Colonial guilt: India Song and Marguerite Duras

In this piece originally published in our Winter 1975 issue, Carlos Clarens talks to Marguerite Duras about her hypnotic film India Song, starring Delphine Seyrig as the anguished wife of a disgraced diplomat in 1930s India.

India Song (1975)

It doesn’t come as too great a surprise to learn that Carl T. Dreyer is Marguerite Duras’s favourite director. There is that famous sequence in Dreyer’s Vampyr in which the hero wanders into a barn, deserted but for shadows on the wall, coupled and dancing to a polka that trails off on a sinister chord.

The characters in Duras’s India Song are likewise phantoms dancing in a filmic dimension, memories conjured by the disembodied voices of guests and gossipers at an embassy reception in the Calcutta of the mid-1930s, by those who are the subject of the gossip, and by a somewhat more detached narrator. The only suggestion of the Indian locale is conveyed by the voice of a beggar woman, a wheedling, incomprehensible sing-song; all we see of an outside world is a facade, a tennis court, an overgrown garden, a livid sky at dusk or dawn.

Indoors, the atmosphere is almost subaqueous. The camera picks up a framed photograph of a woman, pans over a dress and some jewels, round a mirrored salon. A woman in a strapless gown the colour of earth and several men in formal evening wear drift in and out of each other’s arms, dancing sedately while an off-screen orchestra plays a rhumba, ragtime, a tango, a recurrent slow ballad.

The prevailing mood is one of deathly weltschmerz: elegant Europeans going through a silent choreography of boredom, despair, sexual attraction; offscreen, we hear the sounds of madness, reports of death and suicide.

To these relatively open images, sometimes reminiscent of 1930s magazine advertisements, we affix the story of Anne-Marie Stretter, whom we take to be the character played, or rather embodied, by Delphine Seyrig; this, however, is part of an identification process that the film itself now and then repudiates. It’s always possible to attach some sort of spirituality to an open image, to translate a visual statement into psychological, moral, even political cinema. India Song could be (and has been) read as anti-imperialist, the characters dying of colonial sickness, of isolation from an alien world that gradually alienates them from each other. But surrendering so readily to one’s personal conditioning takes much away from the filmic value.

Margeurite Duras

The photograph on the piano could be that of the Stretter woman, promiscuous wife of a French diplomat; the gown and jewels, all that remains after she drowned in the Indian Ocean. Seyrig could be Stretter, that’s enough.

Likewise we invest the actor Michel Lonsdale with the madness and despair of the vice-consul at Lahore, whom we know to be in disgrace from snatches of gossip and who, corroded by his passion for La Stretter, goes hysterical at the reception; while the soundtrack reverberates with his howling, Seyrig and her partners remain serene and imperturbable.

At various moments, she is joined by Claude Mann (Michael Richardson, her official lover), by Mathieu Carriere (the Austrian attache) and by Didier Flamand (the young guest); and they are joined at one point by Vernon Dobtcheff (a friend of the Stretters) for a dawn excursion to the Delta islands.

In a sustained take, Seyrig and her court (minus Lonsdale) are captured in formal stillness beside a bay window slowly flooding with light. There is no spatial trajectory in the film, merely an itinerary of the mind and memory. Time and place do not change; no new consciousness emerges. Time is not even chronology; this is provided by the men in Anne-Marie Stretter’s life.

By October 1975, 70,000 admissions to India Song had been sold in Paris alone: “the population of a sizeable village,” as Duras herself remarked. It’s the first of her six features to earn such a relatively wide audience, being less abstruse or forbidding than, for instance, La Femme du Gange (1973), which in retrospect appears as a first draft to the present film.

On the contrary, India Song rewards the viewer with some elegant, languorous images (shot in 16mm colour by Bruno Nuytten), and its contrapuntal soundtrack, although more demanding than the searing monologues of Hiroshima mon Amour, carries the same incantatory power.

To young film students here and abroad, raised on the disjointed image and sound of the Underground and its fragmented or non-narrative techniques, India Song can hardly seem avant-garde or pretentious. Perhaps a certain familiarity with other Duras works would enhance one’s enjoyment, but it’s not really indispensable to be aware that Michael Richardson once deserted Lol V. Stein for Anne-Marie Stretter (in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein) or that the vice-consul at Lahore is the leading character in a novel (Le Vice-Consul).

It’s much more crucial to become attuned to Duras’s feminine sensibility, and so far only Molly Haskell among the New York reviewers has championed the film from a feminist point of view. (One is reminded of the late filmmaker Maya Deren, who suggested, back in 1957, that a certain passive horizontality, in opposition to the eventful verticality of male-oriented films, could become woman’s contribution to the medium.)

The interview that follows took place at the Duras country home in Néauphle-le-Château, outside Paris, the same house in which she filmed Nathalie Granger and which she bought after the sale of film rights to her third novel, Barrage contre le Pacifique, filmed by Rene Clement in 1957 and released in Britain and the U.S. as The Sea Wall. It was also here that Duras and Alain Resnais collaborated on the screenplay of Hiroshima mon Amour shortly thereafter.

India Song (1975)

The character played by Didier Flamand in India Song – the young guest – is very shadowy, much more so than the others. With the exception of Michel Lonsdale, who is distinguished by his madness, the men are almost interchangeable, especially Flamand and Vernon Dobtcheff, who are silhouettes rather than characters. How did they come into the story?

The Flamand character arrives during the reception. He’s an old friend of Anne-Marie Stretter’s; but the thing the young guest and the young attaché (Mathieu Carriere) have in common is that they don’t know each other. I’m not too sure, but I think the attaché knew M. Stretter but not his wife. But what do you mean by shadowy?

For instance, in the insomnia scene during the monsoon…

…where they come out to sleep, on the carpet in the private drawing-room that opens on to the gardens…

…and one feels that he carries a dramatic charge in the film, but I can’t see exactly what. There is no dialogue with him, as there is with the attaché. He’s rather a ghostly presence.

I think he’s sleeping with Anne-Marie Stretter, though casually, without love, and that she dies before the young Austrian attache, Carriere, can sleep with her. It’s of no real consequence.

It’s simply a chronology.

Yes. I’ve talked about a ‘population’ of men. There are three of them, but there could well be ten. There are five men in her life but you see three of them, plus the vice-consul, whom I count as coming from outside.

And Stretter? You never see him? You’ve never seen him?


Is that why you didn’t introduce him?

There was no point.

Could you do the same thing with Lol V. Stein? Could she be enacted?

What I want to film more than anything else, even now, is Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. But I don’t think anyone will put up the money.

Even after India Song?

There’s more hope, but for a project like that… it means a three-hour film, a dozen characters, five or six locations…

A script does exist of Lol V. Stein?

It started out as one. I had an American commission to write a script. It was offered to Joseph Losey. Then suddenly I turned it into a book and I withdrew it.

India Song went through book, recital, play, the three possible disciplines, three different readings. I don’t know whether it should be staged, filmed or read.

Lol V. Stein began as a film. I wanted to make it in two parts: first the ball and the illness, then the marriage and the recurrence of the illness. That way it would cost less money and I’d be less awed.

Is it spending all that money that awes you?

No, it’s filming Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein that awes me.

And between the two there is Le Vice Consul, but that has in part become India Song.

Or rather, India Song assumes that Le Vice-Consul has been written. I could never have achieved that depth of focus if it hadn’t been based on a text on which I’d spent two years.

But there is a radical difference between India Song and Le Vice-Consul; which is that Le Vice-Consul ends with a sort of orgy in the Islands. She sleeps with two men at once…

But there is an echo of that in the film, in the insomnia scene, with all three in very erotic poses, three people momentarily in extremely intimate contact.

Very sensual. It’s a physical intimacy which may be the true intimacy. I can’t conceive of intimacy… or rather, yes, I can. There are two sorts of intimacy. One is corporal, and the other is something I don’t know what to call…


…within the family, for instance. That exists.

You’ve skipped the theatrical stage. Have you any thoughts of a theatrical production?

Yes, indeed. In fact I’ve just had a letter from London, from Peter Hall. But I won’t be involving myself personally with India Song any more. It’s made.

At one time, though, it was to be staged and filmed simultaneously, with Claude Regy doing the stage production.

Pierre Cardin [the designer] put a stop to that. But in any case I wouldn’t have followed through on the production. I can’t be on both sides, theatre and cinema. It’s impossible.

I was for the film; I was defending the film, the body of the film, and I didn’t want the film to go into the theatre. I said to Claude, “You must stick to the book as it was written, the film is none of your business.” But unfortunately he’d seen the film. We very nearly fell out over it, it was all quite dramatic. Finally we became friends again when the play was dropped.

But you have always been cinema oriented. You were a scriptwriter. You wrote Hiroshima mon Amour, Une Aussi Longue Absence, Moderato Cantabile for other filmmakers. You were drawn to the cinema.

No. It brought in money. When I did scripts for other directors it didn’t prevent me from writing, it didn’t take the place of writing. And I always did go on writing. But since I’ve been making films I’ve stopped writing, or at any rate I write much less. I’ve just written a script that I’m hoping to film soon. It’s called Vera Baxter.

But there is an enormous progression in your work from La Musica to India Song.

I don’t know if there’s an enormous progression… well, yes, because I’ve done a lot of daring things in India Song. Personally, I think India Song shows fantastic daring. But perhaps you have to be in the cinema…

I don’t know if other people realise. Telling a story inside out like that sweeps away all the laws of narrative. And at the same time you have the constant contradiction of the story, the photograph of the dead woman in view of the camera while her living self is also present, though off-screen.

But there was no theory behind it. I just did it. People have talked about an extraordinary, spellbinding fascination. But it would never have worked if it had been theoretical. It’s anti-theoretical. Absolutely intentional, you understand, but completely instinctive, never formulated as a principle.

You always planned to have the voices off?

Are you kidding! When I started… I can show you a script in which there are extras, people chatting, women in white, fluttering fans.

At what stage did you decide to take out all these characters? When you saw the sets?

There was February, March and then in April I began the stripping down. I was shooting in June.

With Vera Baxter, though, I have a script that absolutely anybody could direct. I think I’ll do it soon; I have the money. Any professional filmmaker would do a better job, but no one else would have enough faith in it. I’m extremely incompetent. But it’s an incompetence I want to preserve.

According to your cameraman Bruno Nuytten, filmmaking is still a source of wonderment for you, as though you were discovering the cinema for the first time. Did the cinema mean very little to you before?

It struck me as very difficult. But it’s less difficult than writing.

Because you have the whole crew behind you, whereas writing is a solitary process, and as painful as psychoanalysis?

It’s different, but it’s not as though I had invented the cinema. At least, India Song is a film I’ve invented, because I don’t see how it fits in with anything else. Do you? Entirely voice-off?

Yes, the American underground. People whose interests aren’t at all literary have reached the same end by a different route.

With the same justification? Because my justification is complete. Death being in the script, the death of people, it works all the way. It isn’t a whim but a necessity I couldn’t avoid. It isn’t a method of filming. I’m incapable of inventing such a thing.

But I didn’t come to the cinema out of nothing; I came from writing. So I have considerable experience of writing. So, when I experience wonderment, it isn’t something I can really get from the implications of the visual image in itself, which I already know. Literature comprises everything. Everything.

The text contains the image, the performances, the readers, the spectators, everything. So I can experience wonderment only at the result achieved. As though I were making a cake and it might flop but no, suddenly it’s risen. That’s where the wonder lies for me, but I do know that the cake exists, I know it’s been made before, I know it can be done.

Whereas you risk much more when you create a text. I’m saved by having my texts behind me. I’m not running any risks even if I make a complete hash of a film.

Even if I made a hash of India Song, if the voice-off were flat, empty, intangible, unjustified, if it failed to connect with the images, if it were deadly dull-what do I risk? It can’t wash out Hiroshima, it can’t wipe out Lol V. Stein, L’Amour and all the rest. So I went into that affair already assured of something.

Of course, if it had really been my first film, I’d never have dared.

The press conference after the Cannes screening was also a unique occasion, with a filmmaker talking about fictional characters as though they weren’t imaginary but living people. That, too, was daring. Your characters occasionally slip away from you.

I can’t quite visualise Anne-Marie Stretter making love, I don’t see her when she’s eating, I don’t see her naked. I see her in certain places and at certain moments in her daily routine, but not always.

But when you saw one of your scripts directed by someone else – Dassin’s 10.30 p.m. Summer, for instance – did you feel you could do it better?

I didn’t think so then. It cost 800 million (old francs). It was after that I said to myself, I’m going to have a go anyway.

That was why I made La Musica. That film and The Sailor from Gibraltar drove me to make my own.

How about the others? Moderato Cantabile?

It was thick. I didn’t really like it very much, but I prefer it to Lord of the Flies, where I think the basic idea was naive and that it was politically simplistic.

But you knew absolutely nothing about film technique, so you collaborated with Paul Seban on La Musica.

He looked after the camera and I did the cast. But there are two moments in the film that are mine: the scene with the mirror, and the one at the end, in the room. There the camera set-ups were mine. I used to look through the camera whenever I could, but Paul wasn’t very pleased about that.

“Well, yes,” people said, “but it’s a conversation, it isn’t cinema.” Right, I said, and the conversation is what the film is about.

People still say that to me. It isn’t cinema. You’ve no idea how much abuse there’s been. A front page article in Le Figaro about Hiroshima when it came out. They seemed to be frightened.

It was the wind of change.

There was too much dialogue. Personally, and I’m speaking for a certain breed of person like myself, I think that the kind of cinema which people have defined as cinema over the years is dead. Just as 19th century literature, the literature of Balzac, is dead. So the cinema must develop another dimension, which I’m beginning to find in India Song and which I hope to explore even further in my next films.

Don’t you think you may be passing from a very private period to a much more public one? I mean in your films, naturally.

But India Song is a very private film, with a mysterious potency. It’s a film that will be seen by a hundred thousand people, but it is also one that people see differently. Many people have seen it two, three, even five times. Anne de Gasperi of the Quotidien de Paris makes regular visits to see it, but not in the spirit of going to the cinema. So, as you can see, it isn’t cinema.

There’s a new dimension… I don’t know, offhand I can’t quite put it into words. It’s a co-existential dimension, something similar to what one finds in chemistry, simultaneously in the film and in the person watching it. In other words, there is a constant mutation in the film, which corresponds to something parallel in you.

As the film changes, so do you. It is no longer a story you are being told from the outside and from which you remain aloof. Spectator and spectacle share a common existence. What I’m saying is meaningless, really… But since everything means something, even something that is meaningless, there’s a grain of truth in it.

Don’t you think there was something like that even in Detruire, dit-elle?

Yes, the essence was already there. People didn’t really take it up, though, how the process of identification that functions for all spectators was destroyed in that film. And that left the spectator at sea, he no longer knew where he was.

Why? Because Stein (Michel Lonsdale), even though in the film himself, identified with the people in Detruire. He therefore prevented the spectator from identifying, which meant that the spectator was forced out of the film. Or else he had to try to get back inside the film, but not by way of identification.

There was something ominous about the film, quite independent of the text.

An imminence…? But I was afraid myself, all the time, on Detruire. Only 10,000 people paid to see it. Perhaps it came too soon, four years ago. People wanted nice, clear, well-made stories.

Are you using voice-off again in Vera Baxter, or will you be returning to dialogue between actors?

It’s an eminently sensible script. It’s been passed by the Commission d’Avance sur Recettes. There are no voices-off in the script. No… there won’t be any.

Whereas India Song, being an unfinished memory, fragmentary recollections concerning a dead woman, needed the voice-off?

Yes, that’s so. In India Song I play an enormous part. In Vera Baxter I’m just the director, but in India Song I’m more than the director. I’m in the film. Because these are my ghosts, you see. I said this at Cannes: I am filming myself.

Does this explain that feeling of stripping yourself naked in the market-place? Something that never happened with books?

Since Detruire, dit-elle I’ve been writing as I filmed India Song. L’Amour was written that way, and Detruire, even Les Parleuses. But I hadn’t yet made films like that.

Now the cinema has caught up with this sort of writing. I find this very gratifying, and at the same time I realise I need no longer bother with thinking “I’ll sell this script and make a lot of money.” Because now I’ve proved to myself that I can write in the cinema… or rather, write cinema…

On paper Vera Baxter is very ‘written’, but all the same the writing is more exterior, more controlled. I am completely mistress of my means, whereas with India Song I was afraid all the time.

Has Vera Baxter encountered Anne Marie Stretter or Lol V. Stein?

No, she’s not even any relation. Vera Baxter is sister to Nathalie Granger. It’s the other branch.

But there’s another film I want to make, another of my books called L’Apres-midi de Monsieur Andesmas, and that is certainly much closer to what I’ve been doing.

There’s a marked kinship between Anne-Marie Stretter and Lol V. Stein. They are both women who have suffered such a severe emotional shock that they will never recover, only Lol V. Stein lives on whereas Anne-Marie gradually lets herself die. Nathalie Granger is quite different.

Really that was written by another writer. Nathalie Granger and Vera Baxter are writer’s films, but I don’t know the writer who made them as well as I do the other. They’re mainstream works, even if you happen to think Nathalie Granger is a new form. The technique is one that has been used before in the cinema, approximately anyway.

Whereas I know that La Femme du Gange and India Song have never been done before. The vice-consul’s cries of love in India Song have never been heard before. They emanate from something other than cinema. For Nathalie Granger and Vera Baxter, on the other hand, I have cinematic reference points, even if I’m never aware of them. Everything depends on the images. Anyway…

It’s like another unconscious…

Right. But which I know I control, I know I possess it. I’m comparatively relaxed now. For several months I wondered how to do Vera Baxter, and then it came to me; but while I was thinking about it, I knew it would come. I never experienced the terror of not finding a way.

Was it an unconscious quest?

It was a formal quest. I had the theme. I wanted to put a woman into a film, but not sociologically – to hell with that – and not psychologically. To put her bodily into a film, a little as I did with Isabelle Granger, as I did with the two female bodies in Nathalie Granger. I shut the house up and I put a camera on the two women inside it.

That sounds simple. But it isn’t. But I’ve done it with Vera Baxter. India Song was much more difficult because I had to put myself into Calcutta, into leprosy, into hunger.

A real psychodrama.

Almost; you could call it that. But it was done like a poem.

I thought you hated the word ‘poetic’.

I do, but I have to put it that way. It was done like a poem.

Because it’s musical, rhythmic…

Because it doesn’t depend on chronology, it fights shy of the sense of signification. The meaning is exposed at every moment, without my worrying about it.

The music of India Song, the inner music of the text which creates the meaning, comes afterwards, without my intervention. But this meaning isn’t pre-existent: I don’t know why I’m filming those dresses, with the camera moving in at a particular tempo. Afterwards I know that death was in the camera. At the time I simply needed a certain motion to go with Anne-Marie’s movement. Purely and entirely physical, you see? Therefore musical.

The feeling seems to have communicated itself to the actors.

After a couple of days it really became quite extraordinary.

One of the loveliest things in the film is the moment when Delphine Seyrig leaves the piano and is escorted away by Claude Mann in a completely unnaturalistic movement. It is as though she were letting herself go.

