There are 152 individual shots in WOMAN OF THE GANGES. None of the shots contain any type of camera movement. They are locked down, immobile, yet full of mystery, beyond their edges somethings is lurking, something which is almost always left out of representational cinema. And there is an open invitation to explore that perhaps dangerous somewhere. Discussing character, psychology and plot is beside the point since these elements are deliberately avoided. A viewer knowing nothing about the films or writings of Duras could either be lost or totally mesmerized by the experience, more likely lost. It places itself in a difficult, ambiguous category both within the author's career and as a film to be studied, deciphered or perhaps enjoyed as a complete mystery.
The beach, an empty hotel, the areas of discourse in which the perhaps deceased figures move about are the negative space which is always avoided in more conventional cinema. What you see is what you don't get.. But you don't see much here and what you get depends on entering into these spaces with the imagination.
Characters from the Duras novels "The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein" and "Destroy, She Said" are discussed by two female voices who, according to Duras, were not meant to be commenting on the unfolding events onscreen. They simply preside over the stark imagery of Ghislain Cloquet, Jean Mascolor and Bruno Nuytten. The Voyager arrives on a cold beach during winter where he encounters a woman in black (Catherine Sellers) and several other figures, they really can't be called characters. One of them is played by a stylishly bundled up Gerard Depardieu, in silent pre superstar mode. The woman may be a dead lover seen only by him, a ghost for psychoanalytic consideration. Without drama, onscreen dialogue, significant action, exploitation elements, it's not a conventionally inviting experience. No camera movement, frozen figures on a purgatorial beach waiting for... something. The haunting Carlos D'Alessio song is the film's emotional voice, as it would be in the next Duras film, INDIA SONG (1975), which would be set in an oneiric South Asia where the characters perform a slow dance of memory in a gorgeous mirror-world.
The chilly purgatory of WOMAN OF THE GANGES is a evolutionary step from the upscale rural clinic in DESTROY, SHE SAID. That was pretty carefully adapted from a novel and had characters relating to each other through dialogue. At the end of that film a war seemed to be about to break out just beyond the woods. Negative space is both a constant threat and the waiting room for a vast, unexplored alternate dimension in the films of Marguerite Duras.
Born in French Indochina, Duras always had Asia as an aesthetic default, the two most famous Duras works, her screenplay for HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR (1959) and her 1984 novel THE LOVER, both evoke an Asia which represents memory and the specter of mortality. WOMAN OF THE GANGES, although not set on that river, has an Asian calmness about it, slowly spiraling down into a bottomless abyss.
(C) Robert Monell, 2017