of the film, and how it both estranges us from what we have been seeing for over an hour and a half, and gives us a sudden deeper insight into it).

Why does Duras make a long movie about such worthless people? Why does she dwell upon their splendor and decadence? (I am thinking both of the characters’ wealth and privilege, and of the way they are ironically portrayed, by being shown in the ruins and decay of a retrospective view of their lives? (I say retrospective, because of the temporal disjunction at the heart of the film — the way it doesn’t seem to have a present tense, the way the decay of the mansion in which we see them is apparently decades removed from the life they lived in 1937). I think the answer to this is in the tale of passion at the heart of the story: the Vice Consul’s hopeless love for Anne Marie Stretter. Duras is, in a certain sense, an ultra-romantic novelist and filmmaker. Her compulsive subject, in nearly all of her work, is hopeless romantic passion. (Part of her claim to be a major feminist writer and filmmaker is the way she takes this stereotypically ‘feminine’ subject and twists it around, analyzing it, pushing it to extremes, suggesting both its inescapability and its failure or impossibility). Here, the Vice Consul is the only one of the male characters who realizes the full extent of his vacancy and nullity. He is madly in love with Anne Marie Stretter, despite barely having met her and knowing nothing whatsoever about her. He sacrifices everything in his life, including notably his privileged position in the diplomatic corps, to his overwhelming, and totally ungrounded, passion.

We learn that, in the backstory, the Vice Consul has been dismissed from his consular position because he started shooting at random into a leper’s colony, indiscriminately murdering the native inhabitants. I think the point of this is that he has only literalized what all the European colonialists are doing when they make their livings in Asia by oppressing the inhabitants. All the other colonials are every bit as racist as the Vice Consul, but only he has had the bad taste to overtly and publicly act it out. Leprosy is significant in the movie both literally and metaphorically. Lepers were in the past separated from the rest of society, because their illness was believed to be so highly communicable. In earlier times, leprosy was a menace in Europe as much as elsewhere, but by 1937 it had largely been eliminiated in the affluent West (although effective treatments were not developed until after World War II). Leprosy has therefore been traditionally metaphorized as a form of social stigma. But we are also told by the voices in the film that leprosy involves decay of the nerve endings, so that sufferers do not actually feel pain, even though their bodies are in a state of decay. In this sense, the voices describe the situation of the European characters in the film as a “leprosy of the heart.”

The Vice Consul’s passion is both a symptom of the malady of the European colonizers, and a desperate (and inevitably futile) effort to overcome it. His screaming about his unreciprocated love for Anne Marie Stretter — a screaming which we hear on the soundtrack, but do not see — is both a deliberate social transgression (it gets him ostracized from white colonial society in a way that even murdering native people did not do) and a desperate attempt to express what cannot possibly be expressed. For Duras, extreme erotic passion is both fascinating and delusive. It is a demand for something that cannot possibly be attained — my fusion with the person I love, at the same time as that other person remains unattainable, because the condition of my love is precisely that they are utterly different from and alien to myself.

In nearly all of Duras’ novels and movies, this excess of passion is at the center. The Vice Consul’s passion is a desire that ruptures all social bonds, and all structures of meaning. Duras romanticizes and celebrates this excess, because it is the ultimate rejection, both of all social constraints and of the very state of being self-enclosed or trapped within one’s own subjectivity. But at the same time, it is entirely futile, because such a crossing of all boundaries is impossible; and also because such extreme feelings are inexpressible. Anything you say or do is inadequate to the desire you are trying to express. All words fall short, and all deeds are ludicrously ineffectual. Such extreme desire cannot really be represented; to represent it in any positive way would be to sell it short, and thereby to trivialize it, and indeed even to betray it. In this sense, the sexual passion that is the ultimate subject of India Song is not represented anywhere in the movie. We neither see it nor hear it, although everything we do see and hear testifies to it — or rather, testifies to its absence. This is the deepest reason for the separation of sound and image in the movie (as in most of Duras’ movies). What the movie is really about is what falls between the cracks, what neither soundtrack nor imagetrack can contain.

Throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st, artists have been obsessed with transgression, insisting on images of extreme sexuality and violence in order to scandalize audiences and break taboos. Duras turns this impulse inside out, in effect suggesting that transgressive images themselves overly tame and normalize the actions that they present — the effort to shock only ends up making the “shocking” material banal. This is why Duras is interested instead in what cannot be presented at all, what resists being captured cinematically, what falls into the disjunction between sound and image. By showing us daily banality, she preserves the extreme passion from being banalized. Life is exhausted in these movements of excess.

India Song therefore ends with the voices informing us of Anne Marie Stretter’s suicide, which once again, of course, is not directly presented to us on screen, but only communicated to us indirectly. Anne Marie has sex with just about anybody; but this sex is evidently entirely insignificant. Perhaps it temporarily relieves Anne Marie’s boredom, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything emotionally. The one passion in the movie on the part of any of the white characters, that is not just idle and trivial, is the Vice Consul’s passion for Anne Marie. But it is for this very reason that she turns him down. She reciprocates his passion only by failing to connect with him as massively as he fails to connect with her. Were she to accept him, as she does with all her other prospective lovers, this would only trivialize his passion, and extinguish her own. Another way to put this is to say that there is no solution to, and no escape from, the sterile and empty lives of the colonists. The movie’s grim message is that only escape is death, and the only meaningful passion is the one that culminates, not in satisfaction, but in death. At least this is the case for the European characters; Duras said in a interview that the only non-tragic character in the movie is the beggar woman who we never see. The beggar woman, Duras says, goes on with her life despite conditions of deprivation; but this is something that the European characters, even or especially with all their affluence, are unable to do.