Two Films by Marguerite Duras
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Marguerite Duras had already established herself as one of the major figures of postwar French literature when she launched an equally fascinating and unclassifiable career in cinema, translating her elliptical, experimental style to the screen through an unprecedented fusion of hypnotic, highly stylized imagery and radically disjunctive sound. Boldly reimagining the possibilities of dialogue, music, silence, and architectural space, the tantalizing, sphinxlike evocations of soul-deep female malaise India Song and Baxter, Vera Baxter embody Duras’s singular multisensory approach, with each opening up new spaces for the expression of women’s interior worlds.
The Criterion Collection presents two films by author-turned-director Marguerite Duras: Baxter, Vera Baxter and India Song. Each film is provided on an individual dual-layer disc in their respective aspect ratios of 1.66:1 and 1.37:1. Both films have been given 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes and are taken from recent 2K restorations performed by Technicolor in Paris sourced from the 35mm original camera negatives.
The two presentations look very strong when all is said and done. The restorations for each have cleaned the images up considerably, and I don’t recall any damage outside of a few minor marks popping up here and there. Where the photography allows (a soft focus appears to have been applied at times), clarity and detail are very high, long shots exposing finer textures in the settings of both films, whether it be Vera Baxter’s home or the dilapidated Château Rothschild at the center of India Song. Film grain has been captured and rendered well enough, but the darker interiors featured in India Song, which there are plenty of, can sometimes look a bit off.
The color-grading is the area I was a little unsure of initially as it does appear there is that warmer, yellow-green, or teal hue to things, a common trend in many recent restorations. However, eventually, it does become clear that what is being done here is different from the blanket-everything-in-yellow-or-green-or-teal process other restoration houses do.
India Song does feature a rich yellow-green hue, though it becomes evident that it has more to do with the film's color scheme, which features a lot of green in the surroundings, than much else. The color is also referenced in the narration a handful of times (admittedly, I’m not familiar with the analogy as it is used in the film, but the color is associated with the heat, humidity, and Calcutta in general) and even in a documentary included as a feature, so it clearly plays a part in the film. The color also suggests decay regarding the film's setting and possibly its occupants.
That said, it should also be pointed out that this grading has not been applied in a blanket approach and only impacts portions of the film. The hue is heavier during interior sequences but less so in others, and the end sequence is almost entirely devoid of it. Exteriors also show some striking blues, the sky at dusk looking particularly lovely. And black levels have not been affected negatively, still appearing inky while allowing for excellent delineation in the shadows.
Baxter, Vera Baxter’s color scheme is a little blander, more beige, though with a slight teal push. Like India Song, it looks to be applied at varying levels throughout, some scenes heavier, some less so, and a handful appearing entirely free of the hue. Blues are a bit more prominent in this presentation, and they look lovely, not a sickly cyan. Of course, while I can’t say if the grading is correct, the grading at least feels to complement the respective films well.
(It should also be noted that India Song’s director of photography, Bruno Nuytten, oversaw both restorations.)
In the end, both films look excellent, the restoration work cleaning things up wonderfully with Criterion’s encode handling everything decently.
Both films come with French monaural soundtracks presented in lossless single-channel PCM. India Song also features an alternate English soundtrack in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono.
The French soundtracks can be surprisingly robust. Baxter, Vera Baxter’s sound design is the more conventional of the two, featuring dialogue spoken by the actors onscreen with a super-catchy score by Carlos d'Alessio popping up throughout. Dialogue sounds rich with decent fidelity, and the music sounds clean with ample range. There is no heavy distortion, and damage is not an issue.
India Song’s soundtrack is a whole other thing, though it comes out sounding relatively strong despite what I can only call the “fakeness” of it. The entire film plays out with voice-over narration, the “story” being told to us as the action, as it were, plays out in front of us. The actors don’t speak their lines onscreen, with all dialogue narrated over the image by the actors in the roles. There can be a bit of flatness to the narration that I feel is intentional, but it doesn’t come off sounding distorted or edgy. There is also some decent range to be found, as delivered in a scene where Michael Lonsdale’s character can be heard screaming in the background for a lengthy amount of time. There is some notable depth to the volume levels, and fidelity is rather good (this all helped me chuckle when, eventually, a character points out that he’s “still screaming”).
The English soundtrack for India Song is a bit weaker, offering a bit more noise in the background with some mild distortion. It also comes off sounding a bit flatter. Yet that scream ends up sounding okay.
Along with their recent Mai Zetterling and Michael Haneke sets, this release takes on the feel of something along Criterion’s previous Eclipse line: grouping films that share a common subject or theme into a single release in order to get them out there. This is all well and good, and if it’s the route Criterion is going I’m all for it, but so far it seems to be impacting features, sadly. Unlike the Eclipse line, these releases come with features, but none are new. Everything found in this release is archival.
Each disc holds a couple of features. I liked a 4-minute television excerpt from a 1977 interview with Duras found on the disc for Baxter, where she poetically talks about the character and guesses what happened in her past. Also decent is the one-hour documentary from 2003, Marguerite as She Was, assembled by Duras’ friend, editor, and collaborator Dominique Auvray. Considering the subject, its short length doesn't do it any favors, and it feels to skim over her writing and her films. Still, it provides a serviceable portrait, delving into her childhood in Vietnam and her relationship with her mother, which seems to have influenced her work. It's also loaded with some great archival interviews with her and others, Jean-Luc Godard even popping up quickly at one point.
The 47-minute making-of documentary for India Song (found on its respective disc) entitled Shooting “India Song”: A Story in Four Voices, the “four voices” in question being director of photography Bruno Nyutten (audio only), producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, script supervisor Geneviève Dufour, and assistant director Benoit Jacquot. Archival interview footage featuring Duras has also been thrown in there. The film's background proves to be fascinating while also being loaded with surprises, including the suggestion that Duras wanted Peter O’Toole and possibly Montgomery Clift in it (it sounds as though O’Toole’s people didn’t even entertain the idea). There is also discussion around her style, the narration, the music, and more, with a few humorous facts thrown in there, including where Jacquot admits he didn’t understand the film until much later.
Finally, the release closes with a 6-minute excerpt from a 1977 documentary about Delphine Seyrig (aptly titled Portrait of Actress Delphine Seyrig), featuring the actress recalling her work with Duras before talking about how the director’s understanding of the importance of sound to images concerning filmmaking. A booklet has also been included and features an essay by Ivone Margulies. In it, the author explores Duras' transition from writer to filmmaker (borne out of frustration with how her work was being adapted) before exploring the unique style and film language in her work, with a focus on the two films here, unsurprisingly.
The essay is okay though it feels like a missed opportunity not to have a video program or visual piece covering the look and sound of one or both films. As it is, the features are fine, but ultimately, like the Duras documentary, they only skim the surface.
There could be far more to the special features, but each film receives a decent presentation.