Cet amour-là (Josée Dayan, 2001) was not especially well received on either the festival circuit or commercially, but there is a certain pleasure fans of Marguerite Duras will take from watching the film. In it, Jeanne Moreau plays Duras in the story of her incipient affair with her much younger fan, lover, collaborator, and carer, Yann Andréa. With its sweeping soundtrack (penned by Angelo Badalamenti of Twin Peaks fame) and the tonal vacillation between sentimentality, tragedy and gentle comedy, the film feels too melodramatic to be an homage to Duras’s filmmaking style – although Dayan does pay visual tribute to the extended seascape shots which mark many of her films (La Femme du Gange (1974) and Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981)). No: the real pleasure lies in seeing “Duras” onscreen. The representation of an ageing, alcoholic genius risks reducing Duras to a feminine version of a biographical trope, but the casting avoids this entirely. Moreau’s Duras is wonderful: her language is elliptical and full of irony, used to gently mock the jejune, solemn Yann (Aymeric Demarigny). The strength of her performance also serves to reduce some of the perspectival imbalance to which we are alerted in the credits (the script is adapted “librement” from Andréa’s journals). If Andréa narrates the majority of the film, Moreau is Duras, down to the Gitane-stained vocal chords and knitted waistcoat.
Of course, even a great actor is never entirely coincident with her subject. But perhaps Moreau’s turn is so convincing because the two were close friends for many years, living in neighbouring houses and cooking for each other from the early ‘60s. Moreau was a Durassian actress long before the pair’s first collaboration on Nathalie Granger (1972): she leapt at the chance to participate in anything Duras had touched, from the adaptation of the novel Moderato Cantabile (Seven Days, Seven Nights (Peter Brook, 1960)), to Mademoiselle (Tony Richardson, 1966), a film for which Duras wrote the screenplay. When it came to making Nathalie Granger, Moreau signed without reading the script. In spite of their mutual admiration, Duras was famously unimpressed with the filmic adaptations of her novels: as Renate Günther reports¹, her own filmmaking was motivated by this disappointment. Nathalie Granger sees Duras draw Moreau away from her contemporary positioning as an (albeit alternative) screen icon. Moreau’s ascendence to stardom saw her pass from “spirited, sexy” mainstream roles to her Nouvelle Vague identity as, “a new type of sensual heroine, a modern femme fatale without the clichéd trappings of the traditional vamp” (Ginette Vincendeau). In François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), Moreau escapes the classical positioning of the female sex object as passive and acquiescent in her depiction of the rebellious, desiring Catherine. However, doubly framed through the perspective of the eponymous male protagonists, her identity remains dependent on male investment in her seductive power. Her role in Duras’s 1972 film, then, marks a departure from her alignment with masculine cinematic codes, as well as from patriarchally-defined identity categories.
In Nathalie Granger, Moreau plays the unnamed friend of Nathalie’s anxious mother (Lucia Bosè); together, after husband and children leave for the day, the two women clear the table, do the washing up, listen as an inept travelling salesman (Gerard Dépardieu in his first film role) attempts to flog white goods. Over the radio and from Nathalie’s schoolmistress, the women hear tales of the violence of children and teenagers – ungovernable, nonsensical violence which seems to pose a threat to the strictly ordered adult world. As the film progresses, it exposes the violent logic of this patriarchal order through real-time scenes which show the drudgery and passivity of female domestic life. Action and narrative telos are replaced by a logic of repetition, refusal and stasis, as Duras subverts the cinematic codes through which man is constructed as the natural centre of the universe and of women’s attention, via strategies of temporality, framing, and dialogue which have become part of a feminist counter-cinematic arsenal. The slow, attentive filming of household chores prefigures the representation of (usually invisible) domestic labour Chantal Akerman would famously deploy a few years later in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), whilst Dépardieu’s sales pitch and the women’s disinterest was recently echoed in Todd Haynes’ portrayal of male intrusion into women’s conversation in Carol (2015). In Duras’s film, as news of transgressive external violence enters the house, the women’s own rebellion against the structures of patriarchal power emerges via subtle changes in their behaviour.
