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A huge let-down to audiences at the time, Marguerite Duras' follow-up to her lush and flamboyant India Song is a very different film indeed. Telling the story of two tragic lovers who never meet (the girl is dying of leukemia and daren't risk face-to-face contact) Duras sets out to communicate this 'faceless' relationship to her audience by - and you really won't believe this unless you see it - barely even photographing the glamorous trio of actors she has hired to star.
So if your notion of sheer cinematic bliss is gazing raptly at Mathieu Carriere or Dominique Sanda (OK, I admit it, mine is) then be warned that Le Navire Night may give you a nasty shock. Long motionless takes of the three actors having their make-up put on or wandering - barely visible - round shadowy rooms. For most of the film, the camera pans along deserted Parisian boulevards, or pores over a luscious red dress hanging on a wall. At the end, Duras announces in voiceover that "the story was never shot."
True, on a purely literal level. Yet the sense of frustrated longing that sustains both non-lovers through their passionate non-affair...if we don't experience that through the methods Duras uses here, why not? Are we incapable of feeling unless we are prompted by the prescribed visual image? Or are we (as Susan Sontag feared) so saturated by images that we can no longer feel at all? To try and put it more simply, why is Marguerite Duras' way of telling this story any less valid than the conventional techniques that we, as a film audience, expect and demand?
Our answer to that question says little about Duras and her film, and everything about us. Why do we feel the need to reduce an emotional tragedy to a visual image? Is it morally acceptable for a film to do that? At once a negation of cinema as it is, and a reaffirmation of what cinema might be, Le Navire Night is a film to be watched with heart and mind and senses wide open. Or not watched at all.
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