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Novelist turned film director Marguerite Duras is best known for the screenplay of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour. Raised on a Vietnamese plantation and a resistance operative during the German Occupation, Duras' fascinating life story has become better known since Jean-Jacques Annaud adapted her autobiographical The Lover to the screen in 1992. Dissatisfied with film versions of her stories, Mme Duras began directing her own films in 1967.
The inspiration for1972's Nathalie Granger is said to have been Marguerite Duras' house. The film is a self-conscious art piece that presents many static scenes set in quiet rooms. Two women perform mundane chores, burn foliage in the back yard and take solitary walks, but mostly they sit and stare. No recognizable story develops and only hints of a theme come through. Isabelle (Lucia Bosé, the dark beauty from Michelangelo Antonioni's Story of a Love Affair) stalks the property in a black cape, or sits in morose, Morticia Adams- like poses.
Also moping about the house is Jeanne Moreau, playing an unidentified Other Woman. Moreau and Bosé do the dishes together and engage in listless staring sessions. Neither woman speaks much to Isabelle's daughter Nathalie (Valerie Mascolo). Telephone conversations reveal that Nathalie has been suspended from school for unacceptable violent behavior. The women hope that Nathalie can enroll in a new boarding school, as they're convinced that the girl's only hope is to "find herself" in music. Nathalie at play doesn't seem in the least disturbed, unless we wish to read something into the way she knocks over her baby buggy toy. Nathalie and her sister stay out of sight most of the time.
The movie makes an event out of a black cat entering and exiting rooms; shots through mirrors are frequent. Eventually, a washing machine salesman (Gérard Depardieu, looking young and confused) wanders in. He takes the women's uncommunicative stares as an opening for his sales pitch, which soon breaks down into a soliloquy on his own incompetence. Discovering that they already have the make and model of washer he represents, he finally exits. Later on, the salesman returns once more to briefly stand and stare at an empty room.
The other thread running through the picture is a string of radio reports about a police manhunt for two killers on the loose. The women are seen turning a portable radio on and off, which is the only evidence that they are listening. The theme of violence might connect with the school reports about Nathalie, or the way the women burn leaves in the back yard.
Nathalie Granger is the work of a serious artist, yet there's not much in the film itself that encourages analysis. Nobody requires that an art movie add up to a three-act drama or conform to preconceived notions, but any description of the film's action reads like a parody of a "meaningful" art film. Two women show no emotion (alienation!), clean up the house (feminist anguish!), talk riddles on the phone (the failure of human communication!) and refuse to react to the befuddled young washing machine salesman (rejection of commercial culture!). Bosé and Moreau are like complimentary, if inert, bookends. Since Moreau's character has no official identity, she and Isabelle might represent some kind of binary character. Interpreting the film is like grasping at straws.
At one point, Moreau ends a deadpan phone conversation with the words, "We have no telephone, madame." It's the closest that Nathalie Granger comes to a joke.
Film structuralists might say that the unbroken static shots enforce the tyranny of real time, to purposely reject the commercial cinema's pandering to audience expectations. Breaking conventions is certainly valid, and we've seen films that use stasis to good effect. But we suspect that Duras simply hasn't got a handle on her chosen medium of expression. In the disc set's interview documentary, the assistant director tells us the he was forced to interpret Duras' vague desires to the accomplished cameraman Ghislain Cloquet, because she couldn't express them herself. The editor reportedly said that Duras had difficulty focusing on the task of cutting the picture.
Marguerite Duras was able to film her movie in a matter of a few days. Although the photography is attractive, the picture contains nothing that couldn't have been improvised on the spot. Duras is said to have provided inspiration for experimental filmmakers like Claire Denis and Chantal Ackerman. Ackerman's 1975 Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at least goes somewhere. After three hours of mundane housecleaning and prostitution, its emotionally numb heroine (Delphine Seyrig) suddenly decides to kill her partner Grace Kelly style, with a pair of scissors. It sounds like an instant feminist classic.
The packaging text encourages us to free-associate with Nathalie Granger: "... dull rituals mask an undercurrent of lurking violence". A quote from The Guardian reads, most unhelpfully, "There is a density in the film, a sense of place, of reality...".
On the other hand, an elegant 2005 Strictly Film School web review by "aquarello" is written so persuasively that we ache to see the same fascinating film "aquarello" saw. The few critics brave enough to interpret Nathalie Granger for readers below the level of graduate film studies are less forgiving. Richard Brody uses his 2008 The New Yorker notice to describe the film without daring to recommend it. Vincent Canby's 1972 New York Times review is both insightful and brutal: "(Unlike a novel...), You can't skip through Nathalie Granger. To see it you are forced to watch it for as long as it lasts, while, in turn, it watches its characters, rather as if the camera were a Siamese cat whose feelings had been hurt."
Blaq Out and Facets Video's 2-Disc DVD boxed set of Nathalie Granger presents an acceptable transfer of a B&W film that was probably even more attractive on a large screen. Ragged edges on some objects, along with a slightly short running time suggest that the video may have been converted from a time-compressed PAL master.
The show's distribution over two discs hardly seems necessary. The feature and two documentaries add up to only 132 minutes; the surplus disc space doesn't appear to result in any improvement in picture quality. About Nathalie Granger gathers revealing interviews with assistant director Benoit Jacquot, script supervisor Genevieve Dufour and producer Luc Moullet. All are reverent toward Marguerite Duras but their accounts seem to describe something of a vanity production made because Duras had access to money and talent. The name actors may have signed on for the same reason that producer Moullet did, because working with the famous woman of letters makes an excellent résumé entry.
Duras Society Chairperson Madeleine Borgmano takes us through Marguerite Duras' Film Writing, a talk that examines the author's frustration with films made from her writing. Facet's Cine-Notes text pamphlet contains short essays by Susan Doll and Charles Coleman, with an annotated Duras filmography and a timeline of her eventful life.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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