"Cet Amour-Là!" directed by Jose Dayan
Starring Jeanne Moreau as Marguerite Duras,Aymeric Demarigny as Yann. In French with subtitles. Running time: about 2 hours.
That Love There! Review by Tom Savage
This movie, based on the late years in the life of Marguerite Duras, an eminent writer, film director, and playwright, covers the years 1980 to 1996. Duras, in her late sixties, has stopped writing. A cute, nineteen year old fan of her work abandons his girlfriend in Paris and comes to live with Duras by the sea. It begins with his letters to Duras. He's a fan who is so smitten with her writing that he expects her life to be a reflection of her work. For those who either don't know or don't remember, Marguerite Duras was a novelist famous for her steamy, romantic novels often set in exotic locales. The love affairs of these books seem to emerge from the climate in which they occur and become a part of the weather. After seeing the famous film she wrote in the 1950s for the director Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour), I too became briefly fascinated with her books. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time and beginning to find myself sexually. When I first saw Cet Amour-Là! last year at the Walter Reade Theater as a part of a festival devoted to the films of Jeanne Moreau, much of the audience seemed composed of Europeans who knew who Duras was. This knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this film.
This is a great film about writing and writers. It is lyric and intense simultaneously. And it presents with a knowing intelligence something which is rarely presented in American films: a love relationship between a very young man and a very much older woman. But this is not your usual coming of age story The Graduate or Harold And Maude. This film is on a much higher level than that. "If you don't know what to say, say nothing," Duras says to Yann early on. The lovely, tangential awkwardness between people falling in love who barely know each other is presented beautifully at the beginning of Cet Amour-Là!. When Yann meets her, Duras has stopped writing because "life never lives up to the books you write." With Yann's help, she begins to write again and has a comeback, so to speak, in the French literary world. Meanwhile, Yann's internal monologues begin to sound like the narration in Duras' old books, only without the exotic locales.
She dictates; he types. Later on, she says "We always write on the dead body of the world and on the dead body of love." Within the context of this film, this isn't a depressing statement. It's merely an attempt to get at why we write and what its effect is on our lives and on the world. In his great, short poem "The Choice", Yeats talks about the choice we make between
perfection of the life or of the work And if we take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion raging in the dark.
What then of a writer like Duras who has aimed for greatness, achieved fame instead, and now must live to the end of her life with the compromises called upon by her position both vis a vis her books and the world?
This film defies ageism, one of the most prevalent problems between people in our society. The old are shunted away, told they are ugly, sexless, uninteresting, merely taking up time between becoming "over fifty" and dying. The beautiful face of the great French film actress Jeanne Moreau, famous in many French "new wave" films (1950s, 60s, 70s) seems to be of a different age in each scene, moving back and forth up and down the escalator of old age, enlivened by love, affection, irritated by her young man's imperfections, and finally resigned to this curious relationship she didn't ask for but has come to enjoy and upon which she relies. She throws him out; he comes back. "What do you want? You don't even know what you want?"she says at one point. I enjoyed this moment particularly because, not long ago, I found myself in a similar relationship with a man a few years younger than myself who pestered me until I let him into my life and then once I proved ready to give him what he wanted, turned out to be unable to determine or admit to me or possibly himself what his desires really were. Later in the film Duras says: "I'm not mean. I'm merely intellectual." How many times have we found ourselves in conversations with other very intelligent people in which incredibly wounding things are said, often without intention, and certainly lacking any comprehension of the possible results of the words that were spoken?
In today's world and in today's cinema, it's very hard to bring romance and realism together. Cet Amour-Là! achieves that. But the fact that Duras is liquor-besotted and struggling is made clear here. We're not stuck here in the ridiculous ideals people imagine of those whom they love and then persecute them endlessly trying to force them to live up to the other's imaginings of who they should be.
When Yann tries to break away, she says: "living with a writer is impossible." (How many people would say this, including other writers?) Yet Duras and Marguerite go on living together, with a few caesuras in their cohabitation which are brief.
At one point about two thirds of the way through this film, they appear to be living the lubricated life in a upscale version of Harry Hope's Saloon (The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill). Nevertheless, their delusional lives don't seem to interfere with the writing, which continues. Then Yann says: "As long as you keep talking about death, you won't die." Shortly thereafter, Duras has the physical crisis which her involvement with booze has made inevitable. Duras agrees to a doctor's advice and goes to a hospital in order to dry out. She almost immediately pressures Yann into sneaking wine into the hospital for her. Once home, she becomes prey to the paranoid fantasies which often accompany this stage of alcoholism. Her decline accelerates after she gets out of the hospital.
Along with In Praise of Love by Godard, Cet Amour-Là! is the best French art film I have seen in quite a few years. French films, for many decades among the finest in the world have slipped in recent decades so the appearance of these two films provides encouragement for film lovers who need something other than the standard Hollywood fare. The art in Cet Amour-Là! is mostly transparent, unlike that in the sickeningly sentimental movie Amélie, which was nevertheless quite popular in this country two years ago and even nominated for an Academy Award. When I could no longer stand Amélie's sentimentality, its outright thefts from great French films of the past, I walked out on Amélie. There is nothing sentimental about Cet Amour-Là!. It is a passionate film full of real emotion and a very believable portrait of a relationship between a famous writer and a young fan. My only caveat about the version I saw shown at the Quad Cinema recently was that I remember there being a pretty hot sex scene in this film when I saw it at the Walter Reade Theater last year. When I saw it a second time, this scene was nowhere to be found. Could my memory be playing tricks on me? I see many films. Nevertheless, this was such a clear memory I carried away from my first encounter with Cet Amour-Là! that I missed it this time around. But with or without that scene, Cet Amour-Là! is a remarkable movie and should be required viewing for anyone, intellectual or otherwise, who makes a habit of undervaluing or dismissing those who happen to be older in decades and experience than are they.