Marguerite Duras’s India Song is a hypnotic chant d’amour, a release system for the author’s polyphonic writing, and one of the most beautiful films in cinema history. In its extended central scene, at a French Embassy reception in Calcutta, four Cerruti 1881–clad men dance with and flit around a beguiling red-haired woman (Delphine Seyrig). Mesmerized, we join an unseen audience that speaks for and about these characters as they glide silently into the realm of legend. Filled with haunting rumbas and pierced by scandalous cries, this mirrored salon and its ghosts stay with us long after the film’s end.
Upon its release in 1975, Duras’s tale of doomed passion defied conventional cinema with its antinaturalist aesthetic, anachronistic setting, and unrepentantly Romantic stance. With its glamorous and compact theatricality, Duras’s work shared with her contemporaries Jacques Rivette, Manoel de Oliveira, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet a disregard for generic borders. Distinguished by her incantatory dialogue and entrancing mise-en-scène, Duras’s radical experiment with cinematic voice remains unequaled.
When India Song was first shown, out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, Duras had already been directing films for nearly a decade. The acclaimed novelist and playwright had taken up filmmaking in part out of frustration with other directors’ adaptations of her plays and novels: René Clément’s version of The Sea Wall (This Angry Age, 1957), Peter Brook’s Moderato cantabile (Seven Days . . . Seven Nights, 1960), and Tony Richardson’s The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), among others. From La musica (1967), codirected with Paul Seban and adapted from one of her short plays, through the provocatively conceptual The Children (1985), Duras made nineteen films, of varying lengths, that continually subverted generic conventions. Picking up on her work’s transgressive qualities, French writer and critic Maurice Blanchot described her first feature as a solo director, Destroy, She Said (1969), as “an interval between book and film.”
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