Imagine opening a mid-1970s issue of a high fashion magazine like Vogue to a photo spread shot in a luxurious, if somewhat dilapidated, mansion. In empty rooms, trim, fit, perfectly dressed models hover around an alternately bored and pensive, beautiful mystery woman. And then imagine that you are so mesmerized by the images that you spend several minutes looking at each one.
That is a reasonably accurate description of what it is like to watch India Song, written and directed by Marguerite Duras. It oozes chic, and practically shouts “Attention! Nous sommes français!” For this is yet another expression of the Gallic obsession with adultery, lassitude, Orientalist spice, lost empire and knowing acceptance of human frailty. It borders on the insufferable, yet even if you find it pretentious and enervated, you’re likely at least to recognize, perhaps even admire, its look and feel, because high style decadence always fascinates.
The “story,” such as it is, centers on the promiscuous wife (Delphine Seyrig) of the French Vice Consul to India (Michel Lonsdale), who knows about her various affairs and suffers nobly. That limited description is, in fact, completely in accord with the film’s methods. We don’t actually see any of the wife’s goings on. There’s no action to speak of. Instead, in a series of tableaux, the various “characters” move around each other (and barely that). The most erotic moment, aside from some gratuitously exposed breasts, is a single kiss late in the action. Otherwise, the actors pose and smoke, then smoke and pose. When feeling energetic, they dance slowly to “India Song,” a bluesy piano piece repeated so often you’re likely to start whistling it.
No doubt this ultra-Modernist defiance of cinematic expectation makes India Song infuriating for many, but the film possesses a kind of monomaniacal fascination in which Duras practically dares you to complain. You do not need an explicit depiction of the wife’s infidelity, for example. The situation is perfectly clear just by having the characters in the same room together. There is no real dialog. When characters do speak, their voices are disembodied, with no attempt to sync them to the actors’ mouths. The result is to make us feel we are listening to their thoughts or memories, or intruding on some strange, dream-like trance.
About the most you can say for Delphine Seyrig’s performance is that she looks wonderful. Michel Lonsdale sleepwalks through his part as her suffering husband, although some agonizing off-camera shrieks, if they are him, sound like what Edvard Munch’s homuncular “Scream” would make if it could. A wonderful character actor like Vernon Dobtcheff is wasted as one of Seyrig’s cast-offs, while the other men are little better than tailor’s dummies. The emotional content therefore is, as with all such demonstrations of the hell of being rich, European and bored, largely flattened. India Song is nonetheless strangely compelling. Given half a chance, it may grow on you.