It is Moreau’s presence which renders the film’s resistance to patriarchal codes so emphatic: as Duras refuses the voyeuristic framing of the Nouvelle Vague icon, Moreau’s star status serves not to glamourise the spectacle of domestic femininity, but rather to disclose the banal universality of hidden, feminised labour. As Günther suggests, in Nathalie Granger, the female body is divorced from “voyeuristic scrutiny” and is instead represented as “an integral part of … subjectivity”². If, for psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, scopophilia was defined as a “drive, in which the subject encounters the world as a spectacle that he possesses”, and where the object of desire operates as an unattainable other, Duras’s anti-scopophilic framing of Moreau refuses the distance upon which this drive depends. In these scenes, Moreau embodies both sides of what Günther describes as “patriarchal femininity”: her traditional alignment with seduction and sensuality, and the “femininité fonctionnelle […] au service de l’homme” (functional femininity in the service of men) which is typically excluded from mainstream representation. If the mise-en-scène refuses the former, the narrative sees the breakdown of the latter, as the women begin to rebel against their servitude, ignoring phone calls, burning the post, and reclining heavily on sofas in a gesture of ultimate refusal. Nathalie’s music lessons are recognised as bearing the same qualities of female domestic labour: they are repetitive and remove agency. As the women slump, exhausted, Nathalie’s ten-note exercise rings out endlessly; images of her piano lesson show the teacher forcing Nathalie’s fingers into the correct position. As she sits with Nathalie waiting for her lesson, Moreau pats the child’s hand in sympathy.
If Nathalie’s piano lessons are an iteration of external patriarchal control, Nathalie’s playing takes on an incantatory, rebellious quality, as it infiltrates the diverse spaces of the house. As such, it functions here as it does across the Durassian corpus, where music recurs as a figure for transgression and the juxtaposition of tonal categories. Although Nathalie Granger remains Duras and Moreau’s only onscreen collaboration, several musical documents pay moving tribute to their friendship. For the soundtrack of India Song (1975), Moreau lent her voice to sing the title track, and on Rumba des Îles,a lively instrumental over which the voices of Moreau and Duras interweave as they narrate the synaesthetic atmosphere of death, disease, and putrefaction that marks the decadent colonial setting of the film. Duras’s filmmaking is invested in the power of the voice, and India Song in particular is concerned with the ghostly echo represented by the recorded voice of a deceased, beloved woman. It seems appropriate that although Moreau doesn’t appear in the film, her voice remains as a mournful vestige of her friendship with Duras.
Seen in the light of this friendship – an artistic and personal union which spanned three decades – Moreau’s choice of playing Duras in Cet amour-là, five years after her death, might appear a melancholic one. However, even as the film depicts Duras’s troubled final years, through Moreau’s performance, the writer emerges as joyful, vibrant, sharp, loving. The centrality of Andréa might frustrate some viewers – certainly some might prefer to watch a film about the Moreau-Duras friendship – but in its choice of subject matter the film is faithful to Duras’s investment in the erotic desire of the heterosexual couple. Indeed, in her films, friendships between women rarely take centre stage – it is for this reason that the depiction of female solidarity Nathalie Granger is such a powerful contribution to feminist film. By casting Moreau, Duras paid tribute to the power of female friendship both onscreen and off. By playing Duras after her death, Moreau ensured her spirit was captured on film. Between Nathalie Granger and Cet-amour là, viewers are left with valuable filmic records of the political and artistic power of friendship between brilliant, transgressive women.
¹ Günther, Renate, Marguerite Duras (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002) p.67-76
² Duras, Marguerite & Gauthier, Xavière, Les Parleuses (Paris: Minuit, 1974) p.98-9.
Katie Pleming is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, specialising in the filmic work of Marguerite Duras.