By Dina Pokrajac
Dialogues between Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard represent a starting point and a useful landmark for a true evaluation of the relationship between the written word and the image. In one interview from 1997, Godard said that he knew Duras “for two or three years”, evoking the title of his film Two or Three Things I Know about Her. Godard and Duras were meeting for a few years to discuss the subject of their interest: a radical dichotomy between image and sound, portraying the unportrayable (such as concentration camps and incest), as well as childhood and television. Three dialogues between Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard form a conversation launched in 1979 [the first dialogue, regarding Godard’s film Every Man for Himself], continued in 1980 (the second dialogue, on a film project about incest) and ending in 1987 (the third dialogue for the TV show Océaniques). The dialogues can be best described as free improvisation on the most diverse subjects teeming with lovely paradoxes. Duras and Godard are authors whose arts constantly and simultaneously attract and reject, and they share a common cross-examination of words and images. Their mutual encounters turn into small conceptual stage plays with a common red thread of the failure of film art whose powers have, over the course of history, remained unacknowledged, unused and forgotten.
Their meeting point is obvious – Duras is both a writer and a director, and director Godard since his earliest films maintained a special relationship with literature, the written word and speech. Bellour says he is “the writerliest among the directors, whilst everything inside him opposes what this assumes”. On the other hand, Duras makes films, but at the same time points out she doesn’t trust image. She wonders how to achieve text accessibility to combine its power of evocation and the power of very few or no illustrative shots, with scarce and unconnected actions. For that reasons she increasingly separated sounds and shots and prioritises purified, repetitive, even absent images she subsequently combined with voice over, turning into surges of litanies. Godard, on the other hand, wonders how to profoundly connect image and word by breaking the priority and advantage of names over things, slogans over people and actions, screenplays over films. All the three dialogues take place at the time of Godard’s return to more visible cinema, after ten years of militant works and video essays beyond traditional distribution channels. At that point he was reliving his second cinematic life, starting with Every Man for Himself. Duras returned to writing, separated from filmmaking, after writing mostly film-related texts for ten years, and this was also around her great literary success The Lover, which was published in 1984 and coincided with the end of her filmmaking era – in 1985 she made her last film, The Children. A relationship essentially, as well as temporally strictly defined.
However, although the encounter between Godard and Duras formally began in 1979 with his invitation to take part in the making of his film Every Man for Himself, it would be more accurate to say that their dialogues actually began in 1977, when Marguerite Duras made the film The Lorry. In The Lorry, the writer is portrayed face to face with Gerard Depardieu while reading the text for a hypothetic film in which a lorry driver takes an elderly woman hitchhiker on the road to Yvelines. In between the shots of the reading, we see the lorry, the landscapes it crosses, but never the passengers. The text retells how the hitchhiker is speaking in the cabin and the man is listening, just like in this juxtaposition of the writer and the actor, where the leading role is played by Duras. The Lorry is a deconstruction of cinematic parameters in which the visual and the acoustic are two independent components comprising an audiovisual unit. We are sitting at the cinema and a woman’s voice is telling us what someone, invisible to us, saw. Duras believes that contemporary cinema tends to attach a voice to a body, which seems like a form of cheating, something she is debunking in the films such as The Lorry or, for example, India Song – by essentially separating the voice from the visual document.
The Lorry is also a physical metaphor of words transposed into image. Film both permeates text and delivers it like the lorry delivers cargo. Duras thus appeals to what she jokingly calls ‘a lorry game’, and the sixteen years younger Godard is the only filmmaker who took the metaphor seriously and embarked with her on this game, starting with the film Every Man for Himself. In Every Man for Himself, Godard invites Duras to play herself in a classroom scene and to take in her specific, magnetic voice with his alter ego Paul Godard and his students. The writer agreed to come to Lausanne, but only for sound recording – she doesn’t want to appear on the screen, i.e. as she says herself – I am present, I am heard, but I am not seen. Godard agrees to her terms and makes two long sound recordings with Duras – one at school and the other in a moving car. Godard hence accepts to conform to the disposition specific of her films, in voice over – it is a way of playing the game.
