Was there a better year for slow cinema and Delphine Seyrig than 1975? That was, most famously, the year Jeanne Dielman, reviewed last month here on ArtsPaper, burrowed into theaters and helped change the way movies could be made. Astonishingly, though, it’s not even the most radical Seyrig vehicle to be released that year. That honor goes to India Song, the novelist Marguerite Duras’s medium-redefining cinematic experience, a frustrating, elliptical and, if you have the patience to stick it out, marvelous landmark of experimental cinema.
It’s part of a two-disc collection, paired with Duras’s Baxter, Vera Baxter, released by the Criterion Collection on Feb. 28 ($47.95 Blu-ray, $31.96 DVD). Sandwiched between Dazed & Confused and Hollywood Shuffle in Criterion’s release calendar, these discs will likely be something of a loss leader for the esteemed distributor, but to the most adventurous cinephiles, they’re the reason we have always loved it. Niches need servicing, too.
Contrary to initial perceptions, there is, in fact, a narrative to India Song. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. But most of the “action” takes place in the recesses of our imaginations, and to appreciate the movie’s obstinate weirdness, we have to throw out our fundamental expectation of conventional cinema in the post-silent era: that is to say, spoken dialogue that matches what we’re looking at. In India Song, the actors’ mouths never open. Duras recorded the dialogue track separately from the film shoot, and then draped it over the visuals in ways that are both direct and oblique, that reinforce the characters’ actions and that comment on them from a remove akin to a gossipy Greek chorus.
This approach is a kind of severance. It’s an affront to the universal language of cinema, detaching sound and image in a way I’ve never seen before, sans perhaps the avant-garde work of Chris Marker. But it serves a symbolic function that touches on the rotting colonialism at the heart of Duras’s chamber drama: The white Europeans the director follows are themselves detached from the poverty surrounding them, living in a fake world of cosseted privilege.
Though set in Calcutta in 1930s, Duras shot India Song in France, largely at the lugubrious Château Rothschild, its characters alighting only in mansions, villas and luxury hotels. Seyrig plays the wife of a French ambassador to India (Claude Mann), a bored and listless life punctuated by affairs with fellow dignitaries: an attaché played by Mathieu Carrière, and most crucially the vice-consul of Lahore, a tragic figure played by Michael Lonsdale.
Characters move around the mostly static frame in a kind of suspended animation, traversing its borders with the stiffness of sculptures occasionally granted agency. Sometimes they pose in their gilded haunts in arch tableaux, so frozen in place as to serve as human still-life paintings. They seem, despite Seyrig’s luminous vitality, to be walking corpses. The soundtrack is composed not just of the actors’ disembodied, often-disjunctive voices but of a rich tapestry of evocative sounds: rain, local fauna, foghorns, the rush of the Ganges, plus a recurring and mesmerizing piece of jazzy piano music by composer Carlos d’Alessio that gives the movie its title.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at India Song, it’s that its coldness can seem, in the movie’s first hour, simply unapproachable. I beseech you to forge ahead. When blood finally starts to course through the film’s veins, the result is harrowing, as when Lonsdale’s diplomat, evidently removed from an embassy ball, releases a barrage of piercing, anguished wails — Edvard Munchian screams if ever there were any — that bleed through other shots and scenes, as if lodged in the consciousness of the people who wronged him. It has this effect on us, too: an endless echo, reverberating across the walls and gardens and imagined rivers. Seldom has a film so trenchantly negated its own audiovisual utility for such a dark foray into the theater of the mind.
Compared with the novel bulk of India Song, Baxter, Vera Baxter, completed two years later, is less essential. It follows a woman, the title character played by Claudine Gabay, sequestered in an enormous villa she may or may not be looking to purchase. Her wealthy but absent husband, Jean, is out of the picture in more ways than one, gallivanting somewhere, we’re told, with a younger model. Vera has been carrying on an affair with a cash-strapped journalist (Gérard Depardieu), and the film captures a moment of indecision about her future that unspools more or less in real time.
The characters talk a lot but say little. Vera is visited by a couple of friends — including Seyrig again — for extended dialogues about her ennui, but given the comforts of her life and the glorious waterfront setting of the villa, it’s hard to muster up too much sympathy. I thought the same about this movie’s 2021 remake of sorts, Benoît Jacquot’s Suzanna Adler, which I reviewed for this site last year.
Duras’ film has the edge on Jacquot’s, however, if only, again, for the soundtrack. The characters’ dialogue clashes with the sounds of an unseen Caribbean band, beginning a few minutes into the movie and never ceasing for the duration. Ethnic variations on guitar, flute and drums repeat their refrains on an endless loop, in what first seems like non-diegetic music but eventually integrates itself into the narrative, as the characters comment on it.
While at first jarring with the dialogue, the music eventually becomes a kind of white noise, so annoyingly present that you eventually forget it’s there. It’s another of Duras’ slow-cinema magic tricks, a cast spell we can’t help but fall under.