Woman of the Ganges
La Femme du Gange
or as the French say, Who‘s Marguerite Duras ?

by Barbara Halpern Martineau
(now Sara Halprin)

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 13-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

“LA FEMME DU GANGE is two films, the film of the image, and the film of the voices.”

“The film of the images was planned, it came from a project, its structure was written into a scenario. It was made in the space of time allotted for it. Then, also, edited in the time allowed.”

“The film called the film of the voices wasn't planned. It came after the image film was edited, finished. It came from a distance, from where? It threw itself on the image, penetrated the place, remained.”

“Now the two films are there, totally autonomous, connected only, but inexorably, by a material concomitance: they are both inscribed on the same celluloid and they are presented at the same time.”


“One should not connect the voices with the image film. They are doubtless escapes from another material than that of film. And doubtless they could have come into a quite different film from this one. Provided it were vacant, poor, made with holes.”—Marguerite Duras, preface to LA FEMME DU GANGE, Paris, 1973

“The book is not appeased, nothing is closed. To destroy what is written and therefore unfinished, I had to make a film from the book, the film is like a stopping point. In LA FEMME DU GANGE, three books are launched ... massacred. That is to say that the writing has ceased.”—Marguerite Duras, interview with Benoit Jacquot in Art Press October, 1973.

She wrote the script of HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR.

She was among those who founded the nouveau roman, the French New Novel which rejected psychology in the sense of studying character motivation and emphasized instead the social/ political context of actions, or else simply described actions.

Among her many novels some of the best known and most influential have been Moderato Cantabile (1959), The Ravishing of Lol. V. Stein (1964), Destroy, She Said (1969).

She said that with Moderato Cantabile she got rid of psychology, that Lol. V. Stein was the matrix of her subsequent work, that Destroy was a major changing point for her, a response to the events of May, 1968, in Paris.

I think it can be said that Lol. V. Stein provides the basic story, and Destroy the basic text for her subsequent novels and films.

“MD: I always make films like that, I think, poor films.
XG: Poor in terms of ... means?
MD: Yes. (1)
XG: Stripped, bare?
MD: With very few shots.”—from Les Parleuses, discussions between Marguerite Duras and Xaviere Gauthier, Paris, 1974.

As a Duras enthusiast, familiar with her writings and earlier films, and especially devoted to The Ravishing of Lot V. Stein I find almost unbearable complexes of meaning in the meager images and disconnected phrases of LA FEMME DU GANGE. But I have seen the film in company with intelligent, responsive friends who don't have the background of Duras’ other work, and who have been completely baffled and, what is worse, left unmoved. In Paris and New York the film has played to infinitesimal audiences, which have diminished in the course of each screening, save for the few fanatic devotees who remain to the end and return again and again. It is, in short, a film of the avant-garde. It is perhaps accessible to people who don't have the background of Duras’ earlier work but who are familiar with avant-garde film, particularly the French avant-garde. But I think that unless one has a sense of the earlier material which has been destroyed and recreated in successively distant incarnations, the film is bound to appear skimpy, even empty.

“XG: There is always a hollow structure that waits, that must wait for something.
MD: Yes, but why does it always turn around these two ... places: Nepal and the North, the West, an empty space, S. Thala? Why? Why? Nepal, I think that it must be my childhood. It’s not possible, it’s not possible, for it to exercise on me such a fascination. I saw Calcutta once, but I was seventeen years old. I spent a day there, when the boat stopped, and then I never forgot it. And leprosy, I saw it at Singapore, on the customs dock at Singapore. I never forgot it. But I think one must go further than Calcutta and Singapore. One must go to the rice fields of the south, in Into china (Vietnam).
XG: Where you were?
MD: Where I was born.”—Les Parleuses

With such an enormous discrepancy between the respective milieux (2) of the audience and the filmmaker, a discrepancy which only be overcome by considerable effort on the part of the audience, are we not justified in dismissing the film as an exercise in intellectual elitism, irrelevant to the current need of the women’s movement to effect a massive change in consciousness? No. The avant-garde can be a necessary thin wedge in the door. It may expand and revolutionize the consciousness of a few, but by doing that it opens the way to a much more accessible revolutionary art for the many. Already, in the work of Duras, LA FEMME DU GANGE has opened the way to INDIA SONG (1974). INDIA SONG (published, like DESTROY, SHE SAID, as novel/ film script/ play, and just recently filmed by Duras) appears to be a final incarnation (but who knows?) of the material of LA FEMME DU GANGE. It makes much clearer and more dramatic connections among imperialism, poverty, sexism, and the consequent impossibility and necessity of love in a schizophrenic culture. This process of clarification can be seen also in the published text of LA FEMME DU GANGE, written after the completion of the film, which is filled with explications and expansions of the bare structure of the film, a fact which throws a questioning light on Duras’ statement about film as a final closure (see opening quotations).

