“I make films to fill my time,” Marguerite Duras wrote in 1975. “If I had the strength to do nothing, I would do nothing.” Indeed, Duras had a hard time being unproductive. She penned 30 novels and more than a dozen plays. In 1966, the iconoclastic French writer, who was often disappointed by commercial adaptations of her work, decided to try her hand at staging her own stories for the screen. Her motivations were practical: to “get out of the house,” make money, and relieve herself of the “terrifying drudgery” of novels.
What followed was one of the most confoundingly singular careers in modern cinema. Duras claims no cinematic forebears, and averred to rarely watch movies before she began making her own. Furthermore, she was “completely convinced” that the relationship between image and sound in conventional cinema was “not correct.” From the beginning, she sought to sever the connection between what was seen on the screen and what was heard from it, turning plausibly simple tales of love triangles or bourgeois ennui into haunted chambers of dissociative time. Often, invisible narrators with only halting authority speak over action so slow it’s hypnotizing. Deconstructed and oblique, more sensual than intellectual, Duras’s cinema has often bewildered the lucky few who have stumbled upon it. It can feel like a form of art that needs constant decoding.
That interpreter has finally arrived — in the form of Duras herself. Newly published in a translation by Daniella Shreir for Another Gaze Editions, My Cinema collects nearly all of the notes, memos, press releases, and interviews that Duras dispatched in relation to her films. Famously entertaining as an intellectual unafraid to shout her strongest opinions and, later, change her mind, the strategic ambiguities of Duras the filmmaker evaporate around Duras the public figure.
Reading along in chronological order, it’s possible to witness the development of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds in the warm waters of a new artistic medium. At first, Duras’s hope for her cinematic adaptations is to “see beyond, to understand further, what I saw and understood when I wrote [the books they were based on].” Soon, however, the temporal nature of film, and the power of the image to allure without explanation, captivated her. Duras’s formal experimentations in writing, with pages reading more like lists of settings and actions than full-bodied sentences, began to read increasingly like scripts, preludes to her task of realizing them on screen. Regarding her fragmentary novel, Destroy, She Said (1969), which became her second film: “I wanted to write a book that […] could at once be read, performed, filmed, and to this list I always add: discarded, thrown away.” Increasingly, she began to see her own literary output as a latent object in her hands, in need of some form of activation.
Duras’s early works most resemble studio productions. The more comfortable she became with the filmmaking process, the stranger the result. While her first movie, La Musica (1967), resembles a particularly plotless French New Wave film, by the 1980s, she was focusing on recursive action and even the absence of images to touch on points she no longer felt she could make with sequential shots — such as L’Homme atlantique (1981), which, other than a few sequences of her lover Yann Andréa Steiner at the start, is almost entirely composed of an empty, black screen. But as My Cinema reveals to us over and over again, Duras’s pursuit of difficulty wasn’t intended to alienate; rather, she treats her open-ended stories as a gift to the audience — a half-solved puzzle that requires their participation to be complete. “It has become customary for the majority of cinemagoers in France to act as though cinema is something that is owed to them, to protest and scream bloody murder at the appearance of films that weren’t made for them alone,” she declared in a 1981 article. For those brave enough to participate in her abstracted version of it, though, “cinema is created in the place of the spectator.” During a Duras film, “the whole movie theatre belongs to the audience.”
My Cinema (2023) by Marguerite Duras, translated by Daniella Shreir and published by Another Gaze Editions, is available online and in bookstores.