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

“I Want to Talk About Duras is a film built on language, Simon using the words of two people who knew Duras to evoke a neverending landscape of love and despair.”

Over the course of two afternoons in December 1982, Michèle Manceaux, a well-known journalist, engaged in a lengthy conversation with Yann Andréa, a young actor who was best known as the final lover of the esteemed writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras. Their discussion took the form of an intensely revealing interview in which the young man, who was nearly four decades younger than Duras, reminisces on his tumultuous relationship with the artist. The tapes from this conversation were recently uncovered and were repurposed into I Want to Talk About Duras by the iconoclastic Claire Simon, who uses this material as the foundation for a daring and provocative film centred on the legacy of one of the 20th century’s finest artists. Structured like a well-written play (evoking the spirit of Duras’ own fascinating but controversial two-hander, Le camion), the film takes place almost entirely within a single location and featuring only two primary characters that spend the time discussing a range of topics, including, as they mention, “the delusion of passion, failure and mortality”, the theme that informs this spirited discussion and makes for profoundly riveting viewing.

There is a certain mythology that has always followed Duras, both in life and death. As a gifted artist who made an impression in every medium in which she worked, she remains someone of quite intimidating stature. Therefore, Simon’s efforts to draw back the curtain on one of the past century’s most impactful artists, guided by the passionate testimony of her last – and some may argue most controversial – beau, who works through their long and storied relationship, are nothing short of admirable. Despite the titular character herself not directly appearing in the film (being restricted to archival footage), we’re presented with two versions of Duras – the artist and the lover, Simon establishing the boundary through Andréa’s frank account of their difficult relationship, and his own trouble reconciling the idealistic image of Duras as the writer known and appreciated by millions, and the person she was when out of the public eye. As he says “Duras was Duras”, an exclamation when recalling his disappointment in learning that she used a pseudonym her entire artistic life. The film weaves together footage of Duras with recreations between the two actors to construct a complex portrait of her legacy, paying tribute to her artistic impact while provoking some deeper conversations around the disparity between artists in their professional and personal lives.

Throughout the course of I Want to Talk About Duras, the titular writer is kept at a distance – she is a character in the film, albeit one that is almost entirely absent from the narrative, existing as a concept contained within the memories of Andréa, rather than someone whose perspective forms part of the film. The film centres on the young man’s testimony, the dialogue drawn verbatim from the real recordings of his 1982 interview, which is carefully curated by Simon, who takes the most important and scintillating fragments and pieces them together to form this riveting narrative. Both the questions asked by Manceaux and the passionate soliloquies provided by Andréa push further into exploring this fascinating dynamic, enlightening the audience on the details of this unorthodox romance between an esteemed writer in the twilight of her life, and her much-younger lover whose desire for a life with the artist eclipsed his own sexual identity. This is a film centred on Andréa’s journey as he questions his own individuality through engaging with memories of his life with Duras, working through both his undying devotion to her as an artist, and his frustrations with her shortcomings as a lover, especially one who constantly sought to form him into the idealistic construction of her own curiosities.

I Want to Talk About Duras is a film built on language, Simon using the words of two people who knew Duras to evoke a neverending landscape of love and despair. In constructing the film, the director employs two extremely gifted actors to recreate – and ultimately reinterpret – the words of these characters. Swann Arlaud is the tormented young man reflecting on the past and questioning whether it was worth losing nearly a decade of his life in pursuit of a relationship with an artist who had done very little other than challenge his existence. Emmanuelle Devos (turning in one of her most poignant and layered performances since her earth-shattering work in Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen) is the woman tasked with helping him work through these quandaries. The film is built on their performances, and hinges on their ability to convincingly explore the inner workings of these characters. Andréa is frequently described as “a wanderer”, and Arlaud beautifully unpacks the psychology of a man who has spent his entire life struggling to find a place in a hostile world, revealing his restless, conflicted existence that has only been made more intense by his relationship with someone who barely recognizes his humanity. Arlaud’s jittery performance is contrasted by Devos, who portrays Manceaux as more than just a reactionary observer, crafting her into someone who not only listens well, but instigates conversations that ultimately guide the narrative and reveal even more about the relationship at the heart of the film. It is absolutely brilliant work from both actors, who turn in two of the year’s most exceptional performances.

By the end of I Want to Talk About Duras, the viewer isn’t quite sure whether Andréa adored or despised Duras. The most likely answer is that he demonstrated traits of both, which is what Simon is exploring throughout this fascinating film. The simplicity of this premise should not be a deterrent since the effortless elegance afforded to this story is truly stunning and aids us in becoming invested in this multilayered love story. The director crafted a tender but provocative tribute to Duras and her indelible legacy, constructed through firsthand accounts of her life, as told by two people who knew her intimately. It focuses on a tortured soul revisiting his memories to find the origins of this relationship, showing his fervent willingness to forego his own desires for the sake of commitment, as well as the woman who offered her time and experience to allow him the space to unpack the previous eight years of his life, in the form of increasingly revealing sessions caught somewhere between an interview and psychotherapy. It becomes a twisted tale of dominance and desire, both in terms of the carnal craving for love, and the yearning for fame, which lead to the mounting tensions at the heart of the relationship, and the complex feelings of frustrated reverence Andréa held for a woman he respected and loved, but also deeply feared. It converges in this beautiful metaphysical film that is built on the virtue of memory and the importance of revisiting the past, especially when it comes to looking at the attachments one holds for someone, both in theory and through their physical presence, which are more discordant than initially meets the eye.

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