Domestic scene

Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) is, paradoxically, a motion picture that resembles a still-life painting.  Set almost exclusively in and around the rustically beautiful town house where Isabelle Granger (Jeanne Moreau) lives with her two young daughters and another woman (lover? sister? friend?), it doesn’t move: it meditates.  The film is a (successful) attempt to convey a sense of what it is like to inhabit the space of that house.  It’s my understanding that Duras herself lived and worked there, and that it’s where she wrote the screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959).  It’s an extraordinary setting for a film: cool, serene, lived-in, rich with dark shadows.  The house itself is adjoined to a lush wooded garden, and Duras’ camera routinely looks out on the grounds through the house’s latticed doors, accompanied by the vague, hesitant sounds of a child pianist drifting in from the adjoining room.  The whole film is cloaked in a kind of late-afternoon half-light.  Watching the film I was uncannily reminded of a vivid dream I once had in which I was at a country farmhouse, a place wholly invented by my unconscious.  That house was also inhabited by two women, and it had just that same quality of light, those same shadows, that same placid calm.  It is a surreal experience to see one of your dreams suddenly made manifest in a film.

Nathalie Granger is not about a plot, characters, or ideas.  It is entirely about an atmosphere. Specifically, it is about the atmosphere of this particular house, with its calm, quiet, strange women floating through its rooms.  We are given the sketch of a narrative: young Nathalie, one of the daughters (the one we hear playing the piano), has been causing trouble at school, and her guardians consider sending her away to a boarding school in the mountains.  On the radio, vaguely ominous news reports speak of a pair of killers on the loose in the French countryside.  And then there is the hapless washing-machine salesman, played by a young Gerard Depardieu, who comes wandering into this alien female space of the house and is met with cool stares as he tries to give his salesman's spiel (these scenes have an absurdist feel, like something by Harold Pinter or Ionesco--especially when at the end of his sales pitch he discovers that the women already have the same model of washing machine he's been trying to sell them).  But the film is not about him, or the character of Nathalie, or whether or not the killers will be caught.  It is about the way the late-afternoon light falls on a table, and how it reflects off the surface of the water in the pool in the garden, and about women in black, wandering through the rooms of a house, with the sounds of a piano in the background.   

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