In the fall of 1979, Jean-Luc Godard invited Marguerite Duras to appear in a scene for his film Every Man for Himself. Because Duras refused to be filmed, Godard recorded audio of a conversation with her instead, and later used a few lines of what she said as part of the soundtrack to a sequence in the film. As Cyril Béghin notes in the introduction to Duras/Godard Dialogues, a new book featuring three conversations between the pair: “Their point of intersection is obvious. Duras, a writer, is also a filmmaker, and Godard, a filmmaker, has maintained a distinctive relationship with literature, writing, and speech since his first films.” In the following excerpt from the transcript of their hour-long encounter, they discuss political speech, public appearances, the relationship between image and text, and much more.
Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. Photo courtesy of Film Desk Books.
If I asked you to do something on television, would you accept?
If it was you, yes.
What do you mean by “if it was me”? What does it mean to know me?
But knowing you and knowing your films are the same thing.
Well, for the moment, I’m no longer making a lot of films …
Yes, but you have made films!
I think that you and I are a little bit like rival siblings because, perhaps unjustly, I have a hatred for writing [l’écriture]. Not for writing in and of itself, but once it’s there, it’s always there … Whereas in your case, without the writing—I don’t know whether to call it writing or text …
I call it the writing [l’écrit]: the text or the writing.
Still, there is some need for an image, isn’t there?
On the screen, I need both things, neither of which gets in the way of what I would call “the amplitude of speech.” In general, I find that almost all images get in the way of the text. They prevent the text from being heard. And what I want is something that lets the text come through. That’s my only concern. That’s why I made India Song in voice-over.
That lets the text come through, but also carries it? Like a ship carries cargo?
Yes, like a truck carries it. But for me, the cinema hardly exists. I often say it doesn’t exist.
Hardly, or hard to do?
Hardly. Not hard to do, no, I don’t think so.
Personally, I think it talks too much. But more than anything, that it repeats its statement, that it repeats something written. I like your films because they don’t come from the cinema, but they cross it.
I make my texts bend to the cinema. I’m not going to churn out a text that I would offer to be viewed, to be heard along with images, the way I would churn it out in a book, the way I would offer it to be read in a book. I have to use the screen to structure the reading of the text. That’s not the same thing, after all.
No, not at all.
But as far as I’m concerned, there is no cinema. Without text, it doesn’t exist.
No. Silent film had a lot of text.
Yes, that’s right. The silence that always exists around a text. Not a text, but the reading of a text. It’s speech that can provide that silence, that creates it.
You didn’t want to talk in front of an audience the way you’re talking now. Would you have had the impression you were stupidly repeating yourself?
You’re talking about Digne? [Invited to the Rencontres cinématographiques de Digne-les-Bains festival in 1978 for the screening of Le Camion, Duras attended but refused to introduce the film.]
Yes, or something else.
You’re talking about talking to an audience?
Yes, but at a festival. Do you go to them?
Yes. The festival in Hyères asked me to come just so I would be there. That’s all. Along with everyone else. But they didn’t ask me to speak, not once. Oh yes, once, on the radio. But that was nothing. And I think that’s the only acceptable option for me now. In Digne, in the heat of the moment, just like that, I had a kind of very violent reaction against speaking after the screening. That’s over now. I will never again speak about my films after a screening. You see, writing is still a little bit like disappearing, like being behind something. As long as you’re writing, you don’t have to appear. A rather simple syllogism, but that’s how it is.
Where did this need come from for you, at a certain point, to still be taken on, to be transported by … Was it because the texts were getting more difficult?
You know how it is. The requests are endless. People begged me once, they begged me ten times. You give in, and then there it is. But I had gotten physical signs that there was something about all this that was dubious, I would say nearly immoral—about speaking afterward. It made me physically ill. I was disgusted with myself after I spoke. And that’s how I understood that I was wrong.
You had questions you wanted to ask me—you were saying you wanted to come with me.
Yes, but when you tell me you hate text …
Text, but in the sense of the Law. I have the feeling that Moses, for example, saw something in the Tables of the Law, and then after that he made people believe there was something written.
Moses didn’t talk. He talked before.
Yes, but they were texts that he had made up.
He never spoke; he shouted. Ultimately, I think they all shouted. I think that Jesus was in a constant state of anger. And Moses was so possessed by the spirit of God that he could only shout. He could not utter a word. It was a word that spoke. The Law was in itself.
Yes, but it was written. I mean, they’re the sacred texts. Whether we’re talking about ID cards or traffic laws or currency-exchange restrictions. I have the feeling I’m being prevented from seeing. That I see things, but before I can formulate them, in a different formulation from the one in use, I’m forced to see in a way that simply makes it a repetition of the old formulation. So there’s no need to see.
Like a screenplay that says, “The forest is burning.” If you have money, you burn a forest. Or “The Titanic is sinking”: eight hundred people in the water, so you put it in. But you didn’t see anything.
