"I didn't realize you're all crazy."Michael Lonsdale, Nicole Hiss, Henri Garcin.... smoking cigarettes, suffering anxiety and watching invisible tennis games in DESTROY, SHE SAID.
Riding the wave of the Nouveau Roman into the New Wave of Truffaut, Godard, Rensais (who filmed her script, HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR), Chabrol and Rivette, Marguerite Duras followed the example of Alain Robbe-Grillet and became a writer-director of films in the late 1960s, as he had earlier in the decade after Resnais successfully filmed his script for LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1962). Robbe-Grillet sometimes filmed his novels, as he did in 1983 with the ARG -Rene Magritte picture-novel LA BELLE CAPTIVE (1975). Some of his films have had "cine-roman" publications, as with L'IMMORTELLE (1963). The screenplay for MARIENDBAD has been published in French and English. Robbe-Grillet's films are layered composites of his novels, paintings, screenplays, but also autonomous works. I once had the chance to ask Robbe-Grillet a question about the use of mirrors in his films after a screening of EDEN AND AFTER (1971) in New York City. He answered by saying that Marguerite Duras had just completed an entire film which was shot exclusively through a mirror (INDIA SONG-1975).
DESTROY, SHE SAID (the title itself indicates feminist empowerment) was the second film of Duras, who had already published numerous novels and had had a number of her novels filmed earlier in the 1960s by such directors as Peter Brook (MODERATO CANTABILE) and Jules Dassin (10:30 P.M. SUMMER). But DESTROY... is very different from those films, leaving their qualities as literary adaptations aside. There are no movie stars in it, no one like Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau, Peter Finch or Romy Schneider, all fine actors. There's the presence of Michael Lonsdale (OUT 1, DAY OF THE JACKAL, MOONRAKER) an excellent actor who would become internationally famous later but never a "movie star" in the traditional sense. He plays the ambiguous Stein, who announces himself, "My name's Stein,.. I'm a Jew." All the characters are announced as German Jews, alienated into a rural resort which may also be an insane asylum. Today it might be called a rehab. Jews in a post-Holocaust age where being a Jew can be considered a badge of courage... and a vulnerability. In the film Michael Lonsdale gives Stein a vaguely magnetic quality, and seems to have the files on the other guests at hand. Is he an undercover psychiatrist? Or just a keeper? He is central to the action, or inaction, and theme. Both the novel and film end with a character saying "Music to the name of Stein." The novel is written in the present tense, like a screenplay. It's a spare work, without psychology or with as few adjectives as possible. It evokes Ezra Pound's advice to the young Ernest Hemingway to eliminate all unnecessary adjectives. Or Mark Twain's advice to writers to "kill it" when an adjective is found.
In an interview with Duras, conducted by Jacques Rivette (who himself was a New Wave filmmaker) and Jean Narboni*, Duras said "Destroy, the book Destroy, is a fragmented book from the novelistic point of view. I don't think there are any sentences left in it. And there are directions mindful of scripts.." DESTROY, SHE SAID has been staged, filmed by Duras hersel, and published as novel. The first sentence in the novel is three words, "An overcast sky." The film's entire essence is captured and illustrates that stark sentence. Shot in black and white, with minimal camera movements, in and around the "resort" which will come to be a psychoanalytic prison for the four characters. Elisabeth Alione has just undergone a personal Holocaust \, Max and Alissa Thor seem to be in different stages of regression, and Max Stein seems to be there to watch, listen and not provide any answers. If he represents a God-like presence, it's a God which doesn't get involved with his creations. Duras also denies that the film is psychological in the same interview. Of course one of the main features of the nouveau roman is the avoidance of psychology. Duras, avowed destroyer of syntax and conventional cinema forms, got her way with the film, which was partially self-financed. Her prose has been compared to Samuel Beckett's stark theater and fiction. The enclosed world of DESTROY, SHE SAID, and the receding characters that inhabit the book and film, have striking similarities to the nowhere entities which inhabit the hermetically sealed cylinder in THE LOST ONES (1970), which opens with a Duras-like sentence, "A BODE where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one."
The film opens with a parabolic shot around the grounds of the resort. A tennis game is heard in the distance. A few chaise lounges are visible on the lawn. We never see a tennis match, but we hear the balls being batted back and forth. One cannot help but think of the tennis game at the end of Antonioni's BLOW UP (1966), also a film without psychology and dealing with the invisible. The game in that film is observed by the photographer protagonist played by David Hemmings. Mimes play the game without a ball but one is heard as he walks away after retrieving the invisible object and throwing it back into the court. The invisible exists if you play the game. Earlier in the film he has photographed a possible murder which was not visible to the naked eye.
Not much happens in the course of DESTROY, SHE SAID. There's a futile card game. Elizabeth and Alissa share a long scene shot through a mirror which appears to end with both on the verge of some kind of breakdown, Finally Elisabeth Alione's husband (Daniel Gelin) appears to collect his wife. Gelin, an actor capable of projecting a guarded charm, delivers the only performance in the film. He appears to be a human being capable of feelings and indicates contempt for the crazies he finds in the resort. At the very end some kind of disturbance is heard in the forest, perhaps explosions. Is is a war suddenly breakig or is it something else approaching? There is a sense of an invisible, annihilating force on the move. Classical music swells up. Allisa speaks the closing line of the film and novel, "Music to the name of Stein."
Duras provided an autopsy in the interview: "I had no idea of a film, but I did have the idea of a book... a book that could either be read or acted or film, or as I always add, simply thrown away."
According to Duras the film was shot in fourteen days at a $44,000 budget and had one hundred and thirty-six shots, about 60 of which were eliminated.
DESTORY, SHE SAID, a novel by Marguerite Duras. Translated by Barbara Bray. (C) 1970 by Grove Press Inc.
* Quoted from "Destruction and Language: An Interview with Marguerite Duras by Jacques Rivette and Jean Narboni." Translated by Helen Lane Cumberfrod. Cahiers du Cinema, November, 1969.