I am now faced with the dilemma of needing to show how LA FEMME DU GANGE can revolutionize consciousness in order to justify the effort needed to understand it. To do that it is necessary to explain the background of the film, which in a sense poses the film’s significance by asking the reader to expend the effort of reading this increasingly clogged prose of explication.



[Editor’s Note: The following material was originally run in a vertical column parallel to a column containing the text of section that follows this one: “A DESCRIPTION OF THE BI-FILM...]

One night, at a ball at the municipal casino of Town Beach, near S. Thala, 18 year-old Lola Valerie Stein watched Anne-Marie Stretter, wife of the French Consul in Calcutta, and Michael Richardson, fiancé of Lol. V. Stein, fall instantly, irrevocably, and obviously in love. She watched them until dawn, her friend Tatiana Karl by her side.Only when they were about to leave did she cry out, she wanted to follow them. They didn't hear her cries.

After a long illness Lot married and had children, was an exemplary wife and mother, eventually returned with her family to S. Thala. One day she was attracted to a man seen coming out of a cinema, who resembled Michael Richardson. This man turned out to be Tatiana Karl’s lover. Lol. was fascinated by these two, would watch them making love at a hotel window, waiting outside in a rye field. The lover of Tataina Karl is the narrator of The Ravishing of Lot. V. Stein. Lol. allows him to make love to her but continues to be fascinated by his affair with Tatiana. The actual ravishing occurs when Lol. and this man revisit Town Beach, and it becomes clear that Lol. is alive only in the sense of continually reliving the moment of the ball which never happened, the moment she would have partaken of the love between Michael Richardson and Anne-Marie Stretter.

The main story of The Vice-Consul is the irreproachable wife of the French Ambassador, irreproachable in the sense that no one knows what she does except the men with whom she is intimate. One of them is Michael Richard, who was visiting Calcutta one day and heard her playing the piano. Another of these intimates is Peter Morgan, who is writing the story with which the book begins, of a young Vietnamese girl who was thrown out by her mother when she became pregnant and as a result of continual famine and misery became mad. After ten years of walking she reached Calcutta, where she remained, having finally found a place where she could lose herself. Although she sleeps with the lepers every night, she has not yet contracted leprosy. The model for this character is an actual beggar woman whom Peter Morgan follows around Calcutta. A man who would like to be an intimate of Anne-Marie Stretter is the former Vice Consul of Lahore, presently awaiting new orders in Calcutta. He is the scandal of colonial circles, having inexplicably fired from his window in Lahore upon the lepers and dogs asleep in the gardens of Shalimar. The question, as someone puts it, is whether the killing of lepers and dogs is really killing?

Out of the extremely complex narrative structure and imagery of The Vice Consul emerges an intimacy of non-relationship and identity between the two women, Anne-Marie Stretter and the beggar woman, one thin from privation, and the other thin from decadence, and the man, the Vice Consul, who responded to the intolerable proximity of colonialism and misery by irrational violence.

L'Amour is set on the Town Beach near S. Thala. There is a woman who is some in carnation of Lol. V. Stein, who is either dead or escaped from prison, who is pregnant, guarded by a madman who paces the beach, and regarded by another, who is perhaps Michael Richardson. This man has returned after a long absence—we are told that Michael Richardson left India after the death of Anne Marie Stretter. He visits a woman who may be Tatiana Karl; she too seems to have died a long time ago. The woman of the beach is at once tender towards and disturbed by the inhabitants of S. Thala, who are described primarily as a population which eats and sleeps. She makes a long-planned trip into the town with the man who may be Michael Richardson, a trip which is the reversal of the trip Lol. V. Stein took to Town Beach with the lover of Tatiana Karl. She is hardly able to return, and when she gets back to her beach, where she lives, hunted by the police and bearing endless children, she lies as if dead, like a dead dog recently borne off by the tide. (In The Ravishing of Lol. V Stein significant reference is made to a dead dog on the beach at high noon. It seems the ultimate sign of corruption which must lead to violent change.) Her mad companion goes off to set fire to the town of S. Thala, and the book ends with the sound of sirens.



