India Song (Duras, 1975)

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The spectral malevolence cast by a subdued sunset. The palpable effluvium of an abandoned tennis court. The glacial imperviousness of a vacant château. Marguerite Duras’s preternatural India Song immerses itself in these sensations and lingers inquisitively upon their parent images, all the while scribing a deceptively piercing critique of the colonialist impulse that once consumed Europe in the face of (technological) modernity. Though well concealed by her radical formalism, the author’s vitriol is nevertheless self-evident in each of the elegant tableaux vivants that entrancingly comprise the film – littered as they are with the trivial bric-a-brac of an expatriated haut monde, not to mention the soulless human constituents of the ever-redundant class itself. Duras’s visual syntax thus finds itself dominated by an irrevocable stasis, her camera tenaciously refusing to yield to the cinematic laws of motion; a scathing mimicry of the derelict imperialism whose purpose has long since ceased. On those few instances when the director does offer up a glimmer of filmic dynamism, one finds that she merely teases: her camera panning languidly from left to right, helplessly rooted to its spot by the pathological paralysis that consumes her characters (this, a historiographically-imposed affliction, conceived to make amends for their motherland’s misdeeds and to curb their potential to oppress). Duras’s portrait of a declining French Empire unearths a stifling, crumbling colossus, painfully being brought to its knees by the outdated modes and rituals of the white entitlement which birthed its existence in the first place. Whilst the glamour might not yet have receded in its entirety – sleekly-coutured lovers engage in quasi-Ophulsian waltzes around a ballroom, albeit nonchalantly, lackadaisically – the resonant image that emerges from the director’s study is nonetheless one of inexorable decay.

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If structural, surface senescence points towards the doomed trappings of the colonialist endeavour, then further interrogation reveals another, more intimate malaise: the emptiness of the soul. Rare close-ups of Anne-Marie Stretter – promiscuous wife of the French ambassador in 1930s Calcutta, and the film’s default heroine around whom all its other (male) characters orbit – scrutinise her tousled hair, her tangled jewellery, her dishevelled gown, thereby implanting individual disarray within the institutional decay of her surroundings. In articulating this privileged ennui, Duras actuates an inspired manoeuvre: the separation of image from sound; and therefore, the separation of character from voice. India Song consequently unfolds as a silent tapestry, its compositions underscored by a chorus of disembodied vocals ruminating upon action and inaction from the supernal nether-regions of its non-diegetic space. A virulent condemnation of traditional representations and realisations of femininity is perceptible amidst the discomfiture of the director’s stratagem: the objectification and subjugation historically accorded to the female role now extending out towards the men – here reduced to lethargic fashion models, and denied their natural means of expression. Meanwhile, Duras’s bifurcated inversion of the accepted cinematic relationship between visual and aural produces a compelling chasm into which she pours the repressed emotions of her disenchanted bourgeoisie: love; longing; loss. But what we hear rarely corresponds with what we see, and the voices on the soundtrack are not necessarily extracted from the actors before our eyes – indeed, the sonic foreground finds itself saturated by the exchanges of unidentified observers who, ergo, dictate the visual background. It is these detached, invisible participants who perform the exposition of the author’s anomalous narrative; divulging the fates of its enervated characters (the walking dead) and transfiguring an otherwise cerebral j’accuse into a meditative ghost story.

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Central to the director’s tableaux is a floor-to-ceiling mirror whose eerie cleanliness evanesces into the rest of her mise-en-scène, allowing it to masquerade as a mammoth archway; a portal into an alternate dreamscape. Alas, the illusion is but a cruel one – the mirror’s apparent functions thus: to contract and expand cinematic space at will, and to remind the physical apparitions on-screen of their own post-mortal unreality. Nevertheless, the stylisation is bewildering enough to suitably denote India Song‘s ascent into the meta-, for Duras’s multifaceted reconception of the filmic narrative compels us to query our own modes of perception and thereby initiates a veritable cornucopia of formal discussion points. The refusal to synchronise the two components of the contemporary cinematic experience lies at the core of film’s foundation; our innate curiosity licensing the director to inveigle us into the unknown, where no longer is it possible to conciliate the audiovisual alliance. From here, she forges an innovatory vantage point: so extreme is her departure from established storytelling norms that one cannot help but approach the piece from an intellectual, deconstructionist perspective in an attempt to gain comprehension and elicit textual meaning. Duras remains typically defiant, with her aurally recursive, temporally elliptical abstractions continually frustrating our desires, challenging our needs. Is this the anti-cinema? The film’s speculative voiceovers – enacting a conflicting and contrasting discourse where past, present and future collide in streaming tête-à-têtes of dialogue – threaten to become little more than a showcase for the author’s linguistic prowess: her magisterial command of language beguiling in its evocation of the sights, sounds and smells between Lahore and Laos; elevating the work into a near-transcendental sensory experience, the absolute pinnacle in artistic synesthesia. Duras however, is too astute a filmmaker  to let mere words do the talking for her. Literary and theatrical it may occasionally seem, but India Song reconciles its director’s alternate impulses to a synthetic master-narrative that shrewdly comments upon its own affectations. The film doesn’t refuse synchronisation so much as it remoulds it, plunging into the discords that it generates (narration flippantly discusses disease and poverty, whilst a corresponding frame captures the indifferent decadence of champagne in crystal goblets). Duras ekes out the dichotomy not just between sight and sound, but between body and soul and, most compellingly, Europe and her conquered dominions (how telling it is that a film with such a moniker should obfuscate its only Indian character within the murkiest corners of the frame). Armed with these isolations, the director descends deep into the crepuscular recesses of the imperialist fantasy and posits her singular text as a cinematic ‘other’ to emulate the Occidental impression of the absent natives. And at last, the intent behind that gargantuan mirror arises to the fore as it metamorphoses into a reflection of us: when all is said and done, our responses to India Song‘s resolute ‘otherness’ might well reveal more about today’s mindsets – and the extent of our post-colonial progression – than it does about those of yesteryear.

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