SSIFF 2021 interview: Claire Simon (I Want to Talk About Duras)

Having its world premiere in San Sebastián to a great initial critical response, Claire Simon’s I Want to Talk About Duras is a powerful and unique take on the private life of French icon Marguerite Duras and her relationship with the much younger Yann Andréa in the last decade of her life, based on an interview between Andréa (played by Swann Arlaud) and journalist Michèle Manceaux (Emmanuelle Devos). Cédric Succivalli discusses the film with Simon, talking about her inspiration, the carnality of the film, and what Duras can bring to a new generation discovering her work.

Q: What drew you to turn these intimate interview sessions into such a revealing portrait, and what initially drew you to this material and compelled you to tackle an intimidating subject such as Marguerite Duras and Yann Andréa filtered through the eyes of her final lover?

A: When I discovered the interview, I thought it was amazing. I had been dreaming for years to listen to a man’s testimony about his love. On top of that it is the point of view of a person weakened by the situation, but he never complains and sharply and very strongly describes his feelings. All the time I spent reading it, I was thinking, “This is me. I recognize something here.” When she says “I’m going to recreate you,” his response is “Who am I, being in love?” And this is something everyone who has been in love went through.

The other thing was that I felt, as he is a man, he has the culture to explain the weak point of view. As women we don’t have that, we have to empower ourselves to be able to talk about our subordination. He knows how to describe this very well, because he has that culture. For me that was enormous. If you imagine him being a woman with a much older man, nobody would bat an eye, because that is what we see normally. But he says, “The question of the age is not the main question.” He accepts his submission to her.

Q: One thing that was empowering and heartrending was through their very peculiar love story you manage to strike a universality in the discourse of lovers, and their intimacy becomes universal, also through carnality and sexuality, which is rarely talked about when talking about Duras. You go into their sexual discourse as well as the lovers’ discourse. Was this important to you?

A: It’s all in the text! He says, “I never made love before,” and she literally says “Fuck me.” These are very clear and powerful lines. Josée Dayan made her film Cet amour-la, and she completely avoids this side of the relationship. Looking at her film, it’s like watching a grandmother with her grandchild. But to me the sexual aspect was very important, because Duras and Andréa were deeply in love.

Q: Swann Arlaud said in the press conference that it was not a question of recreating Yann Andréa. He manages to reinterpret Andréa without looking like him and resorting to mimicry, and turns it more into a performance of emotional depth. What was your personal approach to the actors, what did you tell them?

A: I told Swann that he was the only one to play Yann Andréa, because he had a ‘flaw’, something special that I really liked but couldn’t find in any other actor. Before we started I didn’t know he had a personal relationship to Marguerite Duras, because Swann’s stepfather is Bruno Nuytten (DOP of several of Marguerite Duras’ films, ed.). Nuytten was actually against the film initially; he said “You had nothing to do with them.” But he trusted me because I told him it’s all in this wonderful text. And when I saw they had, both actors had a strong desire to play together, I decided to shoot immediately. That’s why we did these very long takes, because Swann didn’t have time to learn the text. But I wanted him to be free of his memory, and be completely in the mood of Yann Andréa. Emmanuelle Devos doesn’t look like Michèle Manceaux either. Manceaux was actually very nice to Andréa. But I was most concerned about Swann’s ‘flaw’. And of course also the leather jacket in the film, which you can imagine Duras gave him.

Q: Both Arlaud and Devos give raw and honest performances, unbridled almost. How did you harness such complex performances, where they were playing characters that are tasked with exploring the entire legacy surrounding Marguerite Duras?

A: We had a beautiful set that used to be the studio of a famous painter, and we turned it into Duras’ attic. There is a beautiful film by Michelle Porte, Les lieux de Marguerite Duras, and our art director faithfully recreated that. You could see the Seine from there, and I felt Marguerite would have loved that because to me it was the Mekong (the river that is at the core of Duras’ body of work, ed.). So the whole atmosphere of Marguerite Duras was there, and that tremendously helped the actors.

Q: In the film’s post-script it says that the dialogue was verbatim from the original recordings. What was your process to infuse your own artistic perspective while being bound to these words?

A: The feelings of the characters are inside the words in those archived recordings. It’s my belief that you can enlarge this and show what is inside the words. When you are a screenwriter you pretend to know desires of this character and that character. But here you deal with true desires of the people recorded. So you have the depth of those desires, and that’s the beauty of this archive. You know, I’m free, I don’t want to show off my ‘artistic point of view’ (laughs).

Q: The film is likely to rekindle a lot of interest in Marguerite Duras, and will introduce her to a whole new generation of readers and viewers, as she was an extraordinary film director too, becoming aware of a revolutionary artist beyond her status as a literary figure. To what extent is Duras relevant to the current artistic landscape, and what can she bring to this new generation?

A: She was incredible at portraying her characters, because she got to the heart of their desires. And she has so much charm also. There is this beautiful archive footage of Duras talking with three young high school girls, and they tell her, “You talk about me.” She nearly cried. She’s not doing psychoanalysis, but she has a very good idea of what’s inside her characters, because she immerses herself in their point of view. With what love can you live, even if you do nothing? She was all sorts of things, a great writer, a feminist who was interested in men too, and also a controversial figure too. Some of the things she says in the film are terrible!

Q: Sadly the younger generation does not grasp that very well, because of how they are formed in their way of thinking. I spoke to a younger critic who was shocked by, as he called it, the “rampant homophobia of Duras.” I tried to explain that it goes beyond that, that when Duras hurls those slurs at Andréa it’s showing how much she loves him.

A: She is jealous!

Q: Duras is a person who would probably be hated nowadays, but thankfully you’re not shying away from portraying that part of her complexity. You show things that some people don’t want to hear about Duras.

A: It is all there in the original text. I decided to show the sex scene in the woods for that reason, to show Yann’s ambiguity, that he wanted both. A long time after Duras died, Andréa had a relationship with another woman, and he was telling her “I’m not a fag, I’m not homosexual.”

Photo (c) Nicolas Guerin

Claire Simon