The film of images, as Duras calls it, consists of the movements of five main characters, shown in color, what she calls “night color” “They're all in black because it has no color. In white and black” (Les Parleuses). All 152 shots are fixed; there is “rigorously no camera movement” (Femme du Gange). So the movement of the film is entirely the movement of the characters, carefully choreographed so as to convey the entrance and assimilation of a man, the Voyager, into a community of mad people (two men and two women) who inhabit the beach around the hotel rear S. Thala. The only other movement is that of the sea, on which the camera rests occasionally, lingeringly. The soundtrack consists primarily of the Voices, two women who tell each other the story of Lol. V. Stein and Michael Richardson and Anne-Marie Stretter and Tatiana Karl, as well as they can—they seem to have forgotten—one of them loves the other and agrees that she would kill her if asked to do so. There is also occasional dialogue related to the characters who bear some resemblance to Lol. V. Stein and Tatiana Karl and Michael Richardson.We learn that the Voyager has come with the intention of killing himself, but does not do so. He decides to stay, against the entreaties of his wife, who comes with his children to plead with him. The Voyager’s wife is played by the same actress, Catherine Sellers, who plays one of the on the beach, the woman in black. She recalls Tatiana Karl and Anne-Marie Stretter, and also weirdly, Elizabeth Alione, her role in DESTROY, SHE SAID.

Throughout that scene we hear the sound of sirens—the Voyager asks the woman in black what they are and she tells him it’s a fire, that there are often fires. When his wife fearfully asks him the same question, he replies with the same words. The fire, like the forest in DESTROY, SHE SAID, is fearful only to those who have something to lose. After his wife has left, the Voyager is joined by the others, their hands blackened by the smoke of the fire. As in DESTROY and NATHALIE GRANGER the concept of inevitable violence in this film (the fire) is balanced by the presence of music, music which is distorted and debased (Duras said of the music in DESTROY that it “stands for revolution. I had to murder it up to the very end ... if it had suddenly been very pure and very carefully decanted ... there would have been nothing left for, us to do”—interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Nov. 1969).

Here the music, which Duras says is “Blue Moon,” and which sounds nothing like any version of “Blue Moon” I ever heard, is hummed or chanted in a broken, haunting way by the woman in black, who wears an Indian dress, embroidered with tiny mirrors. The music recalls the night of the ball at S. Thala, or the night perhaps when Anne-Marie Stretter entertained her friends in her house on an Indian isle. This music is the destruction of the memory of love, which love then arises from its own ashes. The men and women on the beach near S. Thala are guardians of a past which is killing them, or of which they have died. Duras says, “it’s a universal past, it is everyone’s past” (Les Parleuses) They have been burned by exposure to a love which is identical with desire, which is entirely irrational, entirely at odds with the demands of the diseased society out of which that love arises and which it destroyed or which destroys it.

It is one of the many paradoxes of bourgeois culture, that it enshrines a concept, that of romantic love, which is completely inimical to it, which destroys its own foundations. Duras’ understanding of the threat by love to a society already drowning in its own irrelevant materialism, has deepened from vision to analysis in the development from, say, Lol. V. Stein to L'Amour. The circle of inference continues to widen. The mad people of S. Thala are the other side of the misery known to more obvious victims of capitalism, of imperialism, those born to famine and disease and early death on the banks of, say, the Ganges. These schizophrenics, who are split by demands of impossible love, insist on reading literally the double talk of “decent, “normal” criminal society, and their response is to set fire to the town where respectable citizens dwell. The sirens of S. Thala scream for us.


Voice 2: She arrived late at the ball ... In the middle of the night ...
Voice 1: (pause) The other woman ... Yes. Dressed in black. She is nearly old already. Ugly. Thin. You remember...?
Voice 1: (pause) Hardly ... Hardly at all.
Voice 2: (pause) She comes from India ... The embassy ... She arrives ... She crosses the ballroom ... absent ... You see?
Voice 1: (dull cry) Oh yes, ... yes ...   I remember ... Behind her, the Ganges...? the beggar woman...? Around her that space ... hunger...? (Silence.)