If I say, “The Titanic is sinking,” I see it.
But that’s exactly the point: you wouldn’t write a sentence like “The Titanic is sinking”!
Oh, yes! I’m constantly using pleonasms. I think that when you say, “The Titanic is sinking,” and the Titanic is actually sinking, it’s far stronger than if you say nothing. At one point in India Song, I said, “There are the cries of oarsmen on the Ganges,” calls from one boat to another, from one fisherman to another, and I say so. I say that these are the fishermen of the Ganges, the sounds of Calcutta—while one hears them. Or rather after one has heard them, immediately after. That has a very powerful effect on me. It increases the sound tenfold. But there is nothing more opposed to text than the way magistrates speak. The speech of the law. For example, you see, I would argue that the thing most opposed to text, rather than image, is political speech. The speech of power.
But is it possible to produce a text today that is not a form of magisterial speech? I don’t think so.
One can try.
One can try, but I think it’s a waste of time. And that’s why you make Le camion, India Song, and Lol Valérie Stein [The Ravishment of Lol Stein, 1964], or why you need to make [Baxter,] Vera Baxter. If you have Delphine Seyrig, it’s not the same thing as if you don’t have Delphine Seyrig. At the time of Un barrage contre le Pacifique, that wasn’t exactly the case, so there’s been a turning point in terms of the anxiety of writing … I have the impression that we’re crossing out the image …
What are you talking about? Un barrage contre le Pacifique?
What I hate, what I detest—this is why I’ve more or less stopped, though I’m still trying to survive—is that, in fact, people prevent you from making a film calmly, from calmly enjoying it. They force you to make it anxiously, and I think that it’s in the writing that the anxiety develops, sooner or later—maybe not for “real writers,” if that means anything. But that it comes from … Like you were saying, Moses saw the images, he didn’t shout. Afterward, he started to shout.
But Deuteronomy, all of Esther, that’s speech …
Yes, it’s people preventing the image. They’ve always said as much: “You shall not make images,” “it is forbidden to make images.” But they don’t forbid themselves from making them.
The entire French and European Middle Ages, all of Islam, are also deprived of images. Historically, it had another meaning.
Yes, but it’s rare. Or the story of Van Gogh—it’s true that he was one of the rare painters to paint in anger. But that’s not certain: I don’t think it’s just some regular anger, that’s not exactly it. One might think so, but I think it’s something else. Yet it seems to me that writers and musicians are angry. They need shouting and hollering.
I can’t imagine a literature of peace and quiet. I think of it more like a literature of crisis. I don’t think the image can ever replace what I’ve called “the indefinite proliferation” of the word.
Why completely eliminate it?
Why eliminate the word?
No! Why eliminate the fact of seeing without saying!
I’m not eliminating it, since I’m making films. Now, what I’ve eliminated in the last three or four films are the actors. I’ve just made five films without actors. I don’t know if there are actors in India Song. There are proposals, but I don’t know if they are actors, in the full sense of the term. In any case, they’re not acting. They are offering themselves as an approximation of the character. I can no longer get into a film in which actors take charge of representation. I can no longer stand having that intermediary between the filmmaker and myself, as the viewer. You’re the only one who uses actors by negating them.
Do you believe in the Devil?
Me? I believe in the Devil, yes. I believe in the Devil. I believe in evil. Because I believe in love, I also believe in evil.
Yesterday you were saying that you were surprised that people don’t talk about the disinfection of politics?
You changed the word on purpose. We don’t want to disinfect [politicians]. They will always proliferate. Screens are completely poisoned by this way of speaking, which represents a degraded kind of speech, a completely degraded discourse. The antithesis of true speech. A kind of speech that is antithetical to speech. All the great politicians wrote. They didn’t speak. I mean, we’re far from after-the-fact speech, from the kind of speech we started talking about earlier. One that comments. The kind I refused in Digne. Nothing is less written than the political discourse of power. By “power,” I obviously mean the institutionalized parties, whether on the left or the right. In other words, the speech of the political trade, the speech of propaganda. Of the street performer. Nothing is more opposed to true speech than that. And it must be said that often the speech of cinema, cinematic speech, follows this example. It’s a speech that sells, that sells its merchandise. Deep down, I’m very moral! [laughs.]
If we ever go on television, we should do this interview …
Which television? Do you really want to go on television with me? I thought you were asking me a question of principle, that kind of thing.
Yes, that’s also true. I’d prefer to make television. But that’s more difficult.
—Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott
Nicholas Elliott has been the New York correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma since 2009. He is a programmer for the Locarno Film Festival and a contributing editor for film for BOMB magazine. His writing on film has appeared in Film Comment, 4Columns, and anthologies on the work of Chantal Akerman, Philippe Garrel, and Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
From Duras/Godard Dialogues, translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and published by Film Desk Books this month.
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