Godard thinks she found the formula of the relationship between film and writing (in a letter he sent her while filming Detective he said: “Can we say that in film we write the other way around? Yes. Your green eyes saw this before me.” He inscribed Duras into all of his films starting from Every Man for Himself onwards, to the latest Le livre d’image – this inscription is accompanied by an exaggeration and distortion of her general topics – both serious and ludic, personal and conceptual. He creates an image of the two of them as a romantic couple in the sense of exchange between opposite poles – as editor Cyril Béghin writes in the afterword to the edition consolidating the Dialogues – calling these poles soft and hard. Godard complains very early on that in a collective experience of filmmaking there is no real exchange and the dialogues with actors, screenwriters and technicians are always inevitably failed. He seeks out, invents many possibilities for exchange, especially in two – from his collaboration with Anna Karina or Anne Wiazemsky, to the one with Anne-Marie Miélville and Jean-Pierre Gorin. As Godard says himself – “I’m very traditional, I’ve always been making romances or couple stories.” The romantic couple poles shaping Godard and Duras are seeing and talking. They are juxtaposed, but they act together as independent forces. The ‘lorry game’ focuses on the connections between talking and seeing, words and images, but a souple speak about everything and Godard often (untypically of him) retreats to the background and listens. In Every Man for Himself, his alter ego Paul Godard says, “As far as Marguerite Duras is concerned, every time you see a lorry passing by, tell yourself that this is a woman’s word passing,” that was his vision of Duras as his opposite pole. Duras responds: “The silence that always envelops text – on the text itself, but its reading – the spoken word is the one creating it. If there is such a thing as a woman’s place – and I’m not sure there is – then it is very similar to this. This place is childhood… a man is more childish than a woman, but with less childhood.” In her view, men should learn to be quiet and keep the theoretical voice inside them quiet.
Their second encounter and dialogue take place, again at Godard’s encouragement, after they both published the anthologies of their views on cinema – Duras Green Eyes and Godard Introduction to a True History of Cinema. They meet to discuss the never implemented film project on incest in Trouville, and the conversation took an hour and a half. Although the subject of incest, which Godard suggested for the meeting, would not lead to any kind of work together, it will definitely echo in their future works. Godard expands its varieties in First Name: Carmen (1983), Hail Mary (1984) and King Lear (1987). Duras continued since the late 1970s with her text Agatha, followed by the filming of Agatha and the Limitless Readings early in 1981, in which a brother-sister incest, inspired by Robert Musil’s A Man without Qualities, is not directly visually portrayed – we see only the abandoned beaches of Trouville and the cold lobby of Les Roches Noires – and it seems to be mediated only through words.
The third dialogue witnesses to a change of tone and here the time of their meeting comes to its end. It was filmed for the French television show Océaniques (1987) when Duras had already retired from filmmaking. He then films Keep Your Right Up and she writes Emily L. The conversation was recorded in her Paris apartment and lasts a total of two hours. The conversation is cryptic and frustrating because they both seem to be talking in shibboleths they don’t even understand themselves. Occasionally it is a cacophony, a dialogue of the deaf. There is some misunderstanding between them, but it is also the secret driving force of their verbal exchanges. They are constantly provoking and teasing each other – for example, Duras deliberately pronounces Keep Your Right Up as Keep Your Left Up, whilst he claims that he did not read her new novel Emily L., although it should have been one of the main subjects of their conversation. Godard proposes Duras to adapt her The Lover, which she refuses – in the end he decides to listen to Duras and her peculiar voice as she speaks for five whole minutes. They conclude the third dialogue with following words: “I’m glad we saw each other again – me too, it was necessary – we are strong enough for television – like two rocks waiting for those to move them.”
