One of the essential precursors to the French New Wave, the Nouveau Roman movement appeared in the late ‘50s as a renegade successor to literary modernism, breaking the novel down to a series of constituent parts and reassembling it in an entirely alien fashion. Abandoning any linear conception of time for circular carousels of repeating imagery, gestures and language, books like Claude Simon’s scintillating The Flanders Road forsake character-driven narrative in favor of a rigorous examination of singular moments and events. Alain Robbe-Grillet achieved something similar in novels like La Maison de Rendez-Vous, which pulled Bunuelian social satire into a tight knot, epitomizing the absurdity of social tradition via a rhythmic recursive structure.

Grillet, a Parisian who traveled extensively in Africa and the Caribbean, eventually made the leap into film, accompanied by fellow colonial expat Marguerite Duras, whose childhood in Indochina formed the basis for much of her later work. Both are now perhaps best remembered for stints writing for Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour respectively), whose chronologically diffuse sensibility and historical and social focus most clearly reflected the style of the movement. But they also made their own films. Grillet went on to direct seminal works like Trans-Europ-Express and The Man Who Lies, adapting the spare, cyclical rhythms of his novels into a new medium. Duras was even more prolific and revolutionary, taking her written material and methodically transferring it to the screen and disassembling established notions of cinematic form along the way.

Duras produced a dozen feature films in this manner. Despite the low profile of these films today, they have been influential in shaping modern cinematic grammar, from the fringes of the ‘slow cinema’ movement to more easily digestible arthouse fare. Uniting avant garde techniques with a generally straightforward approach to narrative, they represent a concerted effort to create distance between a film’s pictorial and plotted elements, examining the purpose and possibilities of each in the process. Through the depiction of the concerns of a society burnt out from years of colonial warfare and internal political upheaval, her movies convey small personal crises that are mirrored by larger formal disruptions, extending the Nouveau Roman conceit of collapsing time down to a standstill.

In Nathalie Granger, a series of mirrored conflicts drawn on generational, political and gender-based lines are sketched out within a suburban netherworld where little seems to make sense. The Truck takes on the collapse of the student movement, the difficulties of aging and the plight of Paris’ impoverished immigrant class through the staged reading and discussion of an unproduced script. Meanwhile, a series of barely-related images, following the titular vehicle on its circuitous route around Paris, amplifies the feeling of fatigued aimlessness while providing an ironic visual analogue to the scripted words. Films like these, overloaded with ennui, both starkly minimalistic and audaciously unconventional, were at the time of their release often written off as lazy or pretentious, the half-baked meanderings of a writer refusing to engage with the possibilities of visual or narrative form. Yet this is exactly what Duras was doing, albeit in a roundabout way, removing or downplaying certain elements to draw attention to the interaction between dialogue and images. Seemingly placid and composed, these are films constructed on a series of fault lines, displaying an ambivalence that begins with formal aspects and creeps its way into the fabric of the stories. These invariably concern the taut tension of different sides hoping desperately to be resolved, yet possessing none of the ability or energy to carry off this reconciliation.

Duras wasn’t the first to attempt such a disruptively holistic approach to filmmaking, but her films from this period seem more influential than they’re given credit for being, particularly in the way they exemplify internal disconnection through formal discord and the way they toy with time and space while exaggerating the distance between narrative information and visual montage. It’s an approach which finds its fullest expression in India Song, a colonial dream fable set in 1937 India, which stands out as the director’s most representative film. Like The Lover, one of a handful of her novels to be filmed without her involvement, it distills a collective national memory – the wistful glory of holding languorous dominion over a ‘primitive’ vassal nation – by maintaining the imagistic beauty of this remembrance while digging into the inherent rottenness of such casual hegemony. Playing out amid the confines of an expansive manor house during a single endless night mired in layers of heat and sweat, it lays out an entire platform of storylines and conflicts while containing little ostensible action. The plot that does present itself concerns the bored wife of a French ambassador (Delphine Seyrig, nameless, like all the characters here) who responds to the tedium and brutality of her new lifestyle by plunging into a roundelay of extravagant self-gratification. That involves lots of slow dancing and the taking of a variety of lovers, including the Vice-Consulate of Lahore (Michael Lonsdale), whose gradual passage into jealousy-induced madness provides the film’s dominant narrative through-line. This is all communicated without the benefit of explanatory markers, with the constant murmur of dialogue split off from the main action, commenting on it but not connected to any of the characters on screen, as if emanating from a claque of invisible wallflowers (or vigilant servants, a few of whom are glimpsed in passing) observing the developing story.

Cataloguing a feminine response to a certain type of cyclical drudgery, the film plays out as a fantastical counterpart to the contemporaneous work of Chantal Akerman, a similarly inclined experimental figure who put Seyrig to comparable use that same year in Jeanne Dielman. Positioned somewhere between that film and the mysterious puzzle structure of Marienbad, India Song imagines a ghostly Subcontinental netherworld in which a stable of hopeless characters linger in indolent orbit with one another, coupling and uncoupling to the tune of twinkling piano melodies. In his review of the film, Dave Kehr labeled Duras “the Busby Berkeley of structuralism,” a backhanded compliment which gets at the sheer volume of maneuvers and movements going on as well as the amount of technical ingenuity and cultural symbology which has gone into telling this seemingly vaporous tale of exhaustion and obsession. Implicitly communicating the intrinsic toxicity of colonial authority, India Song conveys a tremendous amount of information about its setting, scenario and characters while appearing to do very little, operating within a performative space that functions as a focal point for a slipstream flow of bodies, words and gestures. Building on concepts developed during her earlier days as a writer, Duras the director succeeds in recreating the past while departing entirely from the restrictions of conventional storytelling while helping to reshape and renew cinematic language in the process.

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