Cruel Attentions: Duras’ Twilight Affair

Josée Dayan’s Cet Amour-Là is not the kind of film I would recommend to anyone who found The Hours too depressing. Cet Amour-Là , from Ms. Dayan’s own screenplay, with dialogue in collaboration with Yann Andréa, Maren Sell and Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by Mr. Andréa, recounts the passionate and scandalous love affair between the 66-year-old, much-read and much-honored French author Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) and a 28-year-old college philosophy student named Yann Lemmée (but renamed Yann Andréa by Duras). After a long correspondence between literary admirer and literary celebrity, Duras in 1980 summoned Yann to her side, where he remained for the last 16 years of her life in the capacity of lover, secretary, companion and nurse.

Their relationship was a stormy one. On more than one occasion, Duras threw Yann out of her apartment, telling him never to return. She frequently called him a nobody, a zero, right to his face, and he never flinched. Yet despite her recurring writer’s block, her alcoholism and her overall poor health, she managed to resume her writing, in the process teaching her neurotic, suicidally inclined young lover not only how to write, but also how to live and stay alive. Indeed, the unstated moral of this cryptic film of modest dramatic dimensions is that dying is easy, but writing is hard-or perhaps that just as a shark must keep moving or die, a writer must keep writing or die.

In any event, unlike most of my colleagues, I admire the film enormously, though I can understand why other people do not share my enthusiasm. I notice that many critics, while generally praising Jeanne Moreau’s accomplished delineation of Duras, have been very hard on Aymeric Demarigny’s quietly flaky portrayal of the seemingly masochistic and shamelessly submissive Yann. If I differ with my colleagues on the quality of Mr. Demarigny’s performance, it is because his is one of the hardest roles for even a minimally virile male actor to play. Besides, if one is to accept the film on any level, one must understand-as Duras undoubtedly did in real life-that being old and undesirable and near death, the only way she could escape the demeaning status of a supplicant was to lash out periodically at her young lover, who almost certainly would outlive her.

Yet there is nothing delusional in the relation of Duras to her work, as there is with Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Fortunately for Duras, an elderly writer doesn’t need a close-up from Cecil B. DeMille to validate her art. Similarly, Mr. Demarigny’s nerdy Yann is a far cry from William Holden’s male pin-up Joe Gillis, who sells his soul as well as his body for the easy life in Norma Desmond’s mansion. By contrast, there is nothing cynical or sleazy in Yann’s alliance with Duras. He loves and admires Duras as Joe Gillis never loved or admired Desmond. Yann believes with religious fervor in the prose that Duras dictates to him on his typewriter, whereas Gillis has all he can do to avoid laughing at the massive manuscript that Norma Desmond entrusts to him, to be turned into a filmable screenplay.

Don’t get me wrong. Sunset Boulevard is a magnificent movie, despite all its cruel derision. Cet Amour-Là is something else entirely: something smaller and less dramatically exciting, but also something subtler and more spiritually transcendent. I think we need both kinds of movies to balance our cinematic diet-which may just be another way of saying that we need both French and American movies to better appreciate the difference between one cultural constellation and another.

Yann, for example, as a representative of the French male, would make Donald Rumsfeld chortle with glee at this confirmation of the stereotype driving the current anti-French hysteria over here, directed at a whole people reluctant to shed their blood in a foreign land. The point is that I can’t imagine an American actor accepting a role as unrelievedly humiliating as this. Am I then a closet masochist or a hopelessly unredeemable Francophile? Not at all. It’s simply that Duras and Yann happened to be two very real people who danced for a brief time on the edge of eternity.

Ms. Moreau was both a friend and an artistic collaborator of Duras, but she pays her the greatest tribute by not slavishly mimicking her-which would have easily degenerated into parody-but rather by endowing her with Ms. Moreau’s own acting charisma and luminous charm. It can be argued (as many already have) that Duras was considerably overrated as a writer. I am not prepared to say she wasn’t. It seems to me that in most of her work, she was telling and retelling the same story of her own sexual initiation at a very young age by an older man from a different culture, race and ethnicity. Whether or not one respects her literary presence in such stylish cinematic works as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and her own India Song (1975), she has left an indelible mark on the screen that makes her story of more than passing interest. Ms. Dayan is to be commended for breathing even often-painful life into a relationship that was largely sealed off from the world outside.

The Bravest Guys

Jim Simpson’s The Guys , from a screenplay by Anne Nelson and Mr. Simpson, was a more interesting event as a play by Ms. Nelson than as the current movie adapted from it. We are less than six months away from the second anniversary of 9/11, and time-with all its global distractions-has taken its toll on the intense feelings of loss we all felt at that time. But when Ms. Nelson’s play commemorating the loss of 343 of New York’s firemen-literally New York’s bravest-opened at the Flea Theater at 41 White Street, seven blocks from the demolished World Trade Center, on Dec. 4, 2001, less than three months after the disaster that rocked the world, the public feelings of pain and anguish were still raw. Ms. Nelson, the director of the international program at the Columbia University School of Journalism, was asked to write the play by Jim Simpson, founder of the Flea Theater, when they met at a benefit dinner for a human-rights organization. Ms. Nelson reportedly based the play on her own personal experiences as a writer of eulogies for fallen firefighters. Sigourney Weaver, Mr. Simpson’s wife, originated the role of Joan, the journalist, which she now plays in the movie directed by her husband. Bill Murray was the first actor to play Nick, the fire captain who asks Joan to write the eulogies for each of the eight men under his command lost in 9/11. These are virtually the only speaking parts in both the play and the film.

In any event, The Guys ran for nearly 13 months at the Flea Theater. Actors rotated playing the lead roles. Mr. Murray was followed by Bill Irwin, then by Anthony LaPaglia (who played opposite Sigourney Weaver prior to appearing in the movie with her). Next, Susan Sarandon played Joan opposite Mr. LaPaglia. Tim Robbins starred with Swoosie Kurtz. Tom Wopat and Amy Irving played Joan and Nick for several weeks. Stephen Lang, Marlo Thomas and Carol Kane also played the lead roles in the New York production.

In July 2002, Mr. Robbins and Helen Hunt opened the play in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the theater company the Actors’ Gang. Subsequent Los Angeles performers included Jeanne Tripplehorn, Philip Baker Hall, David Hyde Pierce and Glenne Headly. Mr. Robbins and Ms. Sarandon took the play to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre for a limited run. The play has also been performed in Edinburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati and Raleigh.

The point is that The Guys , either as a play or a film, is less an entertainment than a dirge-like cause, reverent, humorless and scrupulously proper. I feel a little guilty writing this, because I too was deeply moved by the deaths of so many firefighters. A few days after the catastrophe, my wife and I visited our local firehouse to thank the firemen, make a donation to their survivors’ fund and give them some flowers. I hate the word “closure,” because their sacrifices can never be forgotten. Still, there are only so many tears that can be shed for any one horror in an age when we are being buffeted by wars and plagues on almost every continent.

Besides, as a humble, parochial movie reviewer, I find myself responding to Ms. Weaver and Mr. LaPaglia as two charismatic talents I wish would misbehave with each other. At one point, Nick forces Joan to dance with him in the parlor, but in the subsequent voice-over, she confesses that this delightful episode was all a fantasy. The sobriety of the play has been preserved at the expense of the movie.

Musical Beds

Austin Chick’s XX/XY, from his own screenplay, reminded me at first of a particularly messy French sex farce, with more nudity and semi-nudity than the law once allowed. But we’re talking about a movie centered on Sarah Lawrence College students in the early 90′s. Mr. Chick himself is a Sarah Lawrence alumnus, as is his male protagonist, Coles (Mark Ruffalo). In my salad days, I thought of Sarah Lawrence as an exclusive college for a certain type of socially conscious-if not always sexually adventurous-young female. But for guys with a yen for chicks, what better school to attend to improve their dating chances? Indeed, when we first encounter Coles, he is ogling Sam (Maya Stange) in the subway. She is very aware of, and not entirely displeased by, his invasive stare. When she later asks him if he makes it a habit to stare at strange women in the subway, he responds rather cheekily by asking her if she ran all the way up to him on campus to ask him that question. From that point on, he clearly takes the initiative in their relationship, but always with a disturbing jocularity. When Sam introduces Coles to her best friend, Thea (Katheen Robertson), she suggests that the three of them share a bed together in an impromptu ménage-à-trois . But Sam breaks away in tears from the jumble of bodies; she can’t handle the conjunction of confused affinities. Thea is, then and later, much more free-minded-to the point of betraying her best friend-but Sam is more an old-fashioned girl than she could ever previously admit to herself. She keeps waiting for Coles to take her more seriously, but he keeps evading her hints about making some sort of commitment with an endless supply of fatuous responses. When she finally asks him point-blank if he is seeing other women, and he replies reluctantly that he is and that it’s no big deal, she makes her first move to disengage from their relationship. And when she catches him making love to Thea, Sam breaks with him for good.

Ten years pass. In one very brightly written scene, Coles is confronted by a casual acquaintance at lunch and told that a film he’d made had displeased the acquaintance and his girlfriend. Now the acquaintance wants the money back that he spent for tickets. Coles plays this outrageous situation straight, handing the “critic” his money with a rueful smile. From this, we gather that things have not gone well for Coles since he studied and practiced animation at Sarah Lawrence. He does have a job in advertising, but his more ambitious plans seem to be on hold, as is his five-year relationship with his girlfriend, Claire (Petra Wright), who is always trying to get closer to him, without much success. When Coles bumps into Sam in New York, she has just broken her engagement with her British beau, Jonathan (Joshua Spafford). Meanwhile, Thea has finally pulled her wild, impulsive life together by marrying Miles (David Thornton), with whom she owns and operates a popular restaurant. Coles finds that he is still attracted to Sam-but when he betrays Claire with Sam, as he once betrayed Sam with Thea, all hell breaks loose, and several lives are radically changed.

Mr. Ruffalo plays much the same character that Campbell Scott played in Roger Dodger , but without the wit and misogyny. Maya Stange is a real find as Sam: She’s another magical creature from Australia.