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André S. Labarthe
This film immediately reveals itself as play by showing page seven of the printed book. Sea sounds are heard, then a gentle piano waltz plays as we read the text slowly scrolling upward: "It is a drawing room of an uninhabited house. There is a divan. Some armchairs. A window lets in the winter light. One hears the sound of the sea. The winter light is dim and misty. There will be no other light. There will only be this winter light. We see a man and a woman. They are silent. They seem to have spoken at length before we see them. They are impervious to our presence..." And so on.
This is perhaps a typical trait of Duras: We are told that we see a man and a woman, but what we are seeing is a page in a book. When we actually see the first scene, we do not see anyone, either, only the distant sea through a window. But we hear the calm voice of Duras herself, telling the male character, her brother, about a man, possibly her husband. The brother and sister have met, it seems, after a long separation, at a deserted seaside hotel to tell each other news. But it soon turns out that what they are obsessed with is the past, or telling stories of the past, or making up stories of the past; of how they loved each other as children, of how they love each other now. As the dialogue turns into a meditation on the deceit of remembrance, the camera moves slowly about the darkened interiors, the winterly grey beaches, pale blue sea and cloudy skies. Suddenly, after about ten minutes, there is Bulle Ogier spread out on a sofa; she moves her lips a little, but remain silent as we continue to hear the off screen voices. And then, but outside a glass door looking out at the sea, there is Yann Andrea. But he is mainly absent during the film, and we never see them speak. Some times Yann Andrea is almost seen clearly but mostly he is blurred behind some window. Seen, however, is the camera in the lobby, directed into the mirror reflecting another mirror. This play with absence and reflections mirrors (yes) the twists and turns of the dialogue. Indeed; "Agatha" is only the name of the child's mirror reflection.
But we are not only told stories about the past. Something is happening now, apart from storytelling; she is about to leave the next morning and have arranged this meeting as a farewell. Yet she will always love him, she says, indeed it turns out that that this going away will in fact seal their love forever; the pain of separation will keep love alive. He is not assured of this, however, and asks her to stay another year. He is the insecure one, she knows exactly what she is doing. She says. But can we believe her? "You were always lying", he tells her. So there we are, not knowing who to trust, and why we only get to see glimpses of streets, passing ships, and a nearby industrial town.
I guess the most enigmatic part of the dialogue is the extended scenes we witness by ear, but are not shown, about their childhood love affair, of how their naked bodies entangled their identities, and of how they could not see each other as different form their other early lovers. Much is hinted at, but not told: Were they seven, twelve, were they fifteen when they explored each others minds and bodies? Did this very physical "growing up together" mean that they actually made love to each other as they did with their friends? As we listen, we are constantly aware about what the dialogue might be hiding. They might be deceiving each other, and they might be deceiving us.
While we wonder we watch. More beaches, more sky in blues and grey. And listen to the sound of the waves as the piano plays its waltzes (by Brahms) that now and then seem to fade away into the past as well. It turns out that she used to play these waltzes as a child but never managed to play them right, so one day she just gave up. This child giving up music will seem familiar to anyone who has seen Nathalie Granger, as indeed the role of the piano and the whole style of the film will seem familiar to anyone who has seen India Song. But this is a much more elusive film, because it takes this signature style so far, it is almost as we did not even need to see any characters on the screen at all; the dialogue and the deserted hotel by the sea in winter would be sufficient.
But sufficient of what? I do not need neither to dig into the familiar sea symbols nor to the biographical Duras lore here but I might say that this film works well for some reason, and works well as cinema, not as filmed theatre. The discrepancies between sight and sound could not be as easily produced on stage. The film produces a great calm in me. Maybe because of the voice of Duras, of Brahms, maybe because of the repetitive scenes of sea and sky. The deserted places also look great in the winter light. But this is not as great a film as those mentioned above. I respect all of its means, and maybe it is not its business to be "great" either. I take it as it is; there are not many such films, and I am very grateful to Duras for making it. Now that it is freely available online I hope more people will see it.
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