No Other Reason: Marguerite Duras’s “My Cinema”

L’homme atlantique (Marguerite Duras, 1981).

In 1981, coinciding with the release of Marguerite Duras’s seventeenth film, L’homme atlantique, Le Monde published a short text—“a warning”—by the writer and filmmaker: 

It has become customary for the majority of cinemagoers in France to act as though cinema is something that is owed to them, to protest and scream bloody murder at the appearance of films that weren’t made for them alone.
Therefore, I would like to tell these viewers not to step foot in the cinema that is screening «L’homme atlantique,» that there is no use in doing so because the film was made in total ignorance of their existence.

Later that year, in an interview conducted by Anne de Gasperi, Duras doubled down on her exclusionary rhetoric. “My cinema is not made for people who love cinema. I didn’t think about those people for a second,” she said. That Duras distinguished between her cinema and that of the entertainment-seeking moviegoer should come as no surprise. The French writer, born in 1914 in Vietnam (then Indochina), rose to the heights of literary fame precisely because her work was so emphatically her own. That is: indulgent, repetitive, narcissistic, oblique—qualities that applied to her artistic output as well as her public persona, that inspired her haters as well as her disciples.

In the case of her warning about L’homme atlantique, Duras was anticipating the uproar against the film’s extended sequences of pure black. Briefly, we see waves lapping gently against the shore, a mustachioed gentleman (Yann Andréa, Duras’s final companion before her death in 1996) wandering around a seemingly abandoned hotel. However, for the majority of the film, we stare at a black screen as Duras talks about memory and mortality in voiceover. The writer’s fixation with speech in her films is linked to a unique literary mandate, a preference less for the written medium than for the alchemy of words. Her experimental approach to language, characterized by pauses, pithy allusions, and an almost neurotic repetitiveness, conjures mental images and states of being that transcend concrete description. Richer are the stories we carry coated with dust, warped by trauma, their details obscured by the amnesiac’s spotted perspective. Duras’s work strives to embody experience and give shape to existence, always steeped in the passage of time.

By presenting us with a black screen, Duras invites us to summon images roused by her narration; the blackness, a vessel of emptiness, is a space to be looked at, devoid of fixed objects to be seen. In the context of an elegiac monologue, this pool of nothingness courts the disintegration of perception, the fragmentation of memory as one slips into death. L’homme atlantique denies us the representational images by which standards of cinematic quality are measured, and, in different ways, so does the rest of her cinematic oeuvre, filled as it is with primordially stretched-out long takes, still bodies heavy with introspection, narration and dialogue that dance around meaning. Movies, with their origins in dime-ticket spectacle, are often anchored to a certain kind of audience-pleasing legibility. This Duras actively ignored, rearranging the essential ingredients of cinema—light, movement, sound—to serve her own purposes, her own obsessions. She made nineteen films between 1967 and 1985, and all of them she made to “fill my time,” as she said. “It is only because I haven’t the strength to do nothing that I make films. For no other reason.”

Le camion (Marguerite Duras, 1977).

My Cinema, a collection of texts by and interviews with Duras translated by Daniella Shreir, is decidedly not a guidebook to Duras’s films. Such an objective would be antithetical to the artist’s project. Instead, this bookis composed of primary sources such as those cited above. It is an opportunity to ride Duras’s singular wavelength, with materials that extend the films rather than solve them, that live in their universe. Shreir—the founder and co-editor of Another Gaze, as well as a seasoned translator of French (see the 2019 Silver Press edition of Chantal Akerman’s final book, My Mother Laughs)—does a fine job of capturing what Shreir calls the Durassian “flavor of the text.” This is no small feat when translating a writer of such elusive intent. Shreir structures the book chronologically, beginning with Duras’s first film, La musica (1967), which she co-directed with Paul Seban, and ending with her final one, Les enfants (1985), formally her most commercial film, an existential comedy about a child in the body of an adult man who learns too quickly the terrors of our mortal coil. 

With the exception of a miscellaneous section containing interviews about Duras’s filmmaking writ large, each of the book’s parts is dedicated to a single movie, represented by an assemblage of interviews, press-kit materials, and production notes. The two lengthiest chapters cover India Song (1975)—the most well-known and celebrated of Duras’s (historically derided) directorial efforts—and Le camion (1977)—a critique of Marxism and an expression of Duras’s disenchantment with the French Communist Party. Among the small number of English translations devoted to Duras’s cinema, The Darkroom, published in 2021 by Contra Mundum, deals exclusively with Le camion, though only the corresponding press kit in My Cinema overlaps with The Darkroom’s components. (Compare these two translations and you’ll find Shreir’s richer lexicon better suits the lofty side of Duras’s declarative sentences.)

Duras approved of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), the film by Alain Resnais for which she wrote the screenplay. But, generally, she found film adaptations of her work to be vastly disappointing. René Clément, Peter Brook, and Jules Dassin all translated her early novels for the screen, but Duras believed none of them to have understood her work’s intentions. Classical narrative annoyed her. “I consider the content of commercial cinema to be chewed over, pre-digested, and served up for the consumption of a public whose intellectual faculties are made to work at twenty percent of their capacity,” she explained. These disillusions encouraged Duras to make her own films, as did a desire to slow down her novelistic output. The solitude of writing had at the time become unbearable to her, so much so that from 1973 until 1980 she ceased writing books. During this stretch, she produced the majority of her films. 

Woman of the Ganges (Marguerite Duras, 1974).

Beginning with Woman of the Ganges (1974), about a man who returns to a coastal ghost town and basks in the memories of the passionate affair he once had there, Duras began to launch a more radical offensive against the conventional union of sound and image. Disembodied voices observe the man disinterestedly, and speak indirectly of lost loves—not just the man’s, but their own and everyone’s who haunts this forsaken setting. “The past—relieved, uncluttered from the accident of personal biography—would have been treated as private and collective at the same time,” Duras wrote in a letter to Pierre Schaeffer, the director of the French broadcasting company that had commissioned the film. As suggested by Duras’s side of the correspondence (“I was unaware that what you wanted from me was a film about Trouville… I believed that what you wanted was a film by me”), Schaeffer was not particularly happy with the finished product. 

Duras was often accused of being redundant. In her novels, plays, and films, she returned again and again to her childhood in Indochina, recycling characters and places whose qualities she would tweak—or outright contradict—with each turn. Jacques Rivette, in a conversation with Duras from 1969, observed this tendency thus: “You seem to be displaying more and more a desire to give successive forms to each of your… I don’t want to use the word stories.” Take India Song, which features forlorn images of a French ambassador’s wife in Lahore, the circumstances of her oppression elucidated by the rotating voices of unseen narrators. In Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), the full soundtrack to India Song (both the score by Carlos d’Alessio and the narration) is repurposed to accompany new images of the same château, now in a state of decay, seemingly years after the events of the other film. The images we see in L’homme atlantique are discarded shots from Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981), itself a postmortem meditation on an impossible love, this time in the form of a dialogue between a (mostly obscured) brother and sister. Here, too, we return to Duras’s preferred vision of purgatory: gray, empty beaches and streets.  

Duras may be best known as a writer, but her cinema is a natural extension of her desire to destroy and “assassinate” inadequate yet dominant structures of experience—those she considered to be passive and pleasurable, forms of “advertisement” rather than the violent, dark truths she sought to unearth. “How to endure [this darkness] while also being aware of it?” she wrote. Like other experimental filmmakers of the time, Duras created an alternative, rooted in the materiality of image and text, to mainstream cinema’s narrativized delineation of experience. From here, she created a small universe cut from the cloth of her own personal tragedies. Her animating force was the relentless tide of memory, which laps at our heels until death.