There are many signs of the ‘lorry game’ in Godard’s work – his dialogues with Duras are included in the films, the game assumes cinematic forms, reshaped and left open the reality of their encounters – the writer’s name, titles of some of her books, her places or her face comprise Godard’s visual and sound collages from Every Man for Himself (1979) to Le Livre d’image (2018). These inscriptions are at the same time theoretical, critical and sentimental – soft and hard. Thus, in an episode of 3B Film Narratives, one sentence appearing over the portrait of M. Duras sums up the word-image antagonism in one statement of amorous spite: “You speak to me in words, and I look at you with feelings.” In the seventies and early eighties when they meet – school is for Godard one of the role models for a film he longs for: it allows everything to be addressed face to face – learning is an exchange just like the one between two images or between a picture and a word, or one quote versus others – they do not serve to create authority or an imposing exercise, but to infinitely open up fragmented works. The very same way, the editing gesture places Every Man for Himself and The Lorry in a dialectic – this is how Godard was the only one to take the ‘lorry game’ seriously. retained in romantic intemperance, a sublime statement. In this regard, the film Oh, Woe Is Me (1992) is also important, in which God incarnated in a man by the name of Simon Donnadieu (played by Duras’s interlocutor from The Lorry, Gerard Depardieu) to make love to his wife Rachel. Donnadieu’s is M. Duras’s real last name and the character of the girl who goes through several scenes at the beginning of the film is called Marguerite Duras – she is looking for someone to teach her painting which is a typical Godardian ploy. In Oh, Woe Is Me he tries to record what cannot be recorded – the presence of the divine in the material world and with this he approaches Duras’s mysticism without a god. In the wake of the liberalization of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the USSR and the war in Yugoslavia, Godard is making this unusual, yet tender and cerebral film that is partly a metaphysical inspiration (the arrival of a deity on Earth) and partly a sociopolitical examination (erosion of the communist ideal, cultural heritage concept and film art). Oh, Woe Is Me evokes an age in search of a lost question, dealing with the issues of religion, memory, truth and love – a rigorous intellectual form complemented by an atypically lyrical and meditative mood. The story is based on a legend of Zeus disguising himself as Amphitron to seduce his wife, beginning with the publisher’s arrival in a picturesque Swiss town where the Donnadieus live, after learning about their unusual story.
For Marguerite Duras, writing also assumes film. She says nothing exists before books, but are books exist before film. Film fills her with happiness because she sees it as a support to writing. For her, filmmaking is not a show, but an attempt to shape the unrepresentative by means other than representation. With Duras, the voice in film is not hierarchically placed as an omniscient narrator in early documentaries, in which the voice controls, governs and suggests. Her radical method is – you should see what I hear as I write. To her, there is no film without text, but reading the text should be organised according to the screen, and there is also the importance of silence. She could never make a picture-based film, therefore even the film about the greatest disaster in the world begins with the sentence – “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” Filmmaking terminates Duras’s solitude of writing. They shatter the illusion of the completeness of the books, and reveal the irreducibility and infinity of the texts they follow up on: in a certain way, they complete them. In Marguerite Duras’s film rituals, texts are exposed risks, they illustrate images and are resurrected at the same time: they are receptive to audiovisual associations, but never limit to them. Her statement should be understood in that light, “I maintain a murderous relationship with film – I began to pursue it in order to reach a creative state of text destruction.”
Godard believes that film often speaks too much – in the sense that it only repeats what has been written. Since the beginning of his career, he refused to make films based on a written script, but rather resorted to improvisation. He sees his films primarily as visual tools for essayistic insight development; at the same time, his view is not pedagogical, but rather an inquisitive view without an inferiority complex in relation to the written word, which caused difficulties in the relationship between literature and film. To Godard, the history of film is not narrative and representative, but a combination of associations, quotes and provocations. His films are though characterised by an abundance of words – but they are more visual and reduced to typography – we are actually watching books, magazines, newspapers – i.e., clusters of quotations. The worldview precedes its description, so with Godard there is an inversion of word and image. He shares the same obsession as Duras – to make the invisible visible – but at the same time resorts to completely different tools – for her there is no film without words, and for him there is no film without image. Film is a helpless witness to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, a massive and seductive image production industry that went hand in hand with the technologization of society, genocides and tyrannies. Still, Godard is still trying to redeem the images, to bestow them meaning. Unmasking the guilt of cinematic art to prove its innocence and sacred mission is something Rancière’s calls, “the most intimate melancholy of Godard’s achievement.”
In his last film Le livre d’image (2018), Godard directs his last wink at Marguerite Duras. Le livre d’image is primarily a film about hands. Already in the first frame, a human hand with an index finger pointing upwards emerges from the totem darkness. It is a photocopied detail from John the Baptist, the last known Da Vinci painting. The saint’s forefinger, in a gesture symbolising salvation, is pointed towards the (lost) paradise. Close-ups of human hands and fingers appear throughout the entire film – from Godard feeling the film strip to Giacometti’s skeletal silhouettes. A series of scattered shibboleths is concluded by Bécassine, a popular character from a French comic created at the dawn of colonialism. This stereotypical Breton peasant woman in a costume (as the first incarnation of the despised in the world, the embodiment of the Other), drawn without a mouth and thus speechless (which is why world rulers should fear her) appears before the very end of the film, recreating the initial gesture. But whom is the finger pointed at? At all of us – the governments’ actions reflect the citizens’ actions – no one’s conscience is clear. Godard enigmatically states that “one should think with one’s hands”, referring to the ideas of the Swiss writer and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont. It is a call to social engagement, paradise lost and a stubborn Occidental tradition notwithstanding. This reveals Godard’s ultimate obsession – to unite action and thought in a creative act to which the author is fully committed, accepting the risks and responsibilities this entails.
Hands in Le Livre d’image evoke the short film-text Negative Hands (Les mains négatives, 1978) by Marguerite Duras. Hands in negative is how the paintings of hands found in Magdalenian caves in the south of Atlantic Europe are called. The edges of these hands – spread out and pressed into the rock – are soaked in paint, blue, black and sometimes red. Duras reinterprets this unexplained custom as a cry for love addressed to anyone who hears it or is willing to listen. That someone is a singularity, to which, through Duras’s mediation, a man from 30,000 years ago is addressed, but he is at the same time a plurality, because there is an endless series of singularities to which the film speaks. Duras draws an analogy between a primitive man and a worker of the post-industrial era – African cleaners on the streets of Paris or Portuguese maids in Parisian bourgeois households. It is her appeal to social engagement, her “thinking with your hands”. To Duras, love is a primordial need for communication – contact in terms of the tangibility of discourse, the physicality of sound and image that is realized in a cinema simulating a cave. Equivalent to Duras’s love call is Godard’s cry for revolution and non-abandonment of utopia. Despite the apocalyptic tone, Le Livre d’image is at times permeated with extreme melancholy, even a tenderness we are not accustomed to see from Godard. His fragile and barely audible voice, hoarse from cigarettes, contributes to this. Occasionally we feel as though he is whispering in our ear or muttering his sayings from the back seat of the cinema. The feeling of intimacy is combined, of course, with self-irony.
Duras once said that Godard is for her the biggest catalyst of world cinema, but at the same time she emphasised that they do not understand each other. In addition, she said that they are the same kind of people and feel great admiration for each other, and mysteriously added – “we are both kings and raw materials.” Godard, on the other hand, said that the two of them are estranged brothers because he hates writing and could never become a writer, and to her, writing or text is the essential thing. He is actually a failed writer; writing attracts and repels him at the same time. She slightly mocks him when she says, “You’re cursed, Jean-Luc – you can’t listen, read or write and cinema therefore helps you to forget that.” Godard and Duras are both cunning and witty masters in the art of conversation. In their approach, they are characterised by a profound passion and commitment to their medium with which they are literally united. They both despise the degraded language of commercials and the cinematic word contrary to the true word. They both eliminate actors as intermediaries between themselves and the viewers. Both combine rapturous poetics with restrained irony. However, he wants to create the ultimate film of images, and she permeates the images with text. He is distrustful of the text and wants to liberate images from subordination to words, and she believes that “images will never by replaced by ‘an indefinite flourishing of words’.” They both believe in evil, but she also believes in love. Both embark from different starting points, but the goal is ultimately the same – the destruction of narrative commercial cinema. And that’s why Duras says that when she feels lonely and thinks of another director, then it’s Godard. To both, an encounter is a paradoxical ally of loneliness, a moment of understanding or union – however brief – it is equally necessary as separation, in life as well as in art.