Two Films by Marguerite Duras: India Song & Baxter, Vera Baxter

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Marguerite Duras | CAST: Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale, Mathieu Carrière, Claude Mann, Noëlle Châtelet, Nathalie Nell, Claudine Gabay, Gérard Depardieu 
RELEASE DATE: 2/28/23 | PRICE: DVD $29.99, Blu-ray $40.00
BONUSES: 2003 documentary “Marguerite as She Was,” 1977 interview with Duras, and an excerpt from a 1977 documentary on actor Delphine Seyrig
SPECS: NR | 214 min. | Foreign-language drama | 1.37:1 / 1.66:1 | monaural |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Many modern filmmakers take their audio tracks for granted, emphasizing them only when music is used to create a mood, when scary sound effects appear and when weapons are heard. The two films in this package contain memorable imagery, but they are pretty much all about the audio, as their plots are entirely conveyed through dialogue and sound effects.

Celebrated author Marguerite Duras knew about the power of words, but she also was aware of how filmmakers subordinate them to images — one of her crowning achievements was the screenplay for Resnais’ radiantly visual Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Thus, for the creation of the love-it-or-hate-it 1975 landmark India Song, she “split” sound and picture and decided that the images should only be adjuncts to the dialogue and narration.

The film is thus perceived as either mesmerizing or a big bore (sometimes the viewer can feel both ways, from scene to scene). The tale of a dissatisfied ambassador’s wife (Delphine Seyrig, Last Year in Marienbad) is told in an elliptical fashion on the audio track of the film while we watch a number of tableaux. Some contain the characters in the story (not moving their mouths to lip-synch the dialogue), either walking slowly or standing still; others just show the locations for the tale, devoid of people.

In one scene, for instance, we witness a reception in the ambassador’s mansion. On the soundtrack we hear the music played at the reception, some voices speaking in the background and information about the guests imparted via conversation. What we see during all this are two tuxedo-clad men in the empty living room of the mansion walking around the room while holding drinks.

At points Duras plants contradictory or time-shifting elements in the audio. As, for instance, when the wife tells her vice-consul suitor (Michael Lonsdale, Of Gods and Men) not to shout — but we have just heard him speaking in a perfectly calm tone of voice.

Overall, India Song is an austere exercise in formalist filmmaking that contains some beautiful images, a haunting score by Carlos d’Alessio and an intriguing storyline — and one moment that will linger in the memory. In this sequence, the vice-consul finally cracks from being rejected by the wife and begins shouting at the top of his lungs, crying to be together with her.

Of course, we don’t see his outburst — we watch while Lonsdale is heard howling and sobbing on the audio track. The scene is a stunner that makes the whole film suddenly come alive, as the tranquil mood is broken and one of the characters is finally exhibiting an emotion. Lonsdale, who had an amazing career playing in both commercial fare (he was a Bond villain in Moonraker) and challenging avant-garde theater and film, was the perfect performer for the breakdown scene in India Song, since he appears so dignified when he’s onscreen and then lets go entirely on the soundtrack, wailing for more than five minutes.

The meltdown is so intense that even when the visuals finally offer something kinetic — as when we see a suitor kiss Seyrig near the finale — it isn’t as big a surprise as Lonsdale’s character losing his mind.

The second film in this release, Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), is much less austere than India Song, but Duras again assigned primary importance to its audio track. The visuals are comprised of the exotic locale in which the story is set and long and medium shots of people calmly talking — although here they were filmed speaking in real time.

The plot is conveyed entirely through the dialogue and concerns the title character, a wife (Claudine Gabay) who knows her husband has had affairs and who herself has been having one with an eager suitor (Gerard Depardieu, 1900). Vera is told that her suitor is waiting for her by a mysterious woman (Delphine Seyrig) who listens to her story and then in a sudden and cryptic bit of dialogue reveals why she wanted to meet her.

Delphine Seyrig and Michael Lonsdale in India Song (1975)

Duras hypnotizes the viewer here by looping one piece of upbeat-sounding music by Brazilian composer Carlos d’Alessio (played on instruments from the Andes in a light but thoroughly intoxicating way) so that it is heard for the majority of the film’s running time. This music is supposed to be emanating from a party taking place near the villa that Vera is thinking of renting; the result of hearing one musical passage over and over again is, by turns, hypnotic and disturbing.