You see movements like that under water. Did you know that shot was done late one night? I hadn’t anything planned. It was three o’clock in the morning, and we were just packing up after a night’s shooting when I said “We’ll do one last shot.” It corresponds to the end of the reception, it’s the morning of the last day. I think it’s at this same moment, on the following evening, that she will kill herself. There’s also the shot of the journey, motionless…

…with some extremely theatrical effects.

Well, I wouldn’t have been able to do that four years ago! To be a little more specific about what I was trying to say earlier about the cinema: when people talk, or rather when Sartre talks, about the process of identification that is necessary before the mystery of the performance can take place, I think that in the films I make the process of identification has to be double-headed. It must develop out of the narration, and also out of the narrator. I think that in India Song the identification is with me.

On thinking it over, yes, because the narrative remains as a ghostly presence haunting the imagination. One has the feeling of being got at, of having listened to someone. And that someone isn’t Anne Marie Stretter.

It’s not like a story you’re being told, it’s something else. You’re being invited to come to another place. And it’s not just the place the narration tells about, it’s also the place where the narration is happening.

I think there was already an element of that in Hiroshima. Westerns and thrillers stand up less well to re-viewing than other films. So narrative no longer plays the role it once did, because hitherto the mainspring of commercial films has always been a good efficient story that gripped the spectator from beginning to end. As in Melville’s films, for example. Now it’s different.

Except that what Melville was doing was telling American stories in a strong French accent. What about Bresson, though?

He narrates. We all do. You can’t help it. I’m crazy about Au Hasard Balthasar and especially Pickpocket. But above all I love Dreyer.

To return to India Song, why this particular feeling about India and Indo-China?

I was born in Indo-China, and in fact my third novel, Barrage contre le Pacifique, was set there.

And then I went on to… what?… I don’t remember. But you know, Anne-Marie Stretter already figured in Moderato Cantabile. That femininity, the woman who looks at things.

She was in Hiroshima too. When you see those two films they reveal a remarkable similarity: the two loves, the love for the Japanese which reflects the love for the German, and in Moderato Cantabile, the love for Chauvin which reflects the newspaper account of the murdered girl.

From Hiroshima to India Song, rejection and frustration are the stake. Because the reflection simultaneously poses a fatal attraction and means that the love can never be lived. All these women are equally suicidal.

For Lol V. Stein, too, one love blocks the other. Anne-Marie Stretter’s reasons for dying aren’t personal; they are reasons that exist outside her. You can equally well say that it’s the beggar woman who kills her. The sky, the monsoon, the heat, leprosy, love.

With Anne Desbaresdes in Moderato Cantabile, it’s more difficult to close in on her from the outside. The same is true of Lol V. Stein, but not of Anne-Marie Stretter. She doesn’t personalise; she has an awareness of things not shared by the others; and hers is the most logical suicide.

I said that at the Cannes press conference: that I saw something profoundly equitable about her death, in being able to compensate so perfectly for Calcutta. She is a sort of living surrogate, as though Calcutta secreted a deadly venom and she died poisoned by Calcutta. It’s no accident that she dies in the Indian Ocean. It’s logical. Anne-Marie Stretter dies, in fact, in full awareness of the horror.

Whereas the beggar woman dies in ignorance…

…but absolutely untouched, in total innocence. But can she die? A beggar woman? What isn’t alive, doesn’t die. The beggar woman’s place… where is it?

At what point did she come into your story?

Into my life? When I was 12 years old, that beggar woman came to our house at Bin Lonh with a baby and ran away during the night. My mother gave me the baby, which was dying. It was madness, she knew the baby was doomed.

Why did she make me a present of that child? In Le Barrage, it’s my mother… When all is said and done, I’m not a filmmaker, not a ‘maker’ of films.

Let Cinema Go to Its Ruins: The Cinema of Marguerite Duras is at the ICA from 18 July to 25 August 2024.