India Song (1975)

Directed by Marguerite Duras; Written by Marguerite Duras

When the lights come on at the club.

One way to describe India Song is to have you remember a time where you were still at the club when the life of the party died out hours ago. The lights come on, the DJ puts on Radiohead as you filter out, because most of their songs are tied for 1st as the world’s most potent anti-party anthem. You’re let out into the night, not quite sure what to do with yourself, and you traipse home with ears ringing and feeling as if you’re still missing that something you came out for in the first place. Life happened tonight, but you don’t feel it. 

Putting you under that same dark spell is India Song, Marguerite Duras’ singular film about a diplomat wife, Anne-Marie Stretter, her affairs, and the ennui of an entire social class. While the circumstances are far from what I’ve described above, the void is the same. 

It’s 1930’s India, and the air swelters to a point where it causes a “slowness of the blood.” A darkened manor housing the French embassy sits quietly, and within, people glide ghost-like through halls filled with grand pianos, paintings, champagne flutes and silverware. But stepping through the French windows and into the opulence, you sense the curse about the place. A thin sheet of dust seems to rest on it all, and the decadently dressed diplomats and socialites don blank expressions that would appear death masks were it not for the mournful eyes that shine out with muted light. No words are spoken, but disembodied voices narrate, telling stories of Stretter’s exploits or commentating on the action unfolding on-screen with hushed voices, as if passing gossip behind cupped hands.

A plot of (not so) secret affairs and public freakouts might suggest tempestuous confrontations and passionate embraces, but not here. Instead, Duras’ treatment of languid movements, disaffected faces and subdued narration buries the film’s pulse deep beneath its still flesh. It makes India Song a dream-like experience, where you feel as if you’re watching someone’s misted recollection of those days, where minor details are brushed away to coax out the underlying emotions that roiled in the deep. 

It’s a deeply subjective rendering of these socialites, their parties and their vacuous lives, and Duras fatally seduces you through the dark allure of ruined glamour. It fills India Song with a profound sense of tragedy, as if to say the “leprosy of the heart” that Stretter is said to suffer is a fate far worse than death.

Duras is a filmmaker with a voice that’s entirely her own, and India Song’s evocative atmosphere of dead-end soul-death still stands alone all these decades later. It’ll catch you by surprise how something told so askew can land squarely in your heart, how something so delicate and sensuous can pull you under with inescapable gravity.    

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