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Destroy, She Said: A Marguerite Duras Retrospective

"What appears in my films is the language of women, the action of women. The men are forced to follow.... It’s already the beginning of an inverted world.” – Marguerite Duras

Doc Films at the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Institut Français and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Chicago, presents a selection of 10 of Marguerite Duras's films as a director or screenwriter.

Unlike her contemporaries of post-1968 cinema, such as Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, and Nelly Kaplan; Marguerite Duras was already a successful novelist with a keen interest in deconstructing her own writing on screen when she made her directing debut. Following her monumental first screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), she worked for ten years as a screenwriter on film adaptations of her own novels directed by the likes of Jules Dassin, Tony Richardson, and Peter Brook. At the age of fifty-five, Duras directed her first feature Détruire Dit-Elle (1969), and she continued to develop an inimitable style over the next twenty-five years of filmmaking. As a writer/director interested in exploring the intersections of colonialism, female sexuality, and the language of film itself, her influence can be felt within the work of contemporary filmmakers like Claire Denis, who has referred to Duras as an "intellectual hero."

Destroy, She Said perfectly expresses Duras' passage from a begrudging reliance on the filmic representations of others to the active expression of her personal mythologies and political concerns on screen. While she expertly elicited memorable performances from actors such as Jeanne Moreau, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale, and Gerard Depardieu, it is undoubtedly Duras' unfettered use of her own voice that is her most thrilling challenge to the history of cinema. Zachary Vanes (Curator)

Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais,1959, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
March 31, 2020
A love affair between a French actress (Emanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) is haunted by memories of World War II, rendered through startling jump cuts and disembodied voiceover. Arguably the defining moment of the Nouvelle Vague, Eric Rohmer famously called it “the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” Hot off the success of her novella Moderato Contabile, Marguerite Duras reportedly wrote the script for Resnais in less than two months.

Moderati Cantabile (Peter Brook,1960, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
April 7, 2020
Before realizing the ultimate creepy kids classic Lord of the Flies, Peter Brook directed the film adaptation of Marguerite Duras' novella. Duras co-scripted the adaptation with Brook. Jeanne Moreau, prior to her role in Jules & Jim, plays a bourgeois housewife who witnesses a murder and suspects fellow witness Chauvin, played by Nouvelle Vague heart throb Jean-Paul Belmondo, may be hiding something. Moreau won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance in the film.

Une aussi longue absence (Henri Colpi,1961, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
April 14, 2020
Alida Valli, known today for playing Anna in The Third Man, stars in this Palme d'Or winner as a café owner plagued with grief, struggling to restore the memories of an amnesiac who might be her long-lost husband. Duras' script inverts the structure of the central relationship of Hiroshima Mon Amour and prefigures the haunting memory games of Christian Petzold's Phoenix. Henri Colpi, editor of Resnais' first two features and Duras' Detruire Dit-Elle, gracefully handles the widescreen format.

Détruire dit-elle (Marguerite Duras,1969, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
April 21, 2020
After weathering other directors' increasingly lackluster attempts to film her novels, Duras’ first self-adaptation accentuates the abstraction of her novel about two couples at a seaside resort. When fellow maverick Jacques Rivette asked about one of the searing long takes that populate the film, Duras told him: "You can imagine how hard I had to fight to keep this scene this long. Many people said to me: 'It's impossible; they exchange nothing but banalities.' But that's exactly the point."

Nathalie Granger (Marguerite Duras,1972, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
April 28, 2020
Nearly three years prior to Chantal Ackerman's magnum opus of domestic drudgery Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Duras was subtly cracking wise in the hermetically sealed universe of the middle-class household occupied by Jeanne Moreau and Lucia Bose. Manny Farber writes, "It's cut itself off from active life as it was lived in the Colonial past and is waiting for some utopian state of affairs. But the movie is going to remain stubbornly implacable until that time."

India Song (Marguerite Duras,1975, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
May 5, 2020
Anne-Marie (Delphine Seyrig), an ambassador’s wife locked away in an embassy, enters into a series of affairs to stave off the emptiness of colonial life in 1930s Calcutta. Regarding the characters of the film, Duras stated, “[Women] listen to their feelings. Men don’t know how to….There are many things that women do that men could not do.” Duras reportedly played Carlos d'Allesio's dreamlike score constantly on set to draw out the languorous performances of the actors and camera operator.

Le Camion (Marguerite Duras,1977, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
May 12, 2020
Marguerite Duras herself appears alongside Gerard Depardieu in the writer/director’s most self-assuredly minimalist film. As Duras sits at her dining room table and reads through the script about a truck driver and a hitchhiker, images of a truck driving in the countryside intermittently appear onscreen. Designed to test and reveal the audience's desire to suspend disbelief, Le Camion found an unlikely champion in Pauline Kael, who called it "perfectly made: an ornery, glimmering achievement."

Le Navire Night (Marguerite Duras,1979, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
May 19, 2020
Two doomed lovers communicate across a mysterious phone line installed during the German occupation of Paris – sorry Ephron fans, but Sleepless in Seatle it ain’t. As the camera sinuously roams the empty city streets and occasionally visits the actors, Duras allows the viewer to take in the vulnerable, lyrical dialogue between the characters, voiced by herself and Benoît Jacquot, who served as assistant director on Nathalie Granger and India Song before embarking on his own directorial career.

Agatha et les lectures illimitées (Marguerite Duras,1981, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
May 26, 2020
Though never sharing the same frame, Duras confidant Yann Andrea and Bulle Ogier play siblings in an incestuous relationship that recalls Duras’ early semiautobiographical novel The Sea Wall. Agatha represents the zenith of her minimalist resistance to conventional film. Duras insisted, “The reality reproduced by classical cinema has never been of any interest to me. Everything is said too much, shown too much – an excess of meaning in which, paradoxically, the context becomes impoverished.

Les Enfants (Marguerite Duras,1985, France)
Written by Marguerite Duras
June 2, 2020
Released the same year as Marguerite Duras' internationally best-selling bildungsroman The Lover, the auteur’s final and most accessible film follows Ernesto, a young boy who refuses to attend elementary school. Duras complicates this gentle adaptation of her 1970 children’s book Ah Ernesto! by casting forty-something actor Axel Bogusslavsky in the central role. Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the film for having “an implacable honesty, a cutting skepticism, [and] a deep concern for human freedom.”

Supported by the France Chicago Center at the University of Chicago