Thus, Baxter revolves around storytelling — first by Depardieu’s suitor character and then by Vera.  The “story” at the film’s end, in which the stranger compares Vera to a wife in the Middle Ages waiting for her husband to come home from the Crusades (and eventually being executed for being a witch) accentuates Vera’s imprisonment in her marriage and adds an unusual metaphysical level to what had been a rather “earthy” tale (for Duras) of adultery and dampened ardor.

Four onscreen supplements sum up Duras’ personal life and her innovative attitude toward filmmaking.

The 2002 documentary “Marguerite as She Was” by Dominique Auvray outlines Duras’ life through home movies, photos and talking heads. Here we learn that, as a child growing up in Southeast Asia (her parents were teachers who taught in Vietnam), Duras considered herself more Vietnamese than French, although she had no Asian blood. We learn that she initially considered writing “a way to settle all scores” and that her attitude toward art was summed up in the aphorism “smash everything and start again.”

A segment from a 1977 documentary on Delphine Seyrig finds her reminiscing in English about working with Duras on the author’s debut as a filmmaker, La Musica (1967) and India Song. She notes that Duras was too timid to look through the viewfinder on the former film, on which she had been assigned a co-director by the producer, until Seyrig told her she “really should.” She remembers India Song as being the moment when Duras recognized that “sound is as important as the image” in film, and India Song became “the product of this understanding.”

In a French TV interview from 1977 Duras supplies a backstory for Vera Baxter that was not contained in the film. She fully explains the plot of the film in four minutes, going so far as to say that Vera’s only communication with the outside world is the South American music she hears coming from the nearby party (Carlos d’Alessio’s looped music) and that this music is what “stops her from killing herself.”

She says that Vera is “from an earlier time” and fully explains (in a matter of a few sentences) the conversation in the film’s finale about the wives who wait for their husbands. These women, she notes, were in fact “witches who lived in the forest of the Atlantic… peasant women… [who] started talking to the sea, the animals, the trees. They were accused of communicating with nature and they were burned. Vera Baxter is one of those women for me.”

And finally, a 2020 featurette has interviews with four individuals who worked on India Song discussing the two-week shoot for the film and its unusual structure. Noted filmmaker Benoit Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen), who early in his career worked as Duras’ assistant on several movies, explains that Duras enjoyed “having young people around her” when creating movies, but she especially needed the aid of Jacquot and d.p. Bruno Nuytten  (Going Places, Possession), since she “couldn’t express herself technically” (meaning she didn’t know how the camera and other tools of the film trade worked).

Thus, Jacquot notes that he and Nuytten “did everything” on the film, as Duras also never gave direction to the actors. What she did instead was read them texts, which gave them perspectives on the film’s action but didn’t provide precise instructions. She also recreated her fantasy area of India in France, with most of the action being shot in an abandoned castle that belonged to the Rothschilds.

The most intriguing detail Jacquot offers is that he realized early on that Duras was blending two films — “a film of bodies and a film of voices.” Given the primacy of the audio track in the film, it’s fascinating to hear that she recorded it only after she’d shot the nearly static tableaux on location.

She was indeed so proud of the soundtrack that she made the unusual move of making a follow-up film to India Song titled Her Venetian Name in Deserted Calcutta, where she used the exact same audio track (all two hours of it) to make a new film, composed of images of the castle in ruins.

The oddest and most memorable anecdote comes from producer Stéphane Tchalgadjieff (Out 1), in reference to a scene where Seyrig is seen lying on the floor topless for several minutes. He notes that Seyrig prepared for the scene by pulling out the hairs around her nipple, in full view of the crew, who felt each pluck “like a jolt of electricity.”

At the conclusion of the documentary we hear from Duras himself in archival footage saying that what she got from India Song was “freedom and self-confidence. I think a person’s greatest failure is the lack of self-confidence. Not having self-confidence is a pretension….”

Buy or Rent Two Films by Marguerite Duras: India Song & Baxter, Vera Baxter

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”