India Song: Memory’s Endless Purgatorial Waltz

03/12/2010 9:45 AM |


In conjunction with a citywide celebration of Marguerite Duras, Anthology Film Archives will screen a selection of the French artist and intellectual’s films screens for a week beginning tonight. India Song screens on Saturday evening and Wednesday night.

Marguerite Duras’ meditation on displacement and exile—colonialists exiled from home, voice exiled from image, present exiled from past—straddles the same line as Last Year at Marienbad: it’s at once an endlessly, helplessly repeated closed-circuit staging of dances and longing, people poised as mannequins, as petrifications of both formal high society and Memory that’d distill an entire scene to a single action absorbing the reality’s details and emotional connotations like spongiform as tableaux-art—and at the exact same time, it’s a perverse form of wish fulfillment in an enactment of the endless Ophulsian waltz as a dance marathon in purgatory. Gossip on the soundtrack discusses, questions, invokes images of a few mirrored palace rooms and the men who pass through dancing, standing, and lying next to (perhaps) an ambassador’s wife (Delpine Seyrig); these mix with pans across landscapes and dusk and sounds of an Indonesian immigrant wailing. Songs, sambas, repeat. India Song, filmed in Paris, mirrors, like much Duras, the worlds people create for themselves, talk and sing of, and fail to populate.

Where Duras as writer easily reduces realities to pornographic abstractions, ideas in single words—love, fear, desire, etc.—Duras the filmmaker, contemporary of Straub, constantly details naturalistic happenstances, light and wind on trees just outside windows, that her figurines, operating by remote, never see. Per reputation, Anthology’s concurrently exhibiting a slew of leftist filmmakers disjointing image and sound: Leo Hurwitz traditionally using image to punctuate commentary, William E. Jones academically counterpointing the two as objective/subjective dialectic, and Duras far more radically interlocking each as a more realized “reality” of the other in a basic extension of standard novel technique: sound (dialogue) providing a full scene of conversation, reactions, gossip, context, and narrative progress where the image (description) provides a static, material rendition of the scene as characters primp in still-lifes for the camera—or each other. Narrative progress in Duras’ films only occurs in cross-cuts, as Duras returns to a shot with a new development on-screen; eventually, shots play like hypothetic refractions of each other.

As do the characters, usually mirrored against themselves, in India Song, and as do sound and image. Both soundtrack and image-track form a nexus of collegiate desires: various characters’ imaginations and fantasies expressed, materialized, meeting and greeting each other in a common arena on-screen or soundtrack. The cycling songs play like a mutual projection of the dancers’ imagination—or the director’s invocation of the dance. The tension holds across. The looping scenes are either, in keeping with Duras, faux-objectivist placeholders for an irrecoverable reality—crystallizations of buried emotions and public developments of private lives—or interior, luxuriantly imagined moments of respite from realities at hand. Both seem right. As filmed by lamp-light and magic hour, India Song has an insular, crepuscular beauty of silk and satin gowns treated flatly as light and textures of their own, like silhouettes against a sun or room: the film’s openly about a ghost-world.

Where the camera of Marienbad chases corridors like a ghost itself trying to conjure any sort of animating movement in a fossilized world, Duras achieves the same effect in a formal inversion: her camera never moves and uses mirrors and windows as alternate prosceniums onto the action. Here space holds, and people passing through, saying nothing, and basking in each other’s luster, are ghosts not through Resnais’ dissonance, fragmentation, camera-itself-in-a-closed-circuit, but through each scene playing as a version of another, but none going anywhere to begin with. The camera itself fossilizes, until Duras releases to watch, just as patiently, the outside world—not the poor exploited by the colonialist protagonists, but everyday sun and wind backyard stuff—then pans across it, and it’s here, as throughout Duras, that some animating force is felt against the closed world of artists, lovers, and aristocrats.