MD: ... these voices wouldn't have come to the film if the film had been full of images, if the film had not had faults, what I call holes, if it hadn't been poor—in sum, what for me is riches. The poorest films for me are the films with two thousand shots. Those which one leaves sadly after having seen such efforts, such work, so much money used to arrive at this state of asphyxiation—nothing more can enter—all is explicit, all that.
XG: Everything is filled, then.
MD: Filled, suffocating.
XG: Yes, I understand that, but the voices don't fill the holes in the film.
MD: Yes, but they make me think of birds who pass between rock you know, the film of voices makes me think of that, of masses of rock like that in the water, the sea; the voices move through the masses, and they disappear, they return; they circulate among the isles.
Les Parleuses

The most frequent criticism I have heard of Marguerite Duras’ films in general is that they are too depressing and too empty, that nothing happens, people talk but do nothing, or don't talk and do nothing, and that this is a sterile vision, particularly of women. Molly Haskell, in lamenting the denigration of women in recent movies in the first chapter of From Reverence to Rape, lumps together “Jane Fonda’s grubby prostitute in KLUTE with “Tuesday Weld’s deadpan actress in PLAY IT AS IT LAYS” and “the comatose housewives in Marguerite Duras’ NATHALIE GRANGER.” By the end of the chapter her vision seems to have altered somewhat; she cites,

“KLUTE, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, SOMETHING DIFFERENT, WANDA. The women of these films, torn between the negative and positive of the feminist consciousness—rage at the old order—hope for the new—have arrived, anesthetized, at an emotional-and cultural ’stasis,’ a death. But it is out of this death, out of the ashes of her sacrifice, that the new woman will be born.”

Although in this more positive vision Marguerite Duras is not included, her work seems, to me more than those cited, to support revolutionary change by posing a dialectic between rage and hope.

Unlike WANDA, criticized by Chuck Kleinhans in his review in JUMP CUT no. 1 for not showing anything other than depression and emptiness (a vision which is arguably valid for the time at which WANDA appeared), (3) LA FEMME DU GANGE does not limit itself to the depiction of a depressing reality. First, there is no pretension of “reality,” other than the legitimate assumptions one can make that the sea is a real sea, interpreted by the filmmaker’s vision, and that the characters are portrayed by real actors. Next, while the characters as seen can certainly be described as anaesthetized in terms of their actions and interrelationship, the context in which they are placed suggests what they are reacting against (a bourgeois suffocation in which love can only be comprehended as love story, in which, consequently, love is impossible) and what sort of changes are required to change their condition of suffocation (revolution, the anarchy of music as played by children or hummed between the teeth of madwomen, the destruction of property by fire, desertion of the bourgeoisie. The Voyager’s renunciation of his family, destruction of sentimentality which is fed by memory, destruction of illusions of reality which pretend that film, for instance, simply records what is there instead of either supporting or opposing a status quo. The most obvious way that this last destruction is carried out in LA FEMME DU GANGE is the severing of any but a material relationship between the voices and the images, destruction of comfortable assumptions about identity which rest on such attributes as possessions, family, class, occupation, and yet are rendered invisible by “realistic” presentations in which characters are assumed to be free to pursue love or truth or knowledge as pure abstractions without any taint of materialist complication. End of parenthesis.

With all these destructions, and with only warped music and the eternal but nevertheless polluted sea as images for a possible future, the film will obviously never become a favorite for Saturday matinee popcorn orgies. But it moves through the masses, it disappears, it returns, it circulates among the isles.


1. The average cost of a Duras full-length film is $40,000: partially funded by the French government, partly by herself.

2. See Julia Lesage, “Feminist Film Criticism: Theory and Practice,” Women and Film, nos. 5-6, pp. 1218.

3. In 1970, when Wanda was first shown in North America (and the script was written by Loden ten years before the film was made), it was for most viewers the first film they had seen directed by a woman. It was a time of being turned on by the women’s movement for a large proportion of that audience, and a time when women were achingly ready to see women on the screen in roles other than the male-made stereotypes of the sixties, with dilemmas seen as other than man-made. I think that at that time many women responded to the vision of emptiness with positive rage, a wanting to break the bonds which Barbara Loden didn't know how to break, but which other sources produced by the women’s movement—articles, stories, songs—were analyzing in more constructive ways. Certainly, for me, as a budding cinephile, the response was, not that I wanted to see that film again, but that I wanted to see other films by women. And the next was Nelly Kaplan’s LA FIANCEE’ DU PIRATE (A VERY CURIOUS GIRL). Chuck Kleinhans’ analysis seems valid to me now, but it doesn't invalidate the insight the film gave me then. (An interview with Loden appears in Women and Film, no. 5-6.)