Who is Vera Baxter? This is the question the movie asks. There are many disputable facts, both due to differing viewpoints, but also because characters are lying either to themselves or to others. However, it seems reasonably clear that Vera is the wife of Jean Baxter, a man once heard in the movie, but never seen. Who is Jean Baxter? A rich man. The only certainties are those, he is a rich man, she is the wife of a rich man. These are the pins under which they live. True identity perhaps long lost in childhood.
Vera rests alone in an expensive house she is considering renting, in Thionville, and is visited by two women, the first a lover of Jean who is fascinated to know who Vera is, as Jean had often spoke of her, and an anonymous woman who became fascinated the name Vera Baxter when she hears it in a local bar. Names are very important in the movie, Vera grew up in the Arcangues, in south west France, at the conjunction of the Atlantic and the Spanish border. Scenes of the beach are shown throughout the movie, but Thionville is in Lorraine, in north eastern France. Thionville was known as Diedenhofen by the Germans, indeed had been inhabited by Germans for a millennium before annexation by France in the 17th Century. There followed a back and forth courtesy of the Franco-Prussian War, which left a French town but with many Neo-Gothic buildings (examples of which are shown in the movie). France has always been the feminine, and Germany the masculine in the French imagination. The best film exploration of this is Melville's Le Silence de la Mer.
Vera Baxter, the name is at once feminine and masculine. Baxter, so dominant and masculine a name, referred to women bakers in Anglo-Saxon times, but a few centuries later had been terminally co-opted as masculine. Vera is as feminine a name as I can think of. But the emphasis is on Baxter, repeated twice in the title. The Second Sex of Simone de Beauvoir appears to be a touchstone for this movie. Women have historically been defined as the "Other", that which is different from man, which revolves around man. Women still tend to identify themselves in reference to their social roles rather than their achievements in my experience. Vera Clouzot also springs to mind, that wonderful hyper-feminine actress who appeared only in the films of her husband. The male viewpoint is typified by the reported opinion of Jean Baxter that his wife's demeanour is one of docility, whilst the first woman visitor describes it as one of certitude.
Her first visitor mentions Vera returning to Arcangues briefly, describing it as "where people know you". She reports that her husband said that it was only possible to know Vera through desire. Perhaps she is only who she is during moments of passion. In any case none of this is shown in the movie, there is distance as much as anything. That is maybe the point, that her identity has been destroyed. This most heightened expression of this is when the second visitor, "l'inconnue", refers to a whole region of women deserted emptied when their husbands left for the crusades.
Something that I pondered on in the movie was that sometimes it's only possible for me to know other men via women. Men are so competitive and macho, and therefore reluctant to reveal themselves to one another, I can often only understand them by listening to their girlfriends, who are allowed to see them. Michel Cayre (Depardieu - present only at the beginning of the movie) dismisses the husband, only seeing about him that he is rich, therefore to be envied and despised. The only hint of who Jean Baxter might be comes from listening to Vera. I was very drawn in by this point and others, and I think Duras' technique aids this. Both in Detruire dit-elle, and here, I felt as if I were sat amongst the characters, here when Vera and "l'inconnue" are positioned around empty chairs that fill up half the frame, I felt as if I was being invited to sit down.
The sea, often used in contrast to the sky, or the mountains, as a feminine plays a large part in many of Duras' novels and films. Arcangues is by the sea, and the rhythm of the conversations is like the lapping of waves on the shore. Rhythm is important in the film and provides it with much of its allure, for most of the movie Chilean movie plays on a continuous loop. Some people have found this hard to handle, but I felt it removed much of the oppressiveness and inwardness that the film might otherwise have had. It was also a reminder that life is out there, even if it may be as far away as the other side of the Atlantic.
The film was also released under the title of "L'adultère", which in French can either mean adulterer or adulteress. For whatever reason and whatever truth (the movie suggests more than one), Vera appears to have given into the urge to sleep with another man not long prior to the start of the movie, which has provoked a sort of despair. Jean has had many affairs, but they're not treated in the same light, almost as if his are acceptable, as if a man's nature is to give his body freely, but a woman's to save her love for one man. The scenes during the credits I would suggest relate to this and are post-coital.
As a side note, Duras is uncredited as a cast member in the movie, but is an unseen participant in the first conversation of the movie.
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