October 31, 2020

A Mesmerizing ‘India Song,’ Pulpy and Austere

Spare, elegant, disjunctive, initially annoying and ultimately drop-dead beautiful, Marguerite Duras’s “India Song” (1975) was one of the great European art films of the post-art-film era. It followed the 1960s heyday of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and Alain Resnais, Duras’s one-time collaborator (she wrote the screenplay for his first feature, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), and was in some ways more radical than their work.

Like much of Duras’s work, the film, streaming through May 3 on the highly curated site, Mubi, is obliquely self-referential, drawing on earlier writings as well as her childhood in French-occupied Indochina. It originated in the early 1970s as a play — commissioned but never staged by the National Theater in London — loosely based on her 1965 novel, “The Vice-Consul,” in which a French diplomat in Lahore painfully yearns for the French ambassador’s promiscuous wife.

“India Song,” which begins with a stunning sunset, shot in what feels like real time, is nominally set in late-1930s Calcutta (but was filmed in and around a French chateau). It is less theatrical or literary than it is ritualistic and, as the title suggests, musical. A handful of characters — notably Delphine Seyrig as the ambassador’s unhappy wife and Michael Lonsdale as the smitten vice consul — languidly drift, pose and pivot around an old-fashioned drawing room.

Incense burns, the dominant color is a velvety jade green, and the single Indian servant wears a turban. (The story takes place in a bubble — you never see India or, the one servant aside, Indians.) The action is the more stylized for being scored with society jazz and for unfolding in the sultry, rarefied world of European colonialism. Intimations of madness, horror and suicide hover just outside the narrative.

Duras’s most daring ploy is the elimination of synchronized dialogue. It’s never clear whether characters are actually speaking to each other or if the viewer is simply privy to their thoughts. (Given the subtlety of her expressions and gestures, Seyrig would have been a sensational silent movie presence.) A chorus of off-screen voices seems to be reacting to the action or perhaps simply remembering it. Language is incantation. The oft-referred to Ganges River produces “the smell of mud and leprosy and fire.”

“India Song” manages to be both florid and austere and, for all its forbidding formalism, not so far from a steamy tropical romance or the B-movie exotica beloved by French surrealists. Reviewing “India Song” when it appeared at the 1975 New York Film Festival, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby (not a fan) found the movie reminiscent of a Hollywood “four-hankie” melodrama but praised “the fine, schlocky, thirties musical score” by Carlos d’Alessio.

The heart of “India Song” is a masterpiece of hypnotic minimalism — a scene in which the stricken vice consul watches as the ambassador’s wife dances and flirts with several current and would-be lovers during an embassy reception.

All relations are ambiguous, as is the space. (Duras gets more mileage out of a floor-to-ceiling mirror than anyone since the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup.”) The vice consul, who someone says, “seems to be in a state of tears,” stalks the ambassador’s wife and, his advances rebuffed, makes a scene that reverberates, off-screen, for the rest of the movie.

India Song

Available on mubi.com through May 3.

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies.

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