India in the nineteen-thirties, and as the sun slowly sets a couple of women discuss another woman, Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), who was the wife of a French consul in the country. They hear a beggar woman shouting and singing which sets the tone for the conversation, as Anne-Marie had little interest in the subjects of her husband and more interest in alleviating her boredom by taking lovers from around their social circle. But even this activity was not enough to stave off a sense of crushing self-destruction which approached her every day, no matter how she danced, how she lounged in the tropical heat, how she ignored those who loved her...
Marguerite Duras remains hugely respected as a novelist and playwright in France well into the twenty-first century, and films made of her written work numbered in the double figures even as early as 2020, some time after her death in 1996, aged 81. What was it about her that contained such fascination? And why did that not extend to her film work directed by herself, of which project was an example? For everyone who will tell you India Song is a masterpiece, there seem to be many more lining up to denigrate it as one of the most excruciatingly boring movies ever made, so how can one film create such a wildly polarised reaction while remaining relatively obscure?
For a start, it was not a boring film if you simply allowed yourself to adapt to its particular rhythm, granted that was played out gradually and incrementally as we were given not so much a storyline as a series of vignettes in voiceover about Anne-Marie's life in India which built up a picture of her lack of engagement with the world. She seems to have had little choice in the matter of living there, a state of affairs that has driven her to a literal state of affairs with any man who she snares; we watch these men orbit her, never speaking to her so we must read their body language whereupon we realise they are as dulled by this colonial existence with its lack of incident as she must be.
Now, you may wonder why we are meant to feel sorry for this woman, and possibly her acquaintances, after all the colonialists did not have the worst end of the deal in the countries they invaded to rule. But Duras had been born into that kind of life, in Vietnam rather than India (she shot the film in France, preferring to create an India of her imagination instead of visit the real place to make it), and that had ended very badly for her and her family, so naturally she would sympathise with the victims of the oppressive experiences there on the side of the ruling classes. Nevertheless, it is another reason that many have a problem with sitting through two hours of apparent "poor me" feeling sorry for herself filmmaking.
Yet Duras was not entirely blinded by the upper classes, there was a slight contempt for what she depicted as well. That said, the corruption of colonialism on the souls of the instigators and overlords - again and again leprosy is invoked to describe that - did bring about this work which arguably was intended to be very deliberately boring, or at least evoke the French ennui that has been the curse and inspiration for many of the nation's most high-falutin' efforts. So did this validate all those who complained bitterly how tedious they found India Song? Not exactly, since if you could see that boredom was a subject rather than an objective, there was something paradoxically languorous and unsettling about this.
The heat bearing down on the characters as they are discussed and chewed over by the narrators, the polite dancing, the wandering through the grounds of the mansion house (surely evoking Last Year at Marienbad, the elegant Seyrig's breakthrough role), and the sprawling on the floor in their lack of energy, Anne-Marie's breast exposed for minutes on end so uninterested in anything is she. Yet one spurned lover's extended screams of frustration added a disturbing tone. You don't need me to tell you this is not for all tastes, it may not wholly succeed on its own terms, either, but there was very little like it and as experimental cinema that experiment was an intriguing one if you were prepared to give it a go and armed with the knowledge this was so far out of the mainstream as to resemble something from another planet. And at the heart of it all, Seyrig at the height of her enigma, making it plain why so many found her one of France's most essential actresses, commanding scenes even without dialogue for her famous voice. Music by Carlos D'Alessio.