Marguerite Duras broke new aesthetic ground in whatever medium she took on. In her novels, she deconstructed the conventions of literary form and style, and later expanded into playwriting and screenplays (Alain Resnais directed her first, Hiroshima Mon Amour,) before she finally began to direct feature films. Duras considered her films, which she often adapted from her novels, as further deconstructions of her literary works. Over the ‘70s, she was one of the most important and prominent voices in a flourishing feminist movement in Western European cinema, though her films were generally of a more abstract, less didactic tenor than her peers; subsequent to 1975’s landmark India Song, her features were appreciated by increasingly niche audiences. 1981’s Agatha and the Limitless Readings marks the apotheosis of her narrowing, intensifying, idiosyncratic style of filmmaking, the deconstructions manifest in full on the screen. This and its sister film, L’Homme Atlantique, also from 1981, are Duras at her most boldly abstruse and brilliantly seductive.

The two films each run about an hour, one ostensibly filling in the other’s blanks yet both effectively covering the same material. Yet Agatha is a film with no obvious blanks to be filled in, since it’s almost nothing but blank space, a tableau of canvases proffering a sparse few ideas or motifs each, never quite woven together into a simplistically satisfactory whole. If being kept at a distance by one of the 20th century’s most talented and unyielding yet most expressive artists sounds like your idea of a horrible time, you’ll surely find Agatha a horrible film. If it sounds like your idea of a wondrous experience, a chance to pore over some of such an artist’s finest work, you’ll surely find it a wondrous film.

Duras imagines a whole world largely within four cold walls and a few evocative vistas of insipid seaside scenes. A woman and a man, sister and brother, converse in narration – aside from the occasional bit of Brahms, the film’s only soundtrack. This being Duras, it’s entirely non-diegetic, yet her deconstruction of the traditional cinematic diegesis wholly reframes the audience’s perception of what that even constitutes here. Image and sound are entirely dislocated. Figures within the frame do not interact; rarely are any more than one seen together, indeed rarely is anyone other than Bulle Ogier – playing a character we presume is Agatha – seen at all. Even the conversation relaying the bulk of the film’s narrative content sounds disjointed, as though it’s merely two intersecting streams of thought.

The sister and brother seem to speak of the past, memories of beauty and of trauma, of an incestuous relationship for which each yearns but knows both should not and can not be resumed. The house by the seaside through which the camera and the actors wander, desolate and shadowy under the dreary grey sky – this is the theatre of our characters’ memories. Or so it seems. More so than in any other Duras, Agatha and the Limitless Readings is a catalogue of suggestions ample for liberal interpretation. It is thus arguably her most cinematic work, even as it bears as few cinematic signifiers as a film conceivably could. It’s a series of images and a series of sounds, hazily ambling forward in tandem if never in sync; yet it is an expression only achievable in this specific medium, a collage of visual and aural fragments, a story deconstructed then reconstructed as though but a memory itself.

Duras’ house is her theatre and her characters’ both; it is also a temporal representation. In Agatha, a place is a period of time, an episode contained spatially and temporally, those dimensions united in memory. Past, present and future are abstract notions – as Agatha remarks, these are all the same, since “it will be the same sky.” The house holds memories like a mind, though in the physical form of a body. Fill it and it lives, leave it and it dies – departure and death are the same thing in Agatha and the present recollection of a once-future departure brings death into that present, under that same grey sky.

Duras remains best remembered as a novelist and as the director of India Song, her most accessible and most conventionally attractive film, no less brilliant for those qualities. Agatha – not the French Agathe, just as Duras’ own name was not pronounced in the usual French manner with the silent “s” but with the “s” vocalized – will likely remain among her less broadly appreciated films for its stubborn, integral abstraction alongside its general unavailability. Yet it’s possibly her most radical work, her most personal, her most unique, her most metatextual: it’s a quasi-adaptation of an unpublished play, with shots of excerpts from the original text spliced into the film to be read, rather than filmed or recorded as a script normally would be for a film. Yet it’s also her most cinematic. It’s a deconstruction of a deconstruction, a film that is everything it’s supposed to be yet nothing it ought to be, a superb and sadly neglected seaside house of its own, sombre and grey and utterly spectacular.

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