Credit: Cité Films
by Sarah Williams Featured Film Kicking the Canon

India Song | Marguerite Duras

April 16, 2021

1975 was a pivotal year for actress Delphine Seyrig. In addition to work with the radical feminist collective Les Insoumises, alongside director Carole Roussopoulos, she departed from working with popular auteurs of the day, like Buñuel and Resnais, to instead release a trio of major films with women filmmakers. The first, Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, is patience-test of the ordeals of a housewife, in this case one who turns tricks on the side to get through her life. The film has become a landmark in feminist cinema for its interrogation of the mundanities of women’s domestic life, and the subsequent destruction and self-attempted liberation from such culturally-imposed subjugation. The second was Liliane de Kermadec’s still-unrestored Aloïse, in which Seyrig plays a gifted but mentally unstable woman, her torment and talent expressed through haunting drawings. The third was author Marguerite Duras’ adaptation of her novel of the same name, India Song, where Seyrig is here the wife of a French ambassador in Calcutta, adrift in a life where tedium is both punctured and punctuated through high-ranking love affairs.

French literary titan Duras has planted colonialism as a common theme in her work, with The Lover, eventually adapted into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud, standing out as one of her most acclaimed efforts. The tale of a young girl in 1920s Saigon, Duras fixes a sympathetic figure at the center of her study of an imperialist power that never understands or embodies the territory it occupies, in this case a child who initiates a relationship with a man much older than herself. In India Song, such sympathy is lent to Anne-Marie Stretter, a woman who is made into an object of desire by the wealthy gentleman that make their way through her solitary life. Despite her ostensibly elevated status within the late-1930s Indian city, Anne-Marie remains isolated within her sector of white European society of which her husband is at the top. Duras sketches these colonizer communities as subsets of the nations they inhabit, forcing themselves out of culture so that they can colonize land, but never appropriating the people they look down upon. The director finds loneliness in these handmaidens of an imperial culture, with brief stirrings of conscience, but this is not achievable for Anne-Marie, whose whiteness gives her social power in the only part of her city she will be able to know. The glittering mansions, polished silverware, and cut-glass chandeliers are empty trappings of imported French nationalism, replicating a cultural ideal upon stolen land. Parties and affairs carry on the same as they would in their home country, but there’s a distinct, intrinsic hollowness to such soirees and pleasures when one’s power requires them to detach from their surroundings.

What makes Duras, and later Claire Denis, to draw a more modern example, able to properly articulate the women behind these bourgeois power structures is that they film through their own eyes. Duras was born in what was then French Indochina (now Vietnam) to two teachers living abroad, while Denis lived all over Franco-colonial West Africa as a child. The latter’s film White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as a white woman who fights to save her family’s coffee crop through a racial conflict. That film, like India Song, follows a white woman wielding ill-won power, rendered by an artist who was born into it, and both succeed because they bring about realistic consequences for the systems they uphold. Both Duras and Denis understand that what these women may face due to their sex does not invert or upset the pedestal that these women have, in the forced globalization of their worlds, benefited from.

One of Anne-Marie’s illicit palatial lovers is a Vice-Consul played by Michael Lonsdale. He is driven mad by love, and cries out like a wounded animal when he is asked to leave the ambassador’s home. He is a man who has possessed all the power he has wanted for, has been able to claim all of the land he desires, but like the rest of them, is unable to conquer those of a similar station without resistance. There’s an alternate version of India Song titled Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert, a sort-of sequel that consists of the original film’s audio track played over all new, largely ambient footage. It’s a haunted film, with India Song‘s original bones heard in the distance, but here turned to oral history instead. Marguerite Duras crafts a soundtrack from her own film, one that speaks to destruction and emptiness. The same empty, over-luscious palaces of India Song retain their ghosts, but in this revision we see the opposite of the excess that been built upon stolen land. Most will see the opulence, stories of wealthy lovers for whom to match face to voice, but few set their gaze on the broken mirror, images discussed but never returned to, the liminal spaces between one’s homeland and another’s trophy.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.