FILM APRIL 14, 2003
They decided to keep the French title on Cet Amour-La, which turns out to be a sound idea for two reasons. First, the subject is Marguerite Duras, more specifically the last years, the last love, of this thoroughly French novelist, essayist, film writer, and director. That last affair is so like a novel Duras might have written that a translated title might have jarred--just as Hiroshima Mon Amour, made from a Duras screenplay, fits rightly under its Gallic cap.
This screenplay by Josee Dayan comes from an autobiographical novel by Yann Andrea, Duras's young lover in that last affair. He was a university student when he met her, enamored of her work, and asked if he might write to her. She gave him her address, and he then wrote to her every day for five years. In 1980 she permitted him to visit at her seaside apartment in Trouville. The film then settles into an emotional yet almost clinical study of a woman in her mid-sixties, famous, vastly experienced in love and its attendant divertissements, who is now making the most of latter-day youthful attention.
Yann is grateful, patient, understanding, or at least obedient. She is cruel, warm, mercurial, oracularly profound, pretentiously oracular, and is winebibbing throughout. She is writing still, busily, and Yann serves as her secretary. She pities him, despises him, loves him, is irritated by him. There is a sense in Duras of an experienced performer making the most of her (probable) last show. She storms into his bedroom one night when he is fast asleep, orders him to wake up and get out of the house, crams some of his things into a suitcase and throws it out the window. He retrieves the suitcase, eventually returns, and is welcomed. Time passes, her strength wanes, but not her tyranny or his fealty. At last, the true last, she sends him out of the room so that she can die.
And there is a second reason for retaining the French title. Duras is played by Jeanne Moreau, who for more than fifty years has been the epitome of Frenchness on the screen--from the New Wave, where she was regnant, through all the subsequent ripples. More is entailed here than longevity and opus numbers. The first glimpse of Moreau's face in this film, undisguisedly aged and with black-rimmed glasses, has a powerful effect. It is not just the cliche of time's toll, though this is true enough. That first glimpse is like seeing the quintessence of French film history in the last half-century. Her face is the signet of so many artists who have done their work through her--Truffaut, Godard, Malle, Demy, Blier, and other Frenchmen. (In 1972 she made a film, called Nathalie Granger, written and directed by Duras.) Certainly she has done memorable work with non-French directors--Welles and Antonioni and Bunuel among them. But that first glimpse of her face here was, for me, a poignant summary of a good portion of my French film experience.
I must note that Aymeric Demarigny plays Yann gently, and that Dayan, much experienced in television, directed with a fine pictorial eye. The first shot of Yann coming over a seawall onto the beach en route to Duras, his form against the blue sky, is an invitation to visual pleasure. But Moreau's face is the base and the beauty of the film.
Another face in another film holds a history. Oddly enough, this is not an actor's face but a director's.
Heaven has quite clearly divided humankind in two: those poor wretches who don't respond to Federico Fellini's work and the rest of blessed us for whom Fellini's best films are part of our memory, our dreams, our wisdom in some measure, and our secret sublimation. The person for whom I Vitelloni and 8 1/2 and Amarcord are not private property has, I and many others would say, suffered the wrong incarnation. He or she would do better to go back and start all over again.
All this is brought to bear by a new documentary called Fellini: I'm a Born Liar. In 1992 a Canadian film-maker named Damian Pettigrew was lucky enough to find Fellini with free time (rare) and in an expansive mood (not rare), and filmed ten hours of conversation with the then seventy-two-year-old director, who died the next year. Subsequently Pettigrew greatly condensed the interview, then spliced in film clips, bits of conversation with Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife, and some friends and colleagues, along with relevant landscapes. This is not by any means the first documentary about Fellini: he even made a quasi-documentary about himself, the delightful-sad Fellini Intervista, and he has appeared as himself in some of his films--The Clowns and Fellini's Roma. They are all welcome.
A point that is partly true of the past interviews is even more true of this one: the viewer who hasn't seen the films is liable to be more teased than informed. Most of the clips are short and unexplained. But for other viewers Pettigrew's film will be worthwhile for essentially the same reason as the past ones. The more one looks at and listens to Fellini the man, the more one realizes that most of the films are exponents of the man. They are more or less autobiographical, but whether more or less, they convey the ebullience, the wit, the latent seriousness, and, most endearingly, the sheer theatricality of the maker himself. I am not forgetting the unbelievable treasure of Marcello Mastroianni's face when I say that Fellini's face seems almost the source of his films. He actually did a little acting in Rossellini's Il Miracolo, but as we watch him here, we feel that he made his films with other people just because he couldn't play all the parts himself.
What he has to say here about art and the art of film will not be new to many. He considers himself a medium. Fellini doesn't make the films--someone takes over when he arrives on the set. He tries to tell the truth, but a film is a succession of his inventions that add up to the truth. He tries to keep sensitized to the moment and the state of what he has already done on a film when he begins a day's work. I spent one day with him on the set of Juliet of the Spirits in 1964 and saw him, at eight in the morning, with people bustling all around him, hulked hugely over a typewriter on an orange crate rewriting the scene that they were about to shoot.
In this documentary some of his actors (Terence Stamp) remember him with affection. Others (Donald Sutherland) felt bullied by him. One rare and unexpected treat is a short visit with Italo Calvino, whose writing meant much to Fellini. But it is Fellini's face that is peculiarly welcome, the face that--in a probably fantasizing but pertinent way--endorses his films.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann