One of the screens in Burlington's Roxy Theater frames an image as carefully composed as a painting. A woman and two young men recline side by side on a worn Persian rug, their eyes closed. The woman's robe is pulled back to expose her breast, but the scene is not overtly erotic. The actors don't speak. Two unseen women narrate in voiceover. In French, translated by subtitles, they speak of the unendurable heat of Calcutta, where the film takes place; of the smells and sounds of the streets; of the characters' longing for a cleansing storm.
As the film progresses, we learn that the beautiful woman is Anne-Marie Stretter; that the men are her lovers; that the scene is the French embassy; that she will die the very next day, on an island in the delta of the Ganges. Meanwhile, the camera floats slowly around the room. We see Anne-Marie dance in her glamorous 1930s gown, circling to a wrenchingly pretty waltz. We see her talk privately with the ex-vice consul of Lahore, a tense, bearded man. We learn that he was relieved of his office after he began shooting from his embassy window at dogs and lepers. We watch a communion of sorts form between this unstable, traumatized man and the woman who has been wandering from lover to lover since she was married at 17. The story is conveyed through painterly tableaux, music and ghostly voices - not a word of dialogue is spoken on-screen.
The movie is India Song (1975), written and directed by French literary celebrity Marguerite Duras. In her 50-year career, Duras published more than 20 novels and plays, directed nearly as many films, and won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Her short works are a staple of French-lit courses in U.S. colleges. Still, India Song is a rarity even in American art-house theaters, and there's no subtitled DVD. The free screening at the Roxy, which took place on November 5, is part of a semester-long "Duras' India Song Project" at the University of Vermont, honoring the 10th anniversary of the author's death. The screening was preceded by a two-day symposium featuring scholars from as far away as the U.K.; it will be followed in December by a theatrical production of India Song.
The whole project was conceived and coordinated by Rachel Perlmeter, a guest artist and curator working with the departments of theater, film and television studies, history, and women and gender studies. She's co-teaching a course on the Duras work along with history professor Abigail McGowan and film professor Hilary Neroni. The project grew out of Perlmeter's conversations with the head of the theater department about offering more courses that combine different fields of study and give students a taste of practice as well as theory. The continuing-ed course is open to community members as well as UVM students.
In the U.S., Duras is best known as the screenwriter of Hiroshima Mon Amour and as the author of the best-selling novel The Lover (1984). The semi-autobiographical tale of a French teenager in Indochina who has an affair with an older man was the source of a 1991 art-house hit directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Jane Winston, a Northwestern University professor who spoke on campus before the screening, said the association is unfortunate. Duras despised Annaud's film, which views colonialism in Southeast Asia through a misty, nostalgic lens. Duras' own view of cinema was more aggressive, as she believed that "spectacles" of any kind lull the viewer into political disengagement. What she sought to create on-screen was something "formless." Winston quoted Duras as saying, "I have certainly been a killer of cinema."
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael agreed - in a 1977 review, she described Duras' relationship with her audience as "sadomasochistic." When Duras' glacially paced film The Truck was booed at Cannes, she stared down the viewers. Since her death, her uncompromising personality has passed into the realm of cinematic myth: In the 2001 movie Cet Amour-là, Jeanne Moreau portrayed Duras as a self-absorbed genius with a doting lover 38 years her junior.
Winston's lecture helped elucidate the woman behind the icon. Born in 1914, Duras was deeply influenced by World War II. In the wake of the Nazi occupation, Winston explained, French intellectuals felt as if "rational thought had failed them." Believing that modernity and capitalism "led inevitably to fascism," they sought to return to something more basic. Many, including Duras, explored "irrational modes of discourse" and practiced a "politics of negativity or refusal," Winston said. Like the homicidal vice consul in India Song, they didn't know what they wanted, only what they didn't.
"The politics of the play are complex," Perlmeter says, discussing her upcoming production. "There is this almost utopian vision of something beyond, something that is possible. But I think that there is also a deep despair that is about articulating the human toll of colonialism, imperialism and cultural collision more broadly. On some level [Duras] believed that that structure was not endurable." Still, she doesn't think India Song is "death-affirming."
Perlmeter, 31, a recent transplant from Brooklyn, first read India Song in graduate school. She admits that she felt "trepidation about doing this play of all places in Vermont." As it turns out, Perlmeter says, India Song "has been part of my transition" to the North Country. "We're kind of cultural hybrids, and it's been a challenge acclimating to Vermont on that level," she explains. Her UVM-professor husband is originally from Ecuador. "So this is very deeply meaningful to me, this work." Perlmeter doesn't want to suggest that she's the first to bring experimental theater to Vermont, but hopes the play will open "a kind of space" for challenging projects.
The production of India Song will take place in former gymnasium Mann Hall, on the Trinity campus - a first for the university, Perlmeter says. She continues, "We've created a total environment. The audience will be to some extent surrounded by the play and taking a miniature journey to reach the performance site itself."
The play is set in the French ambassador's residence, which Perlmeter describes as a "gated community," designed to segregate white Westerners from the city with its myriad sounds and smells. In the film India Song, Indians remain almost invisible, though we hear the haunting voice of a Laotian beggar woman.
This isn't true of the stage version. Perlmeter worked with UVM's Center for Cultural Pluralism to get the word out about the production to students of South Asian background. One of the students who responded contributed her expertise in classical Indian dance; another, from Sri Lanka, is helping create the linguistic "cacophony" of the city.
As a film, India Song is unique - beautiful, static, frustrating, yet oddly absorbing. It's a little like the Marie Antoinette Sofia Coppola might have made if she had focused on just one day of the queen's dead-end life and given us a sense of the misery outside the privileged enclave of Versailles. (In Duras' film, even the beggar woman's disembodied voice conveys a world of loss.)
Perlmeter says India Song requires an "active spectatorship" - not something people are used to providing in today's "totally mediated culture," where "everything's edited for us."
"I have to think very carefully about how to create the conditions for the kind of spectatorship that the play demands," she explains. "Their process of sorting out where the story is, what the ethics are, what the politics are . . . that is the viewers' agency. I don't like to go to the theater and be told what to think. I want to be asked to think - hard." The production of India Song should do just that.
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