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Aurélia Steiner (Melbourne) (1979)

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Cinema of evocation
2 November 2010 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Aurelia Steiner (Melbourne), visually speaking, is composed of half an hour of footage of the Seine taken from a river barge, as the light shifts from the golden glow of early evening to dusky colours.

Despite being a French film, the narration is in English, which fits with the background of Australian teenager, the eponymous Aurelia Steiner; it's addressed to person or persons unknown. Director Marguerite Duras does the narration with a perfect accent, though her voice is not nearly as impassioned as during her narration for Cesarée, and thus seemingly deadened on purpose. In L'Homme Atlantique (another part of a four part experimental movie series that includes both Aurelia Steiner movies and Les Mains Negatives) her narrated VOUS is fairly obviously directed at the audience to some extent, however in Aurelia Steiner this may or may not be the case; it's difficult to tell without the french vous/tu dichotomy, which indicates level of intimacy, and with the absence of passion in the narration. voice. Her correspondent could just as well be an absent family member, friend, or an unresponsive pen pal. It's possible that the correspondent (it's letters being narrated) is someone Duras knew in her real life; in the second of the series, Aurelia Steiner (Vancouver), there is a similar narration to what could also be a lover and was mentioned by Duras in her book "Yann Andréa Steiner" as being written with her lover Yann Andréa in mind.

As is the case with other experimental shorts by Marguerite Duras, the images, although beautiful are almost mood-setters, the main images are evoked in the mind of the viewer by the words of Aurelia Steiner, sometimes, though by no means always, synchronising with the images. For example the shot traverses Notre Dame de Paris, which is actually a white building, but here the stone is yellowed by the late-evening sun, and Aurelia talks about voices ("they're speaking") telling her of palaces by streams with thickets of nettles and brambles between them, of island temples, and for a moment Notre Dame is on the Ganges. This reminded me the ideas of writer Italo Calvino and his book The Castle Of Crossed Destinies, in which stories are almost exclusively narrated by the placing of Tarot cards in sequences, the evocative symbols (forest, castle, well, mountain, gibbet) being generators of images that are particular to each reader, Calvino accepting how very much of the story rests in just these small kernels. Aurelia Steiner then, will be a unique experience for whoever watches it. In this way it's almost anti-cinematic, the viewer isn't forced to see the fixed images that make up the fantasies of standard commercial cinema. In a special edition of Cahiers du Cinema Duras wrote that she was aiming for an ideal, which was of the "image passe-partout", to use shots that were neither beautiful nor ugly, which would be exchangeable between a series of texts, images that would take their direction from the narration. If she was aiming for images without beauty she would have been better off not using cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who shot Army of Shadows, and worked with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. The collaborators do however create a sense of vacuum with the images on-screen, a cavern that Aurelia's words fill.

I think the films expresses both a love and a hatred for writing, for example Aurelia is compelled to write down what the voices say as a release, but also she recognises that she cannot ever have a true connection to the reader, she describes a love that is terrifying and extreme, and how "you are not there to release it", perhaps writing is quixotic? Furthermore perhaps a writer is also merely a cruel observer, Aurelia mentions a white cat in the garden outside her window who is starving and whose condition deteriorates throughout the monologue, yet which she only describes instead of helping.

The river is something that Aurelia talks about so the images, as I've already hinted aren't entirely separate from the monologue; at one point she urges the viewer to see the sea beneath the river, quite an esoteric idea! The closing shot is very morbid, the flowing image has become static in the river, in the distance is a welcoming cove coloured as if by Christmas tree lights, the shot bends down to the brown river, which on focus is turbulent with silt. The monologue has become progressively more disturbing as the movie continues.

The images themselves are almost exclusively golden, although the last couple of shots are more of the palette of William Scott still lifes, steely, with cold colour spots. This goldenness tallies with Aurelia's name which means golden.

Aurelia's name is an anagram of reine, Australie (french for queen, Australia), perhaps how she signs the letters she narrates? Aurelia is a beautiful name, a word for a subtype of chrysalis in zoology, where the chrysalis is coloured in beautiful metallic gold. Perhaps this eighteen-year-old is about to emerge a wonderful butterfly? Alternatively it's a golden-tinted jellyfish. I've no idea if this duality was intentional but I love it.

Amongst other things Aurelia is a crater on the Planet Venus and the name of a once-proposed Australian State, which was to have seceded from the Colony of Western Australia.

Just to note that the other structure that features in the movie is the spectacular glass dome of the Grand Palais.

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