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Love and Mourning in Duras’ Aurélia Steiner

Catherine Portuges

L'Esprit Créateur, Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 1990, pp. 40-46 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press


For additional information about this article

Access provided by College of the Atlantic (6 Feb 2018 18:03 GMT)

Love and Mourning in Duras’ Aurélia Steiner
Catherine Portuges
I wanted to tell you that if I were young, if I were eighteen, if I knew nothing yet of the
separation between people and the nearly mathematical certitude of this separation between
people, I would do the same thing as I am now doing, I would write the same books, make
the same movies . . . if I had died yesterday I would have died at eighteen. If I die in ten
years I would also have died at eighteen.
—Marguerite Duras, Les Yeux Verts1

N 1979, MARGUERITE DURAS PUBLISHED three “ textes”

I entitled Aurélia Steiner, as well as two films, Aurélia Steiner, dite
Aurélia Melbourne, and Aurélia Steiner, dite Aurélia Vancouver.
The text of Aurélia Steiner, dite Aurélia Melbourne closes with the
spoken words of the unseen subject:
My name is Aurélia Steiner.
I live in Melbourne. My parents teach school.
I am eighteen years old.
I write.2

In this, one of her most formalistically experimental, minimalist films,

the desire for reparation with a lost love is meshed with the phantasm of
the holocaust, implicating the spectator as both voyeur and eavesdropper
by means of the director’s sustained use of a woman’s speaking voice.
An encounter between word and image (joining to the same incantatory
and hypnotic effect initiated by Hiroshima mon amour), Aurélia Steiner,
dite Melbourne takes place—if indeed one can speak of it in such narra­
tive terms—on and around a river, just as Hiroshima mon amour is both
linked and divided by the temporal crossings of the Loire River in France
and the Ota Estuaries in Japan, and L ’A mant is marked by the young
girl’s passage on the delta ferry. A woman’s voice (Duras’s own, in the
original French version) reads letters to her imaginary (or lost) lover,
object of her impossible desire, while the camera records the varying
moods of the Seine as a boat makes its way from Bercy to Passy, under
vaulted bridges and changing skies. This disembodied voice speaks from
that nameless place where image, voice, text, and memory converge:
I write you all the time, always, you see, nothing but that, nothing. Maybe I will write you a
thousand letters, give you letters, give you letters about my life now. And you will do with

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them what I expect you to do with them, by that I mean exactly as you please. That’s the
way I want it. That it should be meant for you. Where are you? How can I reach you? How
can the two of us draw ourselves nearer to that love and erase the illusory fragments of time
that separate us from each other?

In this zone of visual and auditory pleasure and pain, that privileged ter­
rain which is also the space of autobiography, both subject and reader/
spectator may experience what Lacan has called “ correct distance,” and
Winnicott “ potential space,” the safety of apprehending the desired
object without fear either of the suffocation of excessive closeness or the
detachment of too wide a separation.3 Through these words echo those
of Hiroshima mon amour: “ Tu me tues, tu me fais du bien,” the opposi­
tions of pleasure and anguish, and the process of reconstruction in time
and space that is the occasion of cinema.4 Of the making of Aurélia
Steiner, dite Aurélia Melbourne, Duras writes:
I think there is no hiatus, no blank between the voice and what she speaks. In a sense, when
I am speaking, I am Aurélia Steiner. What I pay attention to is less, not more. It is not to
convey the text but rather to be careful not to distance myself from her, from Aurélia, who
is speaking. It demands extreme attention, every second, not to lose Aurélia, to say with
her, not to speak in my own name. To respect Aurélia, even if she comes from m e.5

This fusion of speaking subject with writing self is familiar enough to

readers of Duras, and to viewers of her films. To experience pleasure, the
viewer of women’s personal films must establish in relation to the visual
text a locus of receptivity which encourages the integrity of her own iden-
tificatory process. Duras enables this dynamic to take place not, as more
conventional directors might, by drawing in the viewer through illusion-
istic cinematic strategies, but by offering a primary material that appears
formless, aimless, without closure or coherent narrative order. Such tech­
nique—for it is highly crafted and conscious—she attributes to a femi­
nine quality of seeing and experiencing.
The long, uncut visual sequences of Aurélia Steiner, dite Aurélia Mel­
bourne combine with the off-screen spoken track to create a new and
heightened sense of the phantasmatic. The “ words to say it” are, in
Duras’ representation, owned by the speaking subject whose story is told
in her own voice, a voice accorded primacy because the visual can only
intensify its meaning, not alter it. For the eighteen-year-old author

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L ’E spr it C réa teu r

addresses an absent “ you,” a genderless, unspecified other. This other—

a loved object lost through death, disappearance, or separation—con­
fronts the filmmaker with the necessity of mourning. Immortalized in
turn by the cinematic apparatus, the object is rescued from the finality of
total loss, recovered from the oblivion of repression, only to live again
for the benefit of others, and hence restored to the speaking, filming sub­
ject. As our spectator’s gaze travels the familiar banks of the river, the
road of water itself a metaphor of desire, the filmmaker takes us through
the artifacts of human commerce—bridges, cathedrals, onlookers—in a
ceaseless, inexorable flow of movement:
Where are you? What are you doing? Where did you lose your way? Where did you lose
your way while I cry out that I’m afraid? . . . I see your eyes. I see that the river’s sky is
blue, that same liquid blue color of your eyes. I see it is not true. That when I write to you
no one is dead. And that you too are here on this desert continent.

The wish to see and to be seen, present in other Duras texts from Le
Ravissement de Lol V. Stein to L ’Homme assis dans le couloir, reasserts
itself here in cinematic form. Here, too, the Durassian discourse of love
and death, of pleasure inextricably combined with loss, absence, and
even destruction, is intensified by the look of the other that engenders
It was later, yes, afterwards, that it happened. A very, very long time, nothing. And then,
your eyes. Your eyes on me. At first the blue, liquid and empty, of your eyes. And then you
saw me.

At the moment these words are intoned, a coal barge appears on the
river, moving from left to right toward the camera, penetrating the visual
sphere. This instance is the first moment in Aurélia Steiner, dite Mel­
bourne that an object advances toward the viewer’s gaze, marking the
light reflecting off the water in a metonymy of desire of the other. Duras’
visual and aural structures proceed thus in tandem throughout the film,
undercutting the viewer’s desire to identify the absent voice, as the river
too is cut through by bridges linking its banks.
Such subtle interpenetration of image and sound overtake the spec­
tator, leaving him in thrall—despite the avowed distancing strategies of
the artist—to its hallucinatory visceral effects. In a chapter in Les Quatre
concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, translated as “ Of the Gaze
as Objet petit a,” Lacan describes the dialectic of the eye and the gaze in
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relation to the picture, arguing that there is a lack of coincidence between

them that he calls a “ lure” :
when, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that
you never look at me from the place from which I see you. . . . At the scopic level, we are no
longer at the level of demand, but of desire, of the desire of the Other. . . . Generally speak­
ing, the relation between the gaze and what one wishes to see involves a lure. The subject is
presented as other than he is, and what one shows him is not what he wishes to see. It is in
this way that the eye may function as “ objet petit a,” that is to say, at the level of the lack.
(op. cit., 103-04)

Duras too speaks of a lack, from the place from which she writes and
sees, as creator of words and images eventually to become signifiers for
other subjects. In an interview she states:
One says things through absence, through “ manque d’être, manque d’amour, manque de
désir” . . . I love to film at the very minimum: the emptiness of a beach gives me great
pleasure. I can say, for example, that I have a brother who died during the war at twenty-
eight, such an abomination that I wanted to die. Suddenly I understood that this young
man had been a great, great love for me, an immense love. .. . Yet nothing can bear witness
to incest, which is not representable. That is the paradox I show in my cinema, that im­
possibility. I show what is not representable, that is what haunts and interests me.6

The unrepresentable is for her doubly absent, a search for true speech
transmitted from the unknown. Such subversion at the level of the sig­
nifier, in which silence and passivity become the strength of the feminine
subject, defies translation, itself a form of transference.
Duras states the origins, the trajectories, the endings of love and
desire of her primarily female speaking subjects, suspended in the simul­
taneous creation and negation of language. “ When I am writing I am not
dying,” she remarks in her interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, for which
she was given carte blanche:
Before films there are books; before books, nothing. . . . I always want to be reading while
shooting a film, but I cannot because I must look while the camera is on. . . . For me
cinema is an adjunct of writing . . . yet I feel guilty for having deserted the word in favor of
the image. The place of writing is magnificent, unique, terrifying . . . the written part of a
film is for me cinema, (op. cit., 5-6)

Duras’ films make demands on the spectator. They both invite and
repel our desire, both promise and refuse to gratify. Reading them as a
text—for pleasure, for obliteration, for reconnection with those extreme
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L ’E spr it C réa teu r

questions that constitute her life as a writer—means submitting oneself

to the contradictory perceptual and subjective operation of which Lacan
speaks. And, although cinema, like psychoanalysis, is anything but
absolutely neutral, this paradoxical configuration of desire-demand-lack
can be imagined as a countertransferential text, a term I use in a very
approximate way, as Lacan uses the term “love” in relation to positive
transference. To surrender to the lure of the cinematic transference
requires, in the case of Duras, a sense of psychic safety coupled with
danger—both the risk of engulfment by the specular seduction and the
desire to remain beyond the pull of narrative. To be sure, learning to
look at a Duras film demands apprenticeship, as she informed us long
ago in Hiroshima mon amour by exhorting the viewer to learn to look: at
pain, at the outsider, the marginal, the woman, the repressed, the
unrepresentable. “ I am speaking of writing,” she says in a documentary
film of herself at work shooting Agatha in 1981 : “ I also speak of writing
even when I seem to be talking about filmmaking. I don’t know how to
talk about anything else. . . . I am not completely responsible for what I
write . . . a word contains a thousand images” (Apostrophes).
If Marguerite Duras has acquired, along with Jacques Lacan, an
emblematic value, associated with the rupture of expectations both nar­
rative and psychological, it is in part because her cinema insists on nar­
rating while at the same time deconstructing, in the manner of the avant-
garde, the narrative impulses of the audience. Like those of Godard and
Straub, both of whom she admires, her films have come increasingly to a
disjuncture between sound and image, an emptying out of theatricality,
of mise-en-scène, in favor of movement through space. With the gradual
disappearance of characters and their replacement with voices-off (as
evident in Aurélia Steiner, dite Melbourne), there is an intensification of
the dialectic of sound and image, space and time, a prise de pouvoir of
the text in tension with the resistance of the image. Although there are
several Aurélia Steiners—named Melbourne, Vancouver, and Paris—
they are, according to Duras, the same: ageless, eternal. “ There is no dif­
ference,” she writes, “ between Aurélia’s eyes and the sea, between her
piercing gaze and the end of time” (90). Aurélia-Melbourne is eighteen,
the age of Duras when she left her home in Saigon, the age of the pro­
tagonist of Hiroshima mon amour when she lost her first lover, the Ger­
man soldier shot at the end of the Occupation, and three years older than
the adolescent narrator of L ’A mant whose lover is Chinese. Here as else­
where, Duras’ subject is the memory of forgetfulness; the fact of know­
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ing that one has forgotten is, for Duras, memory.

But who are you? Who? How could that have happened? How could it be that that hap­
pened? You, no longer here . . . I don’t know anymore. I’m aware only of that love I have
for you. Extreme. Terrifying. And that you are not here to release me from it. Never. I have
never separated you from our love.

There are also references to the Holocaust, the “ univers concentration­

naire,” the ovens near Cracow, as the letter or letters urge the inter­
locutor to remember to listen, just as Duras the director addresses the
spectator by insisting on the primacy of both image and sound, thwarting
our desire to privilege the one over the other. We—Aurélia/Duras/the
viewer—are drawn into the circulation of desire of the spoken and
imaged texts as the off-screen voice apostrophizes:
How can we reach the end of our love? Listen. Beneath the vaults of the river to those
waves breaking . . . listen again. Those illusory fragments I told you about have dis­
appeared. We ought to draw ourselves nearer to the end, the end of our love. Don’t be
afraid anymore.

As cinematic spectators, we are both “ voyeurs” and “ auditeurs,” ex­

cluded and forgotten by those phantasms with which we are projectively
identified, seeking our absence in the very plenitude of visual and audi­
tory fulfillment. If Loi V. Stein’s pleasure depends upon her detachment
from gratification, ours as spectators is intimately bound up with it.
Between us and pleasure lies that zone which Lacan refers to as “correct
distance,” the privileged field wherein one can experience the object
without fear either of the suffocation that arises through excessive close­
ness or the detachment that results from too great a separation. To ex­
perience pleasure, the viewer must establish in relation to the visual text a
space of receptivity, which we alone create within ourselves. In the
cinema of Marguerite Duras, there is the possibility for experiencing
pleasure in this way: its primary material seems formless, aimless, with­
out closure or conventional narrative order. This she attributes to a
feminine quality of seeing and experiencing: “ It is as a woman that I
cause things to be seen in this way” (Apostrophes).
Duras’ search is for traces of the past, for clues in the service of a
reconstruction that takes place only gradually, like the analytic process,
over and over, with infinitely repeated variations. In so doing, she trans­
gresses the boundaries between imaginary and real, fiction and auto­
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L ’E spr it C réateur

biography, repressed history and enacted story. In Les Yeux verts, Duras
notes that what she seeks in her films is the primary state of the text, as
one tries to remember a distant internal event not lived out but heard
told. Its meaning, she believes, comes later, and has no need of her
authorship, for the voice of the reading alone will impart that meaning
without intervention on her part. For this to be accomplished, everything
must be read, including what she calls the “ empty place.”
In his “ Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras,” Lacan suggests that if
Duras’ art makes her the ravisher, we as readers (and spectators) are the
ravished.7 Writing, speaking, and seeing from the phantasmal place of
her own desire, Duras insists upon the obsessional and deceptively simple
questions that continue to torment human beings, despite efforts to gain
distance from them: why do we love, suffer, die? What do we want from
the indescribably and eternally lost object—man, woman, child? how is
anything possible without absolute love, absolute desire? By permitting
the viewer a major role in her cinematic project, Duras discovers a lan­
guage adequate to these questions, to speak the unspoken, hear the
University o f Massachusetts
1. Marguerite Duras, “ Les Yeux verts,” Cahiers du cinéma, nos. 312-313 (June 1980): 23.
Translations mine.
2. Marguerite Duras, Aurélia Steiner, dite Melbourne (1979), 16mm. Film courtesy of
French-American Cultural Services and Educational Aid, New York City. All tran­
scriptions and translations of the film text are mine.
3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts o f Psychoanalysis (New York: Nor­
ton, 1978). See also D. W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (London:
International Psychoanalytical Library, 1973); The Maturational Processes and the
Facilitating Environment (London: International Psychoanalytical Library, 1963); and
Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971).
4. Marguerite Duras, text of Hiroshima mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais (New
York: Grove Press, 1961).
5. Interview with Marguerite Duras on Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot, interviewer/pro­
ducer. Radio-television française, Station 2, translation mine.
6. Marguerite Duras, “ Le Malheur merveilleux: Pourquoi mes films?” Cahiers du
Cinéma, June 1980: 79-86.
7. Jacques Lacan, “ Hommage fait à Marguerite Duras, du Ravissement de Loi V. Stein,
in Marguerite Duras, Collection Ca/Cinéma (Paris: Editions Albatros, 1981).
8. For more detailed analysis, see my “ Cinematic Countertransference: Duras and
Lacan,” PsychCritique 2:1 (1987): 17-23, and “ Seeing Subjects: Women Directors and
Cinematic Autobiography,” in Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography, eds.
B. Brodzki and C. Schenck (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) 338-50.

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