This Week: Film Society begins Marguerite Duras Retrospective
Beginning this week, The Film Society of Lincoln Center is launching a retrospective on playwright, novelist, essayist, and film director Marguerite Duras. The retrospective marks her centennial as well as the re-release of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay written by Duras. Though I have not yet seen Duras’ films, her writing has resonated with me since I first encountered her autobiographical text, The Lover (1984) in a graduate seminar last year. I remember her book fascinated me as her writing broke all conventions of storytelling. Unlike other authors, Duras’ writing is both visceral and unblinkingly literal; she gives voice to silence, and shapes what cannot be seen—desire, loss, memory. In anticipation of the retrospective, I recently returned to The Lover, and found, again, a window into the life of an artist whose writing questions not only how we write, but also how we see. So in hopes of stirring our thoughts as we look forward to Duras’ films this week, The Lover is the subject of this post.
The Lover tells the story of a French girl growing up in colonial Indochina. The narrator lives in Sadec, a city in the Southern part of the colony, with her widowed mother and two brothers. Elliptically tracing her departure into adulthood and her development as a writer, the narrator tells the story of her life, which she describes, in a moment of both defiance and negation, as having no “center,” “No path, no line.”
The story opens with a description of a “photograph” that exists only in the narrator’s memory. The image is of a girl—the narrator—crossing the Mekong River at age fifteen and a half, traveling to her boarding school in Saigon. She remembers herself wearing her mother’s silk dress, a man’s flat brimmed hat, and gold lamé high heels. She recalls:
“I think it was during this journey [across the river] that the image became detached, removed from all the rest. It might have existed,a photograph might have been taken, just like any other, somewhere else, in other circumstances. But it wasn’t. The subject was too slight. Who would have thought of such a thing?”
As her childhood is marked by her family’s failure to recognize her as an individual, denying her subjectivity, it is precisely the photograph’s “slightness” that marks its importance to her life: “it’s to this, this failure to have been created, that the image owes its virtue.” The photo exists for no one but the narrator; she is its only creator.
The details of the photograph unfold over the course of the book and take on new meaning as time moves forward and backwards, within and around the image. With the movement of the story, we learn that this image takes place before she meets the older Chinese man who will later become her lover; before their clandestine affair causes an unbridgeable rift between the narrator and her family; before desire carves out a space that undercuts and reveals her alienation from her colonial environment.
By focusing on the non-existent photograph, Duras’ text speaks to a new way of seeing. It is provocative that the narrator chooses to call her memory a “photograph,” as the image is not still, but moving; she is journeying across the river. Unlike the manicured and stagnant portraits that the narrator’s mother sought for herself—portraits that the narrator describes as “uniformly rejuvenated”—the photograph that the text returns to again and again expands and changes as the story and narrator evolves in time.
Images, as seen in Duras’ fixation on the absent photograph, appear differently throughout the story to not only the narrator, but also to the reader . Unlike other narratives about growing up, we are not meant to accept one version of the story and then move on. Instead, as the narrator writes, we can always find “hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that [are] buried.” Indeed, I only realized on a second reading that the narrator’s shortest (and very first) recollection of the photograph is, perhaps, the most expansive:
“So, I’m fifteen and a half.
It’s on a ferry crossing the Mekong River.
The image lasts all the way across.”
From this early description, she reveals that the image of herself crossing the river can never be concluded, that all events preceding and following that day are and have always been contained in its memory. For Duras, the photographic image becomes a site of constant movement, a space of departure and return. The image lasts all the way across.
For more information and a schedule of the upcoming screenings, visit the Film Society’s website.