2 February 2012 | sveinpa
Death in Calcutta
When a worn 16mm copy of India Song hit our town in the early, post-punk eighties, it created an immediate sensation among the local cinefiles. Several people watched it again and again, and of course some clever bastards started writing articles about its aesthetics, "The aesthetics of absence" or something like that. Almost at the same time, the first solo LP by Richard Jobson of The Skids appeared, with its opening track repeating the hypnotic theme of India Song and Mr. Jobson himself reciting his version of the plot of the movie and making a homage to Duras at the same time. Then the recorded voice of Duras herself also appeared on a double album released by the fashionable Belgian label Les disques du crepuscule. It felt almost as Duras was as contemporary as New Order or The Birthday Party.
Myself, I watched the movie twice and was as hypnotized by its voices as by its visuals. I remember the instant effect of the opening scene: A long, static shot of the hazy, setting sun accompanied by two off screen, female narrators. In a very musical manner they took turns telling the story of the beggar woman who walked from Indochina to Calcutta, followed by the song-like voice of the woman herself. The way the narrators talked in forms of short questions and even shorter answers, as if they were also spectators commenting the visuals (or making up the non- visuals), was something I never had experienced in a movie before, and something I immediately felt as "a shock of the new" or whatever, anyway as something beautiful beyond my understanding, or lack of understanding as the plot started getting more complicated, with even more narrators joining in. I gave it all up but loved it anyway. It remained for years a special cinematic memory, on par with discovering Tarkovsky's Mirror at about the same time. But then, unlike the films of Tarkovsky, which were shown over and over, India Song completely vanished from the local screens. The other films by Duras never even appeared.
Now, about thirty years later, with none of my then fellow watchers around, I have seen and heard the DVD of India Song some more times, as well as a handful of others by Duras. It is without doubt still a very special movie indeed, and I guess the best of the bunch, although Nathalie Granger comes close. But I am still also almost at a loss trying to understand why this movie is so powerful. I admit that the dark and grainy 16mm look is nothing special. And no, the french settings around the Château does not look much like the heated delta land in India mentioned in the dialogues. But no, it does not matter. So what is it? Well...
The music and the voices! It captures me every time; the way the bewildering narration and the slow piano blues or the upbeat orchestra waltzes blend together with the static or slowly panned visuals. I may now begin to unravel the plot, but hope never to come to a full understanding; the theme of the "Lepers of the heart" caught in their colonial abyss playing out their hopeless love affairs sets the tone, but the finer points of the narrative will forever elude me, I hope.
I can see why the movie is so much discussed in academic circles and why it is hated so much by the average movie fan. Despite its complexities, it seems quite simple. Love it or leave it. A complexity: As with other work by Duras, there is a lot of discrepancies between what we hear and what we see. The actors does not speak, yet we hear their voices. They move off screen, yet we still hear their voices. They all seem to deceive one another, yet the attraction of the central Anne Marie Stretter is never in doubt. But we cannot see why; is it because she is the only white female around? The only remains of a white, piano-driven elegance among the (never seen) beggars and lepers and the smell of death (incense). She is a mystery I guess, and that is her attraction. The simplicity: Long, static shots and characters moving ever so slowly or just posing as a still life. Even fans of Marienbad might lose their temper. But for me, India Song is the better of the two. It goes right to my heart. Perhaps it is its female quality.