India Song (1975)

3 01 2017

There’s something that strikes me as intellectually dishonest to describe a film as being “about boredom.” On one level, it feels like posturing, re-writing the experience of a particularly slow film as being a reflection on the particular emotion you felt while watching it. However, there are plenty of films that, if they’re not specifically “about” boredom they indeed reflect on the tension that feeling creates while watching a film. This tension is present in India Song, but in addition to this, much of the film’s discourse comes from the privilege associated with boredom. It is a movie composed of bored, listless subjects and meditates on their actions, or lack thereof.

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In the contemporary film world, “slow cinema” is often attached with CriticSpeak by the word ennui. While I think something resembling ennui permeates throughout Duras’ film, I feel it might be instructive to move her film away from that description and the type of films associated with it. While there are technical similarities to the work of Antonioni and Tsai (and everything that comes between), I think Duras’ approach is interested in something entirely different. As a film about boredom, the erotic in India Song is not rendered as something sick, or violent. Instead, eros here is attached to the crushing boredom that Delphine Seyrig is afforded as the wife of a diplomat. Her boredom lends way to her unique sense of time, a sense of time that is shared by the film itself. It is a time that tragically devoid of any consequences.

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In his writings, the Situationist Constant argued that technology had already evolved to the point where all labor could be automated. This progress was not reflected in reality because those in power were terrified by what would happen when the working class were stripped of the main instrument of orienting their time. This would be more than just a surplus in leisure time, as leisure time suggests a return to work. Our lives would free of the largest chunk we had sacrificed. Free from the demands of capitalist time, we could now devote unlimited time and energy to creative and “fun” (the Situationists loved games) endeavors. The ruling class live by “capitalist time” as well, but as Duras shows, their conditions are far less demanding, albeit still stifling. This is not to say the film sheds tears for its colonizing subjects, but instead the opposite. As isolating all the material to their unique orientation of time, it shakes up the stability of their position. It is worth pointing out here that the colonized individuals that are hinted at through voiceover (Calcutta, Lahore, and so on…) and their own cries are visually absent from the film. A lesser work would find this population ripe for one-dimensional characters that would comfortably reinforce the position of Seyrig and her losers. Their absence, instead, instills an unease that hangs over every frame.

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It is perhaps unfair, but Marguerite Duras is typically linked with one of her earliest collaborators, Alain Resnais. Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet made Last Year at Marienbad, another film that muses on alternatives of time and is (superficially) focused on bourgeois romance. In that film, time and space are the cinematic elements whose conventional linking is broken up. The couple may have might in Marienbad last year, but of course, maybe they also didn’t. The formal trickery of that film relies on the permeable nature of memory. As cold and distant as the film is formally, it plays upon a very human problem of how and what we remember. This is evident in India Song as well, but Duras doesn’t place it as an element of surreal intrigue. The evocation of memory is far less sexy, but she also manages to break up the conventional cinematic linking of time and space. The house in India Song is located right outside Paris, but any audience member realizes it can be anywhere. As the camera pans over a map, space/place are complicated. The link between the house’s architecture and its suggested locale are broken up. The powerful are, regardless of their physical geography, neighbors. Such an idea might have been a stretch in 1975, but it is irrefutable